Generally, we expect documentaries to be non-fictional narratives that present real-life events, people, and stories through a lens of objectivity and factual accuracy. They should be informative and educational, while still being entertaining without veering into fiction. But John Grierson, who coined the term “documentary,” defined it as “a creative treatment of actuality” in his review of Robert Flaherty’s 1926 feature, Moana. This phrase introduces a particular tension at the heart of documentary filmmaking. It underscores the idea that while documentaries are rooted in reality, they also involve a degree of creative interpretation and manipulation of the material. This challenges the notion of pure objectivity and raises questions about where the line between fact and artistry should be drawn in the realm of documentary filmmaking. It invites filmmakers and audiences alike to consider how much creative licence is acceptable in the pursuit of telling a compelling and informative real-life story.
Fig 1. Still from The Klezmer Project
The Klezmer Project, the debut film of Directors Leandro Koch and Paloma Schachmann, is classified as a docu-fiction, and perhaps further intensifies the tension between a desire to capture reality, and the incorporation of unreal, fictional, elements. The film interweaves the documentary format of real interviews and performance footage with the love story between Leandro and Paloma, who are versions of the directors played by themselves. In a similar vein, the film interlaces historical recounts about the Holocaust with Jewish folk tales, blurring the line between what is ‘real’ and what is not. This ambiguity even extends to the documentary within the film, as it starts as a faux documentary that Leandro only pretends to be working on to impress Paloma only to later gain a semi-real status. Beyond this, the film itself appears to neglect even the informative function of a documentary, as it speaks in circles about how klezmer and Jewish culture have been progressively “assassinated”, without managing to give any detail as to what klezmer is. By the end of the film, we are left no closer to understanding what klezmer is than we were before, and the film seemingly fails its primary objective as a documentary about klezmer.
Fig 2. Still from The Klezmer Project, Leandro and Paloma sharing an intimate conversation
But does that matter? Certainly, it feels potentially alienating to watch this film as a non-Jewish viewer; one who is already familiar with Jewish culture might gain more from it. However, the film makes it very clear that it does not necessarily expect that kind of knowledge from its viewers. Consider the driving narrative of the film — Leandro and Paloma’s love story. In the first place, the film finds Itself through love, attraction, the universal human desire to connect with another. Furthermore, by choosing to use this frame narrative to kickstart the journey to rediscover klezmer, the directors are effectively bringing the act of union to the forefront. Leandro, who knows nothing of klezmer, is led towards klezmer through the union between him and Paloma, a klezmer musician. It is no surprise then that we see similar acts of union throughout the film, culminating in a long, lingering shot of a marriage procession. Klezmer might be the subject of the documentary, but what the film is really surveying is much more attuned to basic human impulses: the instinctual desire to unite, and its implications for culture and music.
Fig. 3 Still from The Klezmer Project, a man plays music
The thing is, I don’t know anything about music on a cultural level. Personally? Sure — music plays such a big part in my life, as time capsules of emotions regardless of whether the memory of that moment has been retained or lost to time. And perhaps, those emotions might naturally dilute and change and get mixed in with other emotions as I experience new things and start to look at some songs differently, but they remain, indisputably, my own feelings towards music. I know close to nothing about making or playing music (I’d dropped out of piano classes before even getting to Grade 1) and even less about what music means to my culture, much less the Jewish culture. I, just like most of you reading this article right now, am quite possibly the furthest away from what this film’s “ideal” viewer might be. And yet, dare I say, I think I kind of get it.
Fig. 4 Still from The Klezmer Project, two men playing music
This is a film that laments the eradication of a culture just as much as it projects hope for its preservation. How fitting it is that the film uses klezmer as its subject, a music traditionally of marriage. In this film that interweaves multiple ‘marriages’, from its plot and story to its very genre and technique, culture, too, is shown to experience the same. Klezmer exists, in traces we can glimpse from the performances that were dismissed as “not klezmer” in the film, married with other sounds, other music, other cultures. Over time, it has changed and evolved through years and years of interaction with neighbouring cultures. Indeed, as the film proclaims midway through its runtime, it is “as unnatural for culture to die as it is for an individual to never die”. An individual version of klezmer might have been lost, but the culture lives on in other forms — we just need to open our eyes and ears to it.