Johan Grimonprez



Against Documentary

1.Choose a title carefully, since it is the one of the primary framing devices. It should present itself purely as a description of the images contained in the work, but should also function as a privileged ideological marker. For example, "The Struggle for Freedom in ___". Remember, do not mention "guerillas" in the title. Such words have a connotation of a lost or subversive cause that could lead to irrational violent action, and that scares liberals.

If you have a large enough budget (and you probably do if you are making yet another film on political strife), open with a lyrical aerial shot of the natural surroundings of the country in question. Usually the countryside is held by the guerillas. This is good. You now have the traditional authority of nature (and the morality of the town/country distinction) on your side. These are two foundational codes of didactic western art. They are rarely questioned, and will create a channel leading the viewer to the belief that you are filming a populist uprising.

Dissolve to the particular band of guerillas that you are going to film. Do not show large armies, and show only small arms, not heavy weaponry. Remember, the guerillas must look like real underdogs. Americans love that code. If you must talk about the size of the rebel army (for instance, to show the amount of popular support for the resistance), keep it abstract; give only the statistics. Large military formations have that Nuremberg look to them. If at all possible, choose a band comprised of families: it shows real desperation when an entire extended family is fighting. Keep in mind that one of your key missions is to humanize the rebels while making the dominant group an evil abstraction. Finish this sequence by stylishly introducing each of the rebels as individuals.

For the next sequence, single out a family to represent the group. Interview each member. Address their motivations for resistance. Follow them throughout the day. Capture the hardships of rebel activity. Be sure to show the sleeping arrangements and the poverty of the food, but concentrate on what the fight is doing to the family. End the sequence by showing the family involved in a recreational activity. This will demonstrate the rebels' ability to endure, and to be human in the face of a catastrophe. It is also the perfect segue into the next sequence: "In this moment of play, who could have imagined the tragedy that would befall them..."

5. Having established the rebels as real, feeling people, it is time to turn to the enemy, by showing for instance an atrocity attributed to them. (Never show the enemy themselves; they must remain an alien abstraction, an unknown to be feared.) It is preferable if a distant relative of the focus family is killed or wounded in the represented enemy action. Document the mourning of the fellow rebels.

6. With the identities of both the rebels and the enemy established, you must now show an actual guerilla action. It should be read as a defensive manoeuvre with no connotation of vengeance. Make sure that it is an evening or morning raid, to lessen sympathy for the enemy as individuals. The low light will keep them hidden and allow the sparks of the return gunfire to represent the enemy as depersonalized. Do not show guerillas taking prisoners: it is difficult to maintain viewers' sympathy for the rebels if they are seen sticking automatic weapons in the backs of the enemy and marching them along. Finally, only show the action if the rebels seem to win the engagement.

7. In the victory sequence it is important to show the tie between the rebels and the non-military personnel of the countryside. With the enemy recently beaten, it is safe to go to town and celebrate with the agrarian class. You can include speeches and commemorations in this sequence. Show the peasants giving the rebels food, while the rebels give the civilians non-military materials captured during the raid. But most importantly, ensure that the sequence has a festive spirit. This will add an emotional contrast to the closing sequence.

8. Final sequence: focus on the rebel group expressing their dreams of victory and vowing never to surrender. This should cap it: you are now guaranteed a sympathetic response from the audience. The sympathy will override any critical reflection, making the audience content to ride the wave of your radical subjectivity. Roll credits. Perhaps add a postscript by the filmmaker on how touched and amazed s/he was by the experience.


Critical Art Ensemble, "Against Documentary", in The Electronic Disturbance, ed.
Critical Art Ensemble (New York: Autonomedia, 1994), 43–6.