I’m watching 365 documentaries and writing about each one in 2014. Tweet your suggestions to @documentarysite, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more.
Note: This post may contain spoilers.
Making-of documentaries have long since been co-opted as public relations vehicles and as DVD extras, but some truly amazing documentaries show what really went on behind the scenes in some epic productions. Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982) is one of these documentaries.
Burden of Dreams follows the making of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, a fiction film emerging from the depths of inspiration and struggling to emerge from the depths of the Amazon jungle. The fiction film in production is about a man named Fitzcarraldo who at the height of the film wants to bring a three-story boat from one river to another river by dragging it through the jungle. According to Herzog, “That’s basically the story of the film.”
A female voiceover offers much of the exposition of the film, grounding us in the events and their implications without judgment. The fiction film production seems doomed from the very beginning. The first production attempt brings death threats and nasty rumors, with the camp being burned to the ground. The second attempt completes about 40 percent of the scenes with Jason Robards and Mick Jagger, until Robards gets sick and leaves the production. Blank includes several of the scenes of this unfinished version in the documentary.
Despite so many things falling through in the first two attempts, Herzog remains dedicated to completing it. In an interview he says, “If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams, and I don’t want to live like that.”
The third attempt casts Klaus Kinski in the lead role and finds them filming in another part of the jungle. More obstacles mount against them, including rains and drought, broken equipment, long supply lines, and generally bored crew. But Herzog maintains his vision, sometimes not without criticism. The voiceover reveals that he need not go into the jungle to film the scene of the boat being dragged over the hill, but Herzog chooses to do it anyway. Herzog also limits filming time to the golden hour, those several hours of beautiful sun at the end of the day.
One of the bigger struggles in this production is working with the native tribes, though by the third attempt he has a mostly stable group to work with. Blank includes footage of the tribe and their lives in the camp, showing them cooking traditional foods, making traditional drinks, and even arguing over a man.
For the most part Blank follows the production in progress and uses the voiceover to develop the exposition. Though he includes a couple short interviews with actors, crew, and others, he spends the most time letting Herzog wax poetic about filmmaking, his vision, the local tribes, and even the jungle, which he expresses a strong dislike for in an eloquent way. In fact, he expresses most everything in an eloquent way, which Blank seems only too happy to let him do.