In this year's IFFR—characterised as more political than ever—the documentary of Ulrich Seidl, Safari (2016) was screened, giving rise to a philosophical discourse about 'truth in documentaries'. Safari shows that a 'staged documentary' can be a truthful representation.
This documentary was premiered during a competition at the Venice Film Festival, provoking the audience with its brutal content of animal hunting, neo-colonialism and racist argumentation. This is not the first time that the Austrian director (known for his Paradise trilogy) shocks with his—seemingly—raw realism. As he stated in the latest interview, his films, while profoundly humanistic, are revolved around "desire, death and the private life". Consequently, Ulrich's filmography is demanding and not necessarily popular to a broader audience.
The realistic documentary vs. Safari
The debate about the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction in documentaries began in the 1920s. In his book, Introduction to Documentaries, Bill Nichols explains 'why ethical issues are central to documentary filmmaking' and defines non-fiction films as 'documentaries of social representation.'
Nonetheless, the distinction between genres and their 'filming ethics' (what should be staged, or not, and why) became clearer during the '60s, since the lines between film genres started to be more intelligible. During that time, the realistic approach was established, meaning that documentaries—as the name suggests—should document reality as objectively and impulsively as possible. The differences between autobiographical fiction films (e.g., films of Jean-Luc Godard ) and non-fiction documentary films were established, while in the past that wasn't the case.
Seidl's creative genius is revealed through the innovative approach to the documentary genre.
The film process of Ulrich Seidl is not a simple one. As he has stated, he spends a considerable amount of time with the protagonists to acquire familiarity since they are not professional actors. In Safari (2016), Seidl works with his regular cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler, while some of the protagonists had also participated in 2014 feature film 'In the Basement', (a semi-documentary study of secret cellar-level human obsessions) introducing Seidl into the world of European inhabitants in Africa.
Some may argue that his directing methods are basically those of an ethnographer in field work. He doesn't just stage the parameters for the documentary for aesthetic purposes or interfere with reality (as many critics have suggested), but he performs a controlled experiment while filming.
What is Safari about?
To understand what staging a documentary is all about, we have to give a closer look into Safari (2016). In the opening scene, we witness a man in Bavarian-style hunting gear, in a grey Western forest, solemnly sounding a hunting bugle. That scene only—highly staged and scripted, in apparent contradistinction to what we would expect from a film named Safari—predisposes the audience of what comes next. Nonetheless, the twisted and humorous parallelism sets the tone for the rest of the movie and discreetly reveals the director's position; we just have to look carefully.
The use of language and how it is portrayed is riveting.
We follow the main protagonists of the film, an Austrian family (a couple in their 50s, with their daughter and their son in their 20s) killing endangered animals one by one. They always hunt with a native black employee who guides and coordinates the activities, yet barely talks during the killings. Every black person participating in the film, either skinning the animals, ironing clothes of employers or eating leftover meat from the preys, is rarely allowed to speak. Contradictory, Seidl allows the audience to witness the white Europeans attempting to answer the question why they kill these animals; a question which is never properly asked (since it has been edited out). However, it is more or less insinuated. The viewers are left surprised by the unusual behaviour. The tourists-hunters cannot defend their safari activities without relying on racist arguments or being completely irrational.
At one point, for example, the lodge safari owner and his wife declare that “the blacks can run faster than whites because they have longer leg muscles and heel bones", and not only that but "they want to"—a comment that reveals a racist argumentation.
Eventually, the strong directing presence can be detected by the escalation of the killings. Seidl and his cameraman, Wolfgang Thaler, follow the hunters and their guides through the savanna as they stalk and kill a gnu, then a zebra and finally, in what is the most disturbing picture for many viewers, an enormous giraffe. The giraffe doesn’t die quickly. After each kill, they congratulate each other on their clean, lucky shot with the “hunter’s salute” and “hunter’s thanks” and take a picture with the “pieces” i.e., the dead animals. The pictures do not show any blood since the animals are carefully mounted for the commemorative picture.
In a superficial glance, racism, colonialism and hunting seem to be the dominant thematology of the documentary, provoking strong feelings in the audience. So far, so good; in that sense Safari could be another documentary exploring social issues. However, the 'staged' aspect raises compelling questions about truth. How can Ulrich Seidl address the sensitive subject of racism with an 'unethical way' such as a 'fake' documentary? How ethical is it to talk about racism while being indifferent to the truth?
These questions seem to be crucial for the audience. As mentioned before, the audience's preconceived notions of how a documentary should be were formed during the 1960s with 'realistic documentaries' and the quest for truth. One needs only to watch the documentaries of the BBC production, or 'reality tv', claiming authenticity through documenting objective reality. Nevertheless, according to Orson Welles and his 1973 masterpiece, 'F for Fake', a provocative documentary essay about the nature of truth in art, we are reminded that film is inherently a manipulation. There is no truth beyond what the filmmakers decide to create, since every film goes through the filming process—from editing to directing decisions, any claims of truthful representation is an arbitrary call at best.
'Safari' ( 2016 ) is a real story film with fake footage.
Shedding some light on that complicated subject, Werner Herzog, one of the greatest documentary directors, stated in a recent interview: "I believe that documentary filmmaking, and I'm one of the great advocates, has to move away from the pure fact-based movies, because facts per se do not constitute truth, that's a big mistake. Otherwise, the Manhattan phone directory would be the book of books. Four million entries, every single one factually correct". Filming a documentary has to be about forming an opinion. The director's job is to investigate reality, constructing an experiment, rather just simply documenting it. A staged documentary can be an honest representation of reality, as reality itself is fragmented and subjective in the eyes of the beholder. In this case, the movie is portrayed in the eyes of Seidl. This film is a postmodern vehicle that shows us the subjective and ungraspable nature of reality.
Nowadays, the discourse about truth in the postmodern reality that we live in is more relevant than ever. Ulrich Seidl's documentary is an excellent work of art, able to reshape our minds, showing us different interpretations to the same reality—the grey zone. And that reality might not be as concrete as we thought.