Documentary vs. Video Art: Catching Up with RISD’s Dennis Hlynsky

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Long-time digital video professor Dennis Hlynsky ponders the connection between new technology and the widening gap between filmmakers and video artists.

Documentary comes from a lot of places. Some filmmakers don’t see a hard line between fiction and nonfiction (such as Werner Herzog). Some, such as Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, are journalists who view film as one way of telling a story. Others come from the tradition of what used to be known as ‘video art.’

I’m seeing more mainstream films that seem to engage an element of what might have been called ‘video art’ in past years. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life befuddled some viewers with its emphasis on discrete beautiful images in absence of a standard plot line. The images don’t seem to match the story, but they might in a more diffuse way.

Dennis Hlynsky

Dennis Hlynsky teaches in the
Film/Animation/Video department
at Rhode Island School of Design

I ran into Dennis Hlynsky at a recent screening of Project Nim, and he’s an interesting guy to chat with. He’s in the Film/Animation/Video department at Rhode Island School of Design, where he’s taught for years. He’s worked on projects that operate in that indistinct area between ‘art’ and ‘documentary’ that seems, like so many media forms today, to be converging. (View some of Dennis Hlynsky’s work on Vimeo.)

“In the 1980s, video became the rage, and the people I began looking at were the performance artists, doing experiments in electronics and television, rather than coming out of a more traditional filmmaking perspective,” Hlynsky says.

The division between artists and documentarians could have grown smaller, or the two groups could have cross-fertilized, but they separated, and Hlynsky explained why.

“That stems from a break in identification and technology,” he says. “In the early 1970s, independent 16mm filmmaking was not that old. Video came along and was seen as a not-very-good filmmaking format. There was a lot of animosity between the two groups.”

Today, Hlynsky has on his desk his Panasonic Lumix G3 GH2, a DSLR camera also used by traditional documentary filmmakers. “CMOS technology means cameras have gotten smaller and have gotten a lot better,” Hlynsky says. “Every time that happens, the filmmaking community sees that as an encroachment.”

“There are filmmakers,” he says, the implied quotation marks around that word clear, “and then there are people who are working on media. How those groups sort themselves out is much less of a technological issue and much more of a tribal issue.”

I came into documentary filmmaking when, after years as a print journalist, I was able to afford to make documentaries, not with film, but with video cameras. I know some middle-aged filmmakers who invested a fortune in 35mm film equipment to get work making television commercials, but who are now losing bids to kids with those cheaper DSLRs.

We also talked about a recent video event that is, in its own way, a documentary, but not one that traditional filmmakers can take credit for.

“If you want to look at what happened to Qaddafi… it’s a documentary that gets stitched together, it’s a documentary that gets deposited by metadata, or by some kind of linking.”

The final moments of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi were shot on multiple camera phones and posted all over the internet. Crowsourcing found itself in a moment of horror.

Amateur videographers caught some of Moammar Gadhafi's last moments

Moments caught by amateur videographers and
collected on sites like YouTube push the
boundaries of what can be called documentary.

Hlynsky says of the Gadhafi videos, “The franticness of the moment conveyed by that kind of camera work was a different interpretation of the moment than if you had a Steadicam doing the same thing.”

“I think for the first time in many years, the combinations of technology we have, and the ubiquity of the technology we have, have reduced the directorial necessity. We’re beginning to make films as a culture that are from multiple perspectives. It’s affecting the way we understand media. Is a documentary a total encapsulation? Is it a point of view? Is it a slice? What does this media object contain? What should the container be?”

I think of the Life In A Day crowdsourced documentary by Kevin MacDonald, Ridley Scott and a host of others, and how the control a filmmaker tries to impose over a subject is at odds with the ability of that subject to record or be recorded and distributed at nearly no cost. Life in a Day plays every day, on the Web, not at defined screening times, and not even in its entirety.

Life in a Day - YouTube Documentary

Life in a Day is a crowdsourced documentary
that can be viewed as a 90-minute whole or as
individual submissions.

“The way we piece together realities from an array of available elements means the shift may be rapidly going from filmmaker to viewer,” Hlynsky says. “One of the transitions is what I would call ‘anti-perspectivist.’ Perspective is the way of looking at it — it’s what I learned in school. The basis of perspective is the elevation of the individual: ‘I want to show you something through my eyes — I want you to see it as I have seen it.’ Theaters are set up in that way: You go into a theater, you’re quiet, you’re passive. You want to see it in the filmmaker’s point of view.”

In Hlynsky’s classes, he polls his students to find out how many have, in their backpacks or pockets, some form of recording device — iPhone, pocketcam, still camera with video. “Five years ago, in a class of 19 students, there might have been three devices. Now there are 33 recording devices in the room.”

“The big idea is how the whole culture seems to be going through a shift right now. But what’s the shift? Is it social media? Is it that the technology is cheaper? Is it because we have more access to process? Is it because everyone is carrying around a still camera and a video camera and a word processor and a communication device on their cell phones?”

Hlynsky, who thinks about this all day, is still thinking about what these changes means for documentarians and video artists alike.

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Edward J. Delaney
Edward J. Delaney
Edward J. Delaney is a journalist, author, filmmaker and editor of DocumentaryTech, an online project that explores documentary filmmaking techniques and technology.