IFC 2004 – ‘Essay on documentaries’ by Lisbeth Jessen

“All you need is Love, God, Power or Money” an essay on radio narrative Lisbeth Jessen (Lisbeth Jessen) There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, w

All you need is Love, God, Power or Money” an essay on radio narrative

Lisbeth Jessen


(Lisbeth Jessen)
There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, “Master, just now when I was in the market-place, I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samara and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him the horse and the servant mounted it and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?” “That was not a threatening gesture”, I said, “it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samara.”
(Somerset Maugham)

I searched for ages before I found the story of the appointment in Samara. All I could remember was that I’d once read it, perhaps as the introduction to an essay, perhaps as a story encapsulated in a Karen Blixen tale, or was it from the Arabian Nights? I couldn’t recall the geography of it, neither Baghdad nor Samara, and had but a vague recollection of the dialogue between Death and a man in a market place. But I did remember that the point of the story lay in the exchange between Death and the man.
A friend of a friend, a librarian, suggested the key words “appointment in Samara”, and via the Internet, with Samara as the word to search for, we made our way to Somerset Maugham’s “Death speaks”.
The background to this search was that my job is producing radio features and radio documentaries. In both genres my work involves lengthier formats, that’s to say programmes of 45 to 55 minutes in length, and when we are working on larger formats, besides bringing out the content of the programme it is just as important in the final phases to get the feature or documentary to function, to cohere, to become a narrative. We particularly regard the radio feature genre as a special narrative form. Via its film-like editing it often assembles fragments of reality into a narrative that must appeal to common sense and sensitivity alike.
In 1999 the feature team produced a series we called Danish Families, about twelve Danish families in which three generations described their lives, relationships, the times in which they lived, and their century.
The various producers collected material for the series: interviews with each member of the families, scenes from the homes or workplaces of individual members, and sometimes family members together. In feature terminology we use the term “scene” when we use the microphone as a kind of camera, and the reporter doesn’t ask questions but is merely present, recording sounds – taps that drip, trains that rush into stations, chatter, singing, etc.
I produced several of the Danish Family programmes, including the final one on a refugee family we titled In Exile – A Portrait of an Iranian Family on Fynen.
This programme portrays three generations of a family who fled from Iran to Denmark. The previous year, the youngest member of the family, a man of 24, had died of a heroin overdose in a public lavatory at Odense railway station. One reason why the family had fled Iran was to save the boy from being conscripted into the Iranian army.
As we sat in the studio on the last day, the recording engineer and I, and had almost competed the programme, it struck me that the story of the Iranian family whose son would have become one of Khomeini’s boy soldiers, but died of an overdose in Denmark instead, reminded me of something, namely the story of the man who met death in the market place. But it wasn’t until several weeks later that I figured out more precisely what it was, namely the appointment in Samara.
This made me reflect on the link to old stories. After all, is it not so that when a radio feature works structurally or dramaturgically, it does so because there is a story concealed in the material that captures and maintains the listener’s interest?
And when we occasionally come up with really good programmes, it may be because there are good old familiar tales behind them that suddenly force their existence through, perhaps in new guises, while we are working on the raw material.

Power supply
Everything reminds us of something. We all carry stories around inside us. Many are the same stories in new guises, some are fragments, some only half-remembered. Some of them have origins we don’t remember at all. Bible stories? Tales from Norse or Greek mythology? The Arabian Nights? Films? The stage? Songs? Jokes? Advertisements? Are they stories from our own lives about our childhood, our first love, happiness, disappointment, loss, and the fear of death?
A Danish scriptwriter who has worked on the Danish Dogme films says there are actually only two film plots: one is boy meets girl, the other is girl meets boy. Probably a deliberately oversimplified provocation. The number of plots is larger – for example the story of the appointment in Samara. But many of the stories do get retold time and time again.
A former radio man put it this way: “The good stories require crises and conflicts, and before the problems can be solved and opposites possibly come together for a happy ending, they have to unfold in a field of tension powered by disagreements on love, God, power, or money. Less than that may suffice, yes, but something must be at stake if we’re to be entertained by it”.
He calculated with four kinds of stories, at any rate. Tales of love, God, power, or money.

The artistic temperament
In its dramaturgical structure the feature uses effects familiar from fiction, but the feature is not fiction and must not be evaluated as such. Unlike radio drama, the feature is based on documentarism.
For every single interview, every single text committed to paper, the same demands for credibility and a critical approach to sources are made as of any other genre of journalism.
The feature genre may be described in Zola’s words as “a corner of reality described through a temperament”. An artistic temperament, one might add. Of course you can argue what happens to credibility if the artistic temperament exceeds or drowns out reality, but in my opinion this seldom happens in a feature.
Features are more likely to suffer from the opposite problem, namely that those of us who produce them are pretty good at discovering reality and making our recordings in it, but find it more difficult to find the artistic temperament that is able to filter reality into a good narrative.

Cliché or classic
In our work we often use terms borrowed from cinema. We do so because like film, the feature makes use of editing, assembly, and dramaturgy.
John Huston directed The Maltese Falcon in 1941 as a bread-and-butter commission that he just had a few weeks to shoot. Huston, Bogart and the others did their jobs as best they could, but surely none of them expected the film to become a classic, whose theme and elementary tension holds good to this day, sixty years on?
The same applies to the feature. When we produce a radio feature we cannot know whether it will prove a classic in our genre. Time plays a part in judging a programme. Does the finished feature contain a story, an elementary tension that will continue to entrance the listener? Is the story so good that we will be able to get it out twenty years later and rebroadcast it – not just as a historical treasure but also as a narrative that still works?
When our feature team say we have produced a classic it is not something we’d planned or determined from the very first idea and research.
Perhaps the story we’d designed at the writing stage is not there after all. Perhaps the protagonists are weak or unpleasant; it is always hard to make a narrative function if the protagonist is a nasty piece of work.
Perhaps the starting point for the feature was wrong; perhaps the conflict the material contained could not rise above the personal.

The beautiful person
If the soul is in our eyes, emotion, temperament and respiration – which is the closest we can get to life and death – are in our voices, and end in the listening ear.
On television nothing is hidden. We see everything. In the close-up of a talking woman we see her big mouth, strong nose, narrow eyes, strange hair-do, unfashionable clothing, or whatever else we might decide to comment on as viewers, either to ourselves or to the other people watching. Every tiny impurity in her face is magnified and may distract us. Television can turn into (social) pornography when it moves in on the favourite genre of the radio feature: close-up recordings in which people speak from the heart or body. The beauty can disappear when projected from the screen.
I once did an interview with a piano tuner who was practically blind. From my very first phone call I noted his very beautiful voice and fascinating use of language. The recording in which he described his life and job while demonstrating the art of tuning a piano was beautiful. When you heard it you couldn’t help imagining a beautiful man – a man with a beautiful soul.
I assert that the illusion would have been utterly shattered had this piano tuner told his story and demonstrated his craft on television. Because like so many other people he was a bit too stout, his spectacles were as thick as bottle glass, and they enlarged his eyes discordantly. But the image listeners were given of him was far more correct than any television screen revelation of the never perfect human being.

The tyranny of the models
Most journalists have taken courses and learned all about the actant and narrator models. And most of us have realised by now that the models can’t just be imposed on the realities of journalism. The models are best in theory and for analysing a product once it has been made.
I don’t mean that models and structures cannot be used when we are producing our narratives. On the contrary. But I am afraid the models are often a cul-de-sac. They easily prove to be the easy way out when we want to build up stories from documentary material. Or they may force a structure on material in order to force the emergence of a story that just isn’t there.

Act I, Act II, Act III
In Poetics Aristotle wrote that a tragedy must have a beginning, middle, and an end. Jean-Luc Godard retorted thousands of years later, “Yes, of course, but not necessarily in that order”. Although the French director belonged to the nouvelle vague, he did accept a certain structure and division into acts.
I use this division in my work on features, and in many cases on larger-scale documentaries. It’s a tool I bring into operation for building up my stories. The finished programme may not have this division into acts any more, but this rather simple tool helps me to structure my material.
I rough-edit all my recordings, and then I divide them into three acts, and in my first drafts I position the individual sequences.
Features are not necessarily chronological. They may contain flashbacks, and where are we to position them? Probably not in Act I or Act III; at any rate we know something extra is required for the middle act. A peak or a turning point must appear just before the middle, in the middle, or just after it.
If you want to explore it in more detail – and it doesn’t only apply to radio features but also to films and literature – try going into a programme or a film halfway through, or opening a book in the middle. You will discover that something important takes place or has taken place within the last few or next few minutes – or on the last few or next few pages. If this isn’t so, as a rule it is evidence of halting dramaturgy, unless of course it is due to the deliberate rejection of classical narrative technique.

Whose orgasm is the best?
At one stage in the 1980s a kind of circular narrative model was launched as an alternative or counterpart to the generally accepted linear one. People thought that stories could be built up in another way – as little stories or fragments combined into a circular chain without a beginning, middle or end as such – a kind of bead necklace.
One woman dramaturge thought that this was a particularly womanly way of telling stories and thus a breach with the more traditional and in her view more manly narrative model.
Some women went further and established that it is the male orgasm tension curve that has always determined the narrative. These women said that the circular narrative model expresses the female orgasm, lots of smaller orgasms arranged in a row, one as good as the next – or as male critics insinuated polemically, smaller narratives positioned side by side with no real story to them as an expression of the absence of any great climax.
But if we examine the smaller stories incorporated into a dramatic sequence one might describe as circular, each of the smaller stories actually contains a beginning, middle, and an end, all interwoven. The collective narrative or collage makes use of this, and in a modern film such as Short Cuts by Robert Altman (1993) we meet a circular narrative model in which the smaller stories are built up individually but also interact in a larger, cohesive story. The script was written against the background of originally separate short stories by Raymond Carver – all with a beginning, middle, and an end.

The invisible reporter
If you cut a monologue at the editing table you must be aware that this will happen when you are recording it. I start editing in my head while I’m actually interviewing. If an interviewee answers one of my questions with a “yes” a “no” or just a phrase, and my ears tell me I won’t be able to edit this response so it can stand alone, I ask him or her to repeat the answer, giving me a complete sentence and then the phrase or whatever. In most cases it is easy to get my subjects to obey such instructions, even where children are concerned. But I ensure during recording that I get whole sentences in the can. I often don’t use the sentence after all, because once I’m editing I come in later in the answer.
In the kind of interview where I know I am not present as the visible reporter, I use the microphone for the interviewee alone. There is no need to record my questions close to the mike, which I always hold in my hand. I never use microphone stands, because I like flowing the interviewee with my hand and ensure a constant distance from the microphone, because nobody ever sits in the same position for very long.

The visible reporter
A World of a Difference, a montage I produced in 1999, is built up another way. It is an investigative story in which I have a voice and physical presence, and play a part in the story. The reporter is highly visible.
A resume of this feature:
At only eighteen Niels had already experienced far too much. He has been a rent boy in Copenhagen, worked for an escort agency as a male prostitute, and run a private massage parlour. He had periods of bulimia, he drank too much, and used drugs. It is now over twelve years since I interviewed him about his life as prostitute. In those days Niels told me that at the age of sixteen he had heard a radio programme about rent boys in Copenhagen, and that was what had given him the idea. Niels could even remember passages from the programme word for word. I knew that I had made the programme about the rent boys two years previously, but in my programme with Niels at eighteen I avoided mentioning what had inspired him. I edited the sequence out. Over the next couple of years I met Niels a couple of times, but then we fell out of touch. In 1999 I decided to look him up again.

A World of a Difference
This feature has four times: 1985 in which I made short reports on Copenhagen rent boys, 1987 in which I interviewed Niels in Herning, 1999 when I went to see Niels again, and finally, time for reflection, that’s to say the time for the words that were recorded in the studio.
The 1999 recordings were divided into scenes and interviews. The scenes: the journalist carrying out research by phone, recorded live; the journalist ringing door bells; the journalist making inquiries at the National Records Office: the journalist finally finding Niels. The journalist is extremely visible, as in addition to finding out what Niels was now doing, I also had my own personal agenda, namely my quest for absolution.
The music track is no accident. In 1987 Niels was listening to Prince on his scratchy cassette deck and I recorded him doing so, but I also used Prince dramaturgically as I built up the first “Act”, where I add the music from the studio.
In the final section of the feature, which takes place exclusively in the flat where Niels lives, I primarily used classical music by Puccini. It is real sound in the sense that I recorded Niels as he played Puccini on his Bang & Olufsen hi-fi in the living room, but I then mixed the music with the interviews and into a couple of the scenes, including the one where I meet Niels on the stairs and describe the way Puccini is flooding from the flat. Actually Puccini wasn’t. But I made him.
In building up A World of a Difference I made use of the division into three acts.
Act I: excerpts from the old programmes. The journalist looks for Niels.
Act II: the journalist finds Niels via the National Records Office, hears his voice on the answering machine, talks to him, and plans a meeting.
Act III: Niels and the journalist in the flat.
Finally there is a little Prince coda to the story, with an open ending.

A form of suspense in which I withhold knowledge from the listeners is an important dramaturgical component of A World of a Difference. I tried to build up a tension curve with the help of the element of permanent interest: you want to hear a bit more, because what actually became of this Niels fellow? Is he still alive? Did she find him? What is he doing now?
If I’d revealed everything I knew about Niels in Act I the element of suspense would have evaporated.

The therapeutic feature
When I made my first feature in 1988 a running time of an hour was quite normal. It isn’t any more. The format feels too long. Something happens to us round about the 45-minute mark when our body clocks expect the programme to end. It is hard to determine just why. Perhaps it has something to do with the length of television programmes. Perhaps it is the length of a lesson at school that has become internalised into the adult recipient of television and radio programmes? The fact is that we generally cut and edit more tautly than we did even ten years ago.
The media world we live in is a divided one, even if it is no more divided than it has ever been. But narratives in the media are cut in two by commercials, spots, telephones, noise, or our own external and internal remote controls.
The collage form that was once so fashionable in which the feature also made its mark perhaps no longer appeals quite so much to us as it used to, because we now live in a media culture of vigorously edited, disjointed interpretations.
It has been said of the narrative that when it works it serves as a therapeutic story that brings order and meaning to our lives. For that reason I believe that the radio feature and other narrative forms that provide coherence possess plenty of potential.

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