Documentary starts here

Posted: March 11, 2013 by Alan Hardcastle in FdA 12_14, Media Production
Tags: ,

This is where the big units start. You are being asked to produce a factual piece with some social aspects to it. However, if you watch examples of films within the genre of “Documentary” you can see that this is actually a fairly open genre of film.

There are specific festivals that cater for documentary and factual, and these cover a wide range of themes and approaches. For now, your main approach should be to define this in your own mind – watch documentaries, read about them, how they are made and figure out how to talk about them.

We can look at Reality TV (Big Brother, I’m a celebrity etc) as a kind of documentary – this is a heavily mediated form where the producers are involved in shaping events and guiding “participants” towards particular behaviour. What makes is factual is that it is unscripted, and the subjects behaviour is their own decision. It can also be argued it is a game show, but that’s a different unit.

We can look at 6 sub divisions of documentary as Poetic, expository, Participatory, observational, reflexive and performative. This is only useful in analysing existing documentaries, and occasionally when developing approaches to it, rather than strict generic guidelines.

Performative Documentaries are ones where we see the presenter / documentary maker involved directly. Louis Theroux is a good example as he often seems to be part of the story he is telling. We as the audience are not just looking at the subject but at a known persons response to the subject. This can lead to very personal approaches, such as “Bowling for Columbine” where Michael Moore brings shooting victims to Wal-Mart to return the shrapnel – a very emotive approach to film making.

Observational would be the total opposite – fly on the wall or wildlife documentaries, for example, mean we are watching what goes on but with no interaction or judgement on the events. This is not to say the end result is truth; we are still watching a mediated product. The effect of cameras being on the subject is hard to ignore.

All documentaries are opinions, but all these sub genres do is classify by how involved the film-make is, and how clear they are about telling the audience what to think.

Class exercise: Define each of these categories. Expand it to include any not listed (or are they part of the sub categories?) arrange them in order of film maker intervention.

  1. James says:

    Reflexive Documentary:

    “In a reflexive documentary the filmmaker acknowledges their presence in front of the camera and provides and narrative to the documentary”

  2. Kylie says:

    This is making a video easily accessible, which is creative and tells stories, a lot based around local needs, to communicate needs and ideas. Using the words of real people in their communities, This is then sent back to the community using social media.

  3. Expositionary
    “A non fiction film that exercises verbal commentary and argumentative logic”
    EG “An inconvenient truth”…

  4. James says:

    Performative Documentary:

    “acknowledges the emotional and subjective aspects of documentary, and presents ideas as part of a context, having different meanings for different people, often autobiographical in nature”

  5. Sam Al-Haj says:

    Poetic Mode

    Definition: The formal structural organization of a film that emphasizes visual associations and impressionistic descriptive passages, tonal and rhythmic qualities and de-emphasizes strictly linear or logical sequencing.

  6. James says:

    Performative documentaries:

    For me the notion of ‘point of view’ and ‘truth’ is really interesting when talking about documentary. The filmmaker is inevitably tied into the DNA of the film and its design. The films delivery (in a cinema or on youtube) is a whole other major part of the films context that can be entirely out of control. These basic observations lead me to think that Performative is the most appropriate and ethical form of documentary as it is the least assuming. Performative reveals ideas about the world, from the world, but does not go so far as to preach truth or perspective. However, in broadcast news and current affair situations such ideals can become far to abstract. News after all must be news, with facts and opinion.

    Bill Nichols

  7. “the social actors free to act and the documentarists free to record without interacting with each other”

  8. James says:

    Documentary and reality TV in relationship to contemporary social and culture trends, exploring the audiences interests in other people’s lives.

  9. James says:

    Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary is a film and website about documentary filmmaking, directed by Pepita Ferrari. Produced by the National Film Board of Canada, Capturing Reality explores the creative process of over 30 leading documentary filmmakers, combining interviews with excerpts from their films.

  10. Charlie Brooker on Reality TV:

    And Mission Docs:

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