The art of the documentary involves intense observation, a deep dive into the ordinary to expose the extraordinary, that unseen something which waits beneath the surface, yearning to be revealed.
The Kenyan sun oozes over the horizon, filling the Rift Valley with an otherworldly glow. Dust particles capture the orange light and send color streaming in every direction, under doorjambs, across windowsills, onto the rim of my cracked coffee mug. Hardly a place for great masterworks of art to be born, in cold morning dirt. Or is it?
I walk with my coffee to the top of the ridge, where my students are spread out against the backdrop of a breathtaking African dawn. It is summer at Princeton’s Mpala Research Centre, the site of the Global Seminar Documentary Filmmaking in Kenya: the Art of Science Storytelling. Their assignment: to reach beyond the savanna sunrise or any visual cliche. this morning to find scenes that can impart meaning a world away.
My comp lit major’s daydream years ago put me working in Paris as maybe a foreign correspondent, or perhaps teaching poetry. Not this place of whistling thorns and Technicolor dust, guiding young practitioners of perceiving, coaching them in the capture and transmission of things others cannot see. The art of the documentary involves intense observation, a deep dive into the ordinary to expose the extraordinary, that unseen something which waits beneath the surface, yearning to be revealed.
My Eiffel Tower has become a towering baobab tree.
This morning, below the ridge, there are Grant’s gazelles in the foreground, red-billed hornbills in the branches above, Maasai herders in bright red capes moving across our field of view. How long will it take for the students, squinting into their telephoto lenses, to see the glint of brightness just in front of them, orange light reflected off a horn-like point, protruding from an acacia bush? It’s tinted orange by the sun, but it’s actually white, or rather, striated ivory, and as it moves, it reveals its length, and its massive owner, barely concealed by the branches.
Here is one of the momentous stories of the planet, moving quietly into their frame. This is what they are here to do— wait for it, zoom deeply into it, breathe with it, pull it into their camera, and take it back as art, live action, visual effects, sound and music, editing and script. They are explorers on the frontier of documentary film, and their challenge is to discover something not yet described by art or science: a video artifact that might convey the magic of a magnificent creature, the power of extinction, a race against time.
The sun has sunk back toward the horizon, and now the burnt orange dust swirls in front of a projector beam. My own films have been broadcast around the world, but no premiere screening is as important to me as this one, as a crowd of scientists and filmmakers gather on a wooden porch to watch my students reveal what they have dug out of the savanna. As I wait for the opening scene, I am hyperalert, hopeful that they will have relished the challenge, as I have, felt the power of story and scene drawing them in, close enough to taste the grit of this old world anew, and see orange in a way as never before.
Fade up on art.