The Non Sequitur Montage

The two last film-festivals I attended screened intriguing documentaries that didn’t seem to follow any previous ideas of a narrative. These films are Untitled (2016) directed by Michael Glawogger and Monika Willi, screened at the Berlin Berlinale and Cameraperson (2016) directed by Kirsten Johnson, screened at Stockfish, Reykjavík, Iceland. Both films offered something new to documentary filmmaking and montage, something I will call a non sequitur montage.

Untitled is a documentation of the filmmakers’ aimless drift from one country to the next, where he “seeks to create an image of the world that can only be made if you don’t follow a topic, try to judge or pursue a particular aim. It’s about allowing oneself to drift along, propelled by nothing except your own curiosity and intuition.” (Michael Glawogger) In line with the Situationist’s dérivé, the unplanned journeys through urban landscapes in the late 1950s, we travel with Glawogger through one beautiful scene after the other and explore the Balkans, Italy, North and West Africa where he tragically fell ill from Malaria and died. After his death, his editors stringed the scenes together remaining true to his ideas and using quotes from his journal and field notes, Glawogger include him in the journey.

Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson is also a one person’s journey. This time we go on a journey through Johnson’s 25 year career as a cameraperson on a vide range of different documentary film projects all over the world. The film is a constellation of her personal audio-visual archive shot on these projects. The scenes she presents to the audience did not end up in the respective films, but remained in her heart and mind as the years passed. The scenes takes the audience from one place to the other, and sometimes back again, as well as moving between various themes and approaches. Johnson’s selection of scenes from her archive feels like a “favourite” collection of her work, as each scene mediating something special, powerful and thought provoking.

It is not the visual montage that is new. Chris Marker’s poetic San Soleil (1983) and Ron Fricke’s fusion of image and sound in Baraka and Samsara (1992, 2011) are beautiful examples of how a film’s narrative is not dependent on a coherent visual thread. A traditional narrative, one that has a linear story from beginning to the end, each scene as “a chain of events in a cause-effect relationship occurring in time”, does not apply here.[1] But there is non-the-less a narrative in all three, however experimental it may be. In Marker’s film the narrative emerges with a beautiful story-voiceover and Fricke’s narrative is formed by inviting the audience on a dramatic and emotional journey.

The two recent films are divided up in chapters that are best described as filmic poetry, both visually and ideally. But between the chapters there is a complete rift. There is no continuity from one chapter to the other. The chapters are what is called non sequitur, directly translated from Latin as ‘does not follow’. This means that each chapter or scene would be apparently independent of the previous one. The non sequitur structure is generally used in comedy for the humorous affect, to make things sound absurd, which is not at all the case in these two documentary films.

Despite the lack of a narrative the films were both easy to follow and they smoothly form a whole. I wondered if the way in which the online-generation perceives the narrative is different from what people did before. Rather than seeking information in books, which are ultimately linear, there is abundance of non-linear material available to us at a click’s reach. Just think of YouTube. We go from one video to the next, in no particular order or theme. I believe we have far passed John Berger’s ideas that images always need language, and require a narrative of some sort, to make sense – even in documentary film.[1] The montage in Untitled and Cameraperson rhymes more with the idea of the rhizome, a philosophy by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who also was a psychologist[2]. Their theory was an answer to how the world of ideas resembled a tree where everything necessarily grows from the roots, linearly. Deleuze and Guattari claimed that the linear limited and simplified ideas and structures and suggested that they grew more like a rhizome, that new strings could grow out of and connect to any other, independent of the origin. This means, that there are unlimited possibilities and that every idea could eventually connect to another and create other unlimited new ones.

Going back to the narrative in documentary film, it becomes clear that the lack of a narrative does not necessarily limit the message conveyed, but rather expands the spectrum in which they can be. Our minds are adapting to jumping from one scene to the other, making our own connections. And so, the non sequitur montage results in an imitation of the explorative eye of a curious mind and becomes one with the audience’s eye. We no longer depend on the narrative for making sense of a sequence or a montage. Using this technique, such a film invites the audience to make sense of the structure in his or her own way and create their own narrative (or continue to enjoy the film without one, if they prefer to do so). The film’s structure is left more open to interpretation, and perhaps more true to the actual world we live in.

Works Cited

[1] Bordwell, David & Thompson, Kristin. 1980. Film Art: an Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill.

[2] Berger, John. 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books.

[3] Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Félix. 1980. A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi. London and New York: Continuum, 2004. Vol. 2 of Capitalism and Schizophrenia. 2 vols. 1972-1980. Trans. of Mille Plateaux. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit.

Further exploration 

“A Film that Never Stands still”. 2017. An interview with Monika Willi, director of Untitled.

Fricke, Ron. Baraka and Samsara official website.

Johnson, Kirsten. 2017. “Director’s Statment“.

Marker, Chris. 1983. San Soleil.
Link to the first scene