The following is the first of a two-part post from project co-investigator Marco Bernini.

Nothing seems as far from the truth-seeking attitude of documentaries than dreams. And yet, what if we consider dreams as spontaneously occurring documentaries? What if we think of dreams as an inner documentary practice whereby our mind delves into archive material of raw facts from our life and dream them into meaning? To equate dreams with documentaries might sound preposterous, even offensive to the sensitive ears of academics, given the efforts analytic philosophers, epistemologists, psychologists or narrative theorists spend negotiating subtleties and borders between facts, truth, fiction and imagination. We have recently heard from Professor Elliot Wolfson, however, how the tension between fiction and truth in dreams should be reconsidered: dreams have a truth-value of their own (to oversimplify horrendously Elliot’s extremely rich argument). In this two-part post, I want to continue this reflection by playing with the idea of dreams as documenting practices.

From Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World, 2007.

To problematize the relation between truth, facts, fiction and dreaming I turn for support to a documentary filmmaker who has provided strong theoretical and practical wisdom to the problem: Werner Herzog. Herzog has been very vocal against considering documentaries as Cinema Verité. In the first thesis of his 1999 Minnesota Declaration, he writes that “by dint of declaration the so-called Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.” He goes on by explaining how for him (thesis 4) “Fact creates norms, and truth illumination” and that (thesis 3) “Cinema Verité confounds fact and truth, and thus plows only stones. And yet, facts sometimes have a strange and bizarre power that makes their inherent truth seem unbelievable.” Here Herzog implicitly hints at the truth-value that surfaces in such moments of bizarreness and strangeness –qualities that documentaries should be able to capture and, even more importantly, reveal.

From Werner Herzog, Lessons from Darkness, 1992.

Bizarreness and strangeness are also the main qualifiers of dreams, and this is why many of Herzog’s documentaries seem to have a dream atmosphere  (see, e.g., Lessons of Darkness, 1992), and dreams are often taken as topic of conversations by “professional dreamers” (Encounters at the End of the World, 2007) alluding at a dreamlike truth in the real. As such, dreams might provide a model not of a derailing abandoning of reality, but of a new logic capable to illuminate hidden, deeper truth in our waking world and self. True documentaries for Herzog should therefore aim at a what we can call a reverie veritè: a mixture of facts and fiction, archive and creativity, raw data recombined in a series of unfamiliar kairos, renouncing the linearity of the rationalising chronology we impose to our everyday life, and the simple tales of causality we lull (and dull) ourselves with. Dreams spontaneously plunge into (I would be tempted to say, ‘they spend time studying’) the archive of our experiences and then take up scissors, tapes, and masking strategies to edit our facts away from their surface truth. If we reconsider documentaries’ ethos, through Herzog, as a strategic revelations of dreamlike truths, the truth unearthed by the flying stones of dreams might be more aligned to a rigorous documenting practice than to epiphenomenal vagaries of our brain and mind. This means that self-documenting our life while awake might require us to fall asleep in the editing room or on the train whereby we travel back to our past. This is what the Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin has done in the sleepiest documentary ever made, My Winnipeg (2007) to which I will dedicate the second part of this post in a couple of weeks. 

Marco Bernini, October 2020