In 1895, after co-inventing the cinématographe motion picture system with his brother, Louis Lumière’s shot what is now often described as the first documentary ever made.
The 46 seconds film depicts real workers of Lumière’s, leaving their factory. It is arguably the very first cinematic documentation of real life. The film was shot entirely by him, and since the camera stood stationary in the courtyard of his factory, the workers barely noticed the camera, giving an observational viewing experience. Though the film was not intended to be much more than a demonstration of a scientific breakthrough, it is legendary in the sense that the film is widely acknowledged as one of the first films ever made. However, its value extends beyond that; to me, it beautifully embodies the essence of what is now known as the observational documentary style.
Minikino introduced me to Abhichon Rattanabhayon and Ananta Thitanat’s work as a documentarian duo through their feature film Scala (2022). Back in 2020, Minikino was a partner of Yamagata Documentary Dojo 3, in which Scala was selected to be one of the Dojo participants. Upon finishing watching their film at Bali Makãrya Film Festival 2022, I was both perplexed and mesmerized. It was mesmerizing because the film was an intimate account of childhood from the perspective of a home demolition, a home which also happened to be the oldest standalone cinema in Thailand. But on the other hand, I was perplexed by how the film’s documentary style was wholly inventive and out of my comprehension. The film was a meta amalgamation of an observational and participatory style of documentary filmmaking, two styles I previously thought were opposite sides of the spectrum.
In its generalized definition, an observational documentary places the audience in an attitude of neutrality. There are no dramatized re-enactments , highly produced talking heads, or narrators that could sway the audience’s opinion on its subject. The presence of the camera and filmmaker turns invisible, and its story is conveyed purely by visual storytelling. This puts the viewer in a state of neutrality towards the subject matter. On the other end, participatory documentaries acknowledge the presence of the camera and even the filmmaker. This generates a clear and transparent association between the filmmaker and the interview subject. A popular example of this style is Errol Morris or Michael Moore, where the filmmaker’s themselves are characterized in the film, and their presence is often as important as its subject. As a result, the audience experiences the world through the filmmaker’s eyes, serving as a cinematic tour guide of the represented reality.
Intimacy and Personal Touch
A couple days after watching Scala, I still found myself mesmerized by it; I couldn’t stop thinking of how fresh and unexpected it was for me. Then, I attended a talk organized by Minikino presenting Abhichon at MASH Denpasar, an arthouse cinema. His talk was very attractively titled; Making Documentary Film: Dummies Guide for Introverts. In the event which was held on 25 October 2022, Abhichon screened three short documentary films he either directed or produced/edited with Ananta. Three short films that even better encapsulate his unique approach to filmmaking. Which, at the same time, fed my curiosity.
The first short documentary film he screened was a social documentary he made for a Thai television station. The documentary was about people living under a bridge in Thailand. The film, titled House Without Address (2012), was quite artistically experimental for a TV documentary. The film consists of uninterrupted interviews with these people, who rambled and poured their hearts out about their past and how they got here. These interviews are then juxtaposed with observational-style montages of their living circumstances. After seeing it, I was reminded of a British social documentary by John Grierson called Housing Problems (1935), which follows the same format. Grierson is widely regarded as the “Father of Documentaries,” having created the term “documentary.”
Here, we see Abhichon and Ananta at their most traditional yet still tinkering with how they handle such a traditional medium as TV documentaries. The next film could not be more different. Sitting on the edge of the spectrum Abhichon laid out, Sawankhalai (2017) could not be any more observational. The film perfectly captured the fly-on-the-wall style observational documentaries often do.
Sawankhalai documents the radical atmosphere of the hospital where Thailand’s King Bhumibol’s death was announced. The camera moves quite fast, panning between a crowd of people hysterically crying and screaming. As the pans and moves, the audience know there’s a person behind it, leading the audience’s perspective towards the event. Yet, we as an audience do not feel like a part of the event captured, hence, a fly-on-the-wall. We are powerless observers/spectators watching an event as a document of history.
This is what was traditionally appealing about the observational documentary style. This style in its most traditional form could represent an event only by its visuals, documenting an event as objectively as possible. Where the filmmaker tries to only convey its narrative visually, as a way to prevent ingenuity. Where subjects or characters are not to be found in their dramatic events, but only through their visibility, through their visual presence.
Then in this realm of being truthful, a few times, we, the fly, got noticed. For most people, including documentarians, when a subject or person in frame notices the camera, that footage may be considered a mistake that would end up on the cutting room floor. Documentarians would often direct to “please not look at the camera” to each subject; this is done because “fourth-wall breaking” could break the illusion of reality. But, Abhichon sees this as an opportunity to add something else to the film. This happened during the first shot of House Without Address, where the camera was approached by a man who protested the filming. This also happened in Sawankhalai, where a woman noticed the camera and started blatantly turning her cries into a performance.
Then, the third film, Kembali (2021), was screened and directed by Ananta; the film has this perfect mixture of being an observational documentary but embracing every single time the fly on the wall gets noticed. The film documents the Balinese funeral ritual called Ngaben. The ritual process is tedious and takes a lot of preparation. Among the film’s observational style, people in the frame often talked to Ananta behind the camera. Asking her questions about her life and what she’s doing.
Abhichon and Ananta could easily cut these parts out to stay behind conventions, but they did not. This created something entirely new and exciting to me, towards a style of filmmaking I thought was traditional and, frankly, ancient. This fly-get-noticed style brings a sense of intimacy and connection between the filmmaker, the audience, and the subject matter. Abhichon and Ananta also brought this style to their feature film, Scala, like Kembali, resulting in an immense feeling of intimacy and personal touch.
The Fly Gets Noticed
After the talk and screening, I got to talk with Abhichon deeper. Upon a few drinks and several exchanges of cigarettes, we had quite an intense conversation about him and his work process. Little did I know, all my curiosity was answered. Abhichon explained that as a self-described introvert, he prefers making films with an extremely limited crew. In his case, limited means two people. Yes. Two people. In making a documentary, Abhichon and Ananta’s crew usually only consists of themselves, or on some occasions, only one of them alone.
There it was, making a film alone or with a partner, which is precisely why Abhichon and Ananta impacted me in a way no documentary film ever has. As I see it, making a film alone not only means the film must be personal, but the point-of-view created will also be personal. With their style, Abhichon Rattanabhayon and Ananta Thitanat beautifully fit their personalities in their films. Creating something that not only captures physical reality but also a personal one. In my opinion, this comes from them embracing every time the fly gets noticed.