This morning, like most mornings, Mike Dibb is sitting in his greenhouse. “It’s where I spend many, many, many hours,” he says. “And it’s very nice, because I look out over a little garden.” There’s a desk, a painting of an old friend, and a creeping vine that squirms along the back wall. He speaks through Zoom from West London and it feels strange to see this documentary filmmaker on screen. For more than five decades, Dibb has rarely ventured in front of the camera. Instead, he is the off-screen voice, the steady hand that directs the story.
A retrospective of Dibb’s work is about to start online, courtesy of London’s Whitechapel Gallery. It covers portraits of Keith Jarrett, Federico García Lorca, Miles Davis, CLR James, Barbara Thompson, Roger Deakin, and Edward Said. There are studies of place: Chicago through the eyes of Studs Terkel; Cuba, through its music and dance; Ireland, through the spoken word and song. And there are his most discursive works: the 1982 Fields of Play series, which explored human notions of the game, from humor to gambling and warfare. And of course it features Ways of Seeing, Dibb’s landmark 1072 collaboration with writer John Berger, which offered a new perspective on visual imagery, from the female nude and the male gaze, to oil painting, advertising. and the theories of Walter Benjamin. .
Dibb’s route to the movies began in Filey, on the Yorkshire coast, where his father, a family doctor and movie buff, took notes on the movies he had seen – short reviews accompanied by a star rating. Filey, Dibb notes, was the location for AS Byatt’s novel Possession. “This book is set in the landscape of my childhood!” he says. “The consummation of this great romantic relationship occurred in Filey. And I thought, ‘Well, no one has sex on Filey.’ Later, he would profile Byatt. “We filmed the same space I grew up in, but with her living in, which was nice. So it was a journey through our childhood, as well as a movie about her. “
Dibb studied English and Spanish at Trinity College in Dublin, but was distracted by the screen and he spent the years of his career immersed in the delights of American cinema. But time was not entirely wasted: years later, when making a film about Don Quixote, he hired his former Spanish teacher as a consultant. “When I finished the movie, I made a VHS and sent him a copy saying, ‘Here’s the only essay of mine that you liked!'”
To revisit Dibb’s work is to remember how much the documentary has changed. While he delights in the technology “that has made film-making a lot easier for people,” he regrets that there is no longer room on television networks to work in depth. “I’ve been very lucky,” he says. “I lived through an extraordinary period of television. There was the transition to color, BBC Two and Channel 4 arrived. It was the expansion of television, with a tremendous space for cultural programs, but also documentaries ”.
Today’s movies are predominantly host-directed, he says. “So Lucy Worsley will show up all the time, certain cultural historians who do this, that, and that.” With the notable exception of Berger, Dibb’s films have rarely put a presenter front and center. Rather, he has preferred to let the issue remain the center of attention. “I’ve never been in them like Louis Theroux, ”he says. “But I’m always there, asking questions.”
There is a fluidity to Dibb’s work: the shot sticks, the camera rarely drops, and his films have the rhythm of a quiet, continuous conversation. The goal, he says, is “to make the camera look like a listening eye, so that it responds to the space it is in, doesn’t jump. You are slowly moving from one thing to another. “
You have often found it better to interview people at home or in the workplace, or when they are doing an assignment, rather than having a formal conversation in a television studio. “Filming on a production line in Chicago where everyone is making Space Invaders, or women making tennis balls for Wimbledon, once you talk to people about their lives and what they like to do, they open up.”
Dibb describes his early jobs as “more rigid”, a product of his lack of confidence when working with videographers who are often twice his age. “If you look at a little 15-minute movie that I made with Alan Bennett at the Leeds City Art Gallery, it’s done in an awfully conventional way. But it was okay, because Alan is Alan. “He smiles.” There was a lovely moment at the end. Referring to a painting, he said, “And this is just a masterpiece.” And I said, ‘Alan, wouldn’t you like to explain? a little why do you think it’s a masterpiece? ‘ And he said, ‘Who do you think I am? Kenneth, fucking Clark? It stays the way I wrote it!’ “
The conversation with Dibb is filled with anecdotes, from an account of David Hockney’s visit to Los Angeles and the exclusive presentation of his opera designs, to rehearsals for making an improvised jazz documentary with Keith Jarrett. You cannot imagine “a more difficult subject over a more difficult person.”
Dibb has gotten used to seeing different sides of his subjects. It has made it a kind of mission to show the agile side of many academics. “I love the idea that an academic is not an academic,” he says. “I knew Stuart Hall very well, one of the most interesting and charismatic people to talk to. But he writes in a very conventional way, in an academic way. When you are with him, with a sparkle in his eyes and his wonderful gift for language, all things manifest with a vividness that is very different. “
However, it is John Berger that Dibb will be linked to forever. “John is the only writer who stayed with me for my entire life,” he says. He first came across Berger’s writing as a teenager, newly interested in art. “I loved the way he wrote. The way he used the language was very simple. Their sentences were never long. I started clipping his articles. “
He continues: “It’s quite rare to meet later someone who has been so influential. But I met John in the 1960s, in London for lunch, because he did a wonderful translation of Brecht’s poems for the theater. ” A proposed project on Brecht never happened, instead a commission came from the BBC, Ways of Seeing: “Four half-hour films on subjects of his choice. And, as we knew each other, they asked me to be a researcher, with the possibility of directing one of the films ”. Such was their bond, Dibb soon led the four. “So we were able to develop that series on our own without anyone hovering over us. It was a voyage of discovery for both of us. “
Dibb continued to work with Berger for many years, with films such as Pig Earth and Parting Shots from Animals. “Although I sometimes filmed conversations with John, I never used them. There was something about the way he distilled his thoughts as he wrote that was always so much better than his conversation. Not that it wasn’t wonderful to talk to him, but he was always full of silences. “
Dibb is now 80 years old, but still working. It is in the final stages of Painted With My Hair, a portrait of an American prisoner named Donny Johnson, who was in solitary confinement for 24 years. “He had this tremendous compulsion to become a painter,” says Dibb. “But she’s not allowed to paint materials, so she has to make brushes with her own hair and use the color of M & M’s and Skittles. The only thing he can paint on is the back of the postcards. “The film will be accompanied by a traveling exhibition, The Dungeon Art of Donny Johnson.
“I don’t think it will ever stop me completely,” says Dibb. “My films are driven by curiosity. I find people that interest me. It doesn’t matter who they are. I am very interested. I don’t know much, but I love to find out. “
• A Listening Eye: Mike Dibb Films is at whitechapelgallery.org until March 26.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism