Throughout its short running time of a bit more than sixty minutes, Guido Hendrikx’s A Man and a Camera offers us nothing more than what is described in its title: a first-person point-of-view of a man holding a camera while walking aimlessly through a neighborhood, filming its streets and inhabitants. No further information is given, and the man behind the camera doesn’t say anything. This could be set in any town, the same way the people in it could be anyone. There’s nothing remarkable in the situations we watch and no narrative thread, so what is the value of such images as a film and what would be their place amongst other documentaries?
“Is there a deeper meaning in this?” some people ask. “What’s this for?” and “You don’t have my permission!” say others. In both scenarios the filmmaker stays silent and the camera remains pointed towards people who did not ask to be filmed. As the silence and awkwardness linger on, Hendrikx asks us not to look away, for in such moments people become actors and reality mixes itself with the fiction we use to explain it. It is impossible not to notice how some people keep talking to the camera despite not being asked anything, telling stories, showing their kids, adjusting their clothes; anything to fill the silence and, by consequence, anything to give meaning to the absurdity of having an unknown man knocking on your door while pointing a camera towards you.
In a general sense A Man and a Camera is a film about letting the images speak for themselves, and yet, like some ethnographic docs in which a director’s heavy hand is felt throughout the film, something here feels off as well. There is more to the awkwardness of those meetings, as there is more to how we feel uncomfortable in watching them at home. What could that be? I don’t think there is a simple answer, or even a single one. However, what seems to be clear is that in both cases, be it a heavily edited and narrated documentary or one with nothing but people’s faces reacting to something, there is need for a narrative that justifies the content of the film and its existence.
In A Man and a Camera we are left asking if the documentarian’s ‘subjects’, for lack of a better word, knew that man; why are some people being so nice to him, whereas others are violent? Is this really spontaneous, or does spontaneity really matter here? Why are people going along with this? A great moment occurs when after getting inside one home the camera gazes over a desk with a book about Hitler on it. “You shouldn’t show this book. I got it because I am interested in history. I don’t think people are interested in history these days,” the man within the frame quickly says, for he knows the implications of that book just as the director knew the implications of keeping this shot in his film.
I always find myself coming back to Georges Bataille commenting on literature and evil, and how telling stories or even listening to them can be dangerous. But it is precisely because they are dangerous that they must be confronted and told. Perhaps there might even be a way to use them as tools to overcome problematic situations. Art gives us an enhanced version of reality and allows us to see clearly what sometimes appears foggy to us. Hendrikx’s main argument then seems to be that there is nothing innocent in the act of filming people as there is no innocence in watching such footage. It all boils down to understanding that storytelling is linked to desire, of telling something and being heard, of wanting to know what normally wouldn’t be available to us. And in the end, when it comes to desire, if fiction is eroticism, documentary is pornography.