Last night we watched a 2002 documentary called Derrida, about the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who also happens to have died a few weeks ago. The film was superbly done, which was in itself surprising since I had heard virtually nothing about it when it was released—and it’s my job to know such things. The filmmakers (Amy Ziering Kofman and Kirby Dick) not only deftly intertwined narrated Derrida writings, a fly-on-the-wall look at his everyday life, interviews with the philosopher, and hauntingly beautiful ambient electronic music by Ryuichi Sakamoto. Their style of filmmaking was also tied to Derrida’s philosophy of deconstruction in a way that has me rethinking the very act of filmmaking itself.
Throughout the film, we are reminded—either by Derrida himself, or by the filmmakers’ inclusion of cameras, boom microphones and themselves in the frame—that what we’re seeing on screen is not a true reality. “I don’t usually dress like this,” Derrida says one morning as he’s being filmed in his home. “I usually don’t get dressed unless I’m going out.” Apparently he’d usually be roaming the house in his robe or even just skivvies, but he put on a nice button-down shirt because he was being filmed. This is but one commonplace but important example of the larger idea constantly put forth in the movie. Whether it’s reality-based TV shows like Survivor or more serious documentary films, we are virtually always presented a reality on the screen that is not a reality at all.
When we watch Survivor, for example, we’re not seeing all the cameras and extra takes and logistical stuff going on in the background, and we’re also not getting a sense of the competitors as they really are. It’s an invented world with its own weird rules and situations, and they act accordingly. Yet the show’s producers are counting on the fact that none of this will cross our minds very much. After all, this genre is described as being reality. If we don’t buy into it, the bubble is burst.
And the same is true with more serious documentary filmmaking, like the Derrida. There’s one terrific shot late in the film where the camera views Derrida walking down the street from the vantage point a few stories above in a nearby building. Being able to look down at the philosopher, we see he is surrounded on all sides by two camera operators and a man with a huge boom microphone. In most films, all we would see was Derrida. I love the fact that, because of his own philosophies about reality and the representation of truth, the filmmakers responded accordingly and essentially said what never gets said about the illusion of reality.
As we talked about all this stuff following the film, Valarie said she thinks what viewers are after is not reality per se, but voyeurism. I think there’s some truth to that. If we’re shown what’s happening behind the curtain, the illusion is lost, and the power of that voyeurism is destroyed. In the future as I write film reviews or other kinds of articles, I can’t help but think that this film will have a profound, lasting effect on how I view any number of visual images on the small and big screen alike.