As a form of writing, poetry breaks free from the root origin of writing – the communication of information – and transcends reality by exploring the indescribable. Documentary often does the same: there is the typical documentary which, as its name describes, documents, preserves and interprets events as information, and then there is poetic documentary, which can take the very same images and converts them into visual prose.
The Maelstrom: a Family Chronicle makes a good example: it is home movies, stitched together with modern music, and punctuated with radio recordings from the period, to tell the story of one Jewish family’s experience of the Nazi occupation of Holland. It is an artistic approach to doucumentary that distinguishes it from all other holocaust documentaries. What if the filmmakers decided to add non-diagetic narration, probably from some history professor, to explain the images rather than leave them alone with occasional silent captions to explain what was going on? A typical expository documentary would not do the same justice in communicating the sorrow, hurt and rage that the Holocaust means. So, rather than simply expose history, it creates prose about it.
Simple captions are all the explanation we get out of Maelstrom, which preserves the idyllic home-movie style of the footage rather than narrating every detail of the Nazi occupation of Holland, which lets the audience figure out the context on their own as the film progresses.
Read this single line from Avrom Sutzkever’s poem Frozen Jews:
Fist, fixed in ice, of a naked old man:
the power’s undone in his hand.
I’ve sampled death in all guises.
We’ve all read textbooks, many of us even novels, describing the horror of World War II, but every sentence written by a historian does not do justice to the emotion provided by creative verse. In much the same way, Francis Thompson’s To Be Alive! creatively communicates an uplifting epic of modern life from childhood to adulthood using mirrored images, timelapse and spatial juxtaposition. To Be Alive! does not tell a linear narrative or even a single story, but rather, like the later (and very similar) Sans Soleil, is a stream-of-consciousness observation of humanity as a whole.
Devorah Bennish’s poem A Child Within captures the same imagery as To Be Alive!:
Marveling at simplicity
A child is alive,
Within, she does hide,
Though darkness beckons
And cynicism threatens
Our inner child calls
To disregard it all.
In some ways, documentary and poetry are similar; even when not linked in poetic documentary, it is still, as Jon Grierson wrote, “the creative treatment of actuality.” Some poetic license is taken in any well-made documentary to emphasize and accentuate the rhetoric of the theme that it documents. If applied well, documentary (and writing) works not only as a carrier of information but as an artform that breaks the barriers of functionality into something more meaningful.