Studying documentary
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  • 1. MMtherealthing If you were asked to list your top five genres, it’sstudying documentary unlikely that you would include documentary. Jeremy Points, a former Head of Media, Film and Communication Studies and now Media Studies Officer for the WJEC Board, hopes to convince you that documentary should be up there with the Sci-Fis and the Horrors.Documentary is a much maligned genre: it’s frequently a switch-off Pavel Pawlikowski, producer of several documentaries for BBC andrather than a switch-on. Yet most people can mention a documentary director of the film, The Last Resort:that’s really moved or fascinated them – on 9/11 or Michael Jackson, I make no bones about manipulating my subjects. I do it throughfor example – and large numbers of people have been caught up by choices in photography, sound, music, editing and narrative devices.docusoaps like At Home with the Eubanks (C5) or The Osbournes Imagining Reality(MTV and C4) and reality TV shows like Big Brother. So studying Documentaries are, however, no different from any other form ofdocumentary shouldn’t be as bad as it first appears. Here are some realism. Realism is simply a way of conveying a sense of reality forof the reasons why: an audience. There are several ways of doing this. EastEnders and– it’s an enormously varied genre and is full of surprises; Hollyoaks both aim to convey a sense of ‘the real’ for their audiences:– whatever you like, there’s probably a documentary on it; in Hollyoaks the camerawork changes from static to hand-held, the– and – as your media teachers will say – it’s good for you, because pace of the editing is high and there are frequent editing effects and it’s very revealing about most of the key issues in Media Studies. stylised lighting; in EastEnders, the camerawork is more static, the pace of the editing is much slower and the lighting tends to lookStudying documentary … the key issue? more naturalistic. In other words, both soaps aim to convey a sense of the real, but they do that in different ways.At the centre of all work on documentary is realism: documentaries – Realism: different ways of conveying a sense of the real for differentwhether moving image or any kind of photojournalism – claim to audiences.show us ‘reality as it really is’. They don’t. They portray versions ofreality, which suggest points of view about what they’re showing.The version of reality you see can be influenced by the documentary- Completed in the editing roommakers themselves (reflecting their points of view), as well as by thedemands of the organisation and the audiences they are producingthe documentary for. 2: … Dziga Vertov, Man with the Movie Camera (1929) Vertov, who used the phrase ‘Kino-pravda’ – ‘cinema truth’, The documentary shot … borrowed later by French documentary maker, Jean Rouch as ‘Cinéma1: Auguste Lumiere, Workers Leaving the Factory (1895) The first documentary? Real or Vérité’ – talked about his work as ‘putting facts together in a new structure’ so that people’s perceptions could be actively changed. This film ‘put facts together’ about a day in the life of Leningrad – in stage-managed? the editing room.The development of the genre: the main documentary MediaMagazine | february 2004 | english and media centre 44
  • 2. MM Put formally, realism in fiction and documentaries is not a ‘window John Grierson, one of the pioneers of documentary-making, who on reality’ but is a constructed and ideological representation of it – made his first documentaries in the 1920s and 1930s and who first a representation which reflects points of view about the subject- popularised the term ‘documentary’, described it as ‘the creative matter. You’ll be trying to understand what is involved in that in treatment of actuality’. This is a key definition worth thinking about everything you explore through the documentaries you study. which suggests that documentary-makers do more than simply Representation: the images we see on TV or in film, plus points of ‘record’ reality – they ‘treat’ it ‘creatively’. view about them. Ideologies: simply put, are points of view people like filmmakers and Transforming reality – starting with the audiences hold which reflect their attitudes, values and beliefs. real Documentary – the creative treatment ‘Reality’ is only the starting point of a documentary. In Media Studies today, we tend to describe documentaries, like all forms of realism, of actuality as ‘constructed’ versions of the real. But perhaps we ought to follow What do you understand by ‘documentary’? Most people say that a the media writer John Corner who described documentaries as documentary is factual rather than fictional or real rather than made- ‘transforming’ reality into something else – into a creative (and up. A few ideas and definitions which seem to support that idea are constructed) film or a TV programme. listed below. • ‘Documentary is something to do with conveying information – Documentary – the key questions whether about topics, issues, events or life in the present or past … Once you’ve sorted out what a documentary is, you’ll be exploring Based on fact, not fiction.’ (Oxford English Dictionary) the conventions of the genre through extracts and case studies. But • The word comes from the French ‘document’, meaning a file. most importantly you’ll need to ask all the time how those Hence, documentary is a kind of ‘fact file’, although the French word conventions are being used. ‘documentaire’ meant something like a travelogue, as early • Do they provide a window on reality or are they just a version of documentaries took you to places you hadn’t been to. reality? • ‘Something that documents part of life around us. It’s difficult to • Do they convey points of view about what you see and thus shape define, as documentaries these days are so diverse.’ (Paul Hamann, the way you think and feel about people, events and issues? former Head of Documentaries and History, BBC) • ‘Documentary – the presentation of actual facts that makes them Exploring documentary conventions and credible and telling to people at the same time.’ (William Stoff) how they’re used • Other writers stress with their definitions that documentaries Conventions are the standard ingredients of a genre which almost have a duty to raise social and political issues to keep audiences expect to see. Some documentaries work with the societies informed. standard conventions whilst other stretch and challenge them. Paul Rotha (contemporary of Grierson) in 1939: Although with most film and television genres you might list The use of the film medium to interpret creatively and in social terms conventions in terms of settings, locations, lighting and costume the life of the people as it exists in reality. (mise-en-scène), characters, narrative, icons and sound, I think it’s more useful to group the conventions of documentary in terms of Paul Wells in 1998: how information is conveyed. These conventions tend to vary slightly A non-fiction text using ‘actuality’ footage, which may include live with different styles of documentary. Take first the main conventions recording of events and relevant research material (i.e. interviews, of the standard ‘expository’ documentary – a documentary which statistics, etc). This kind of text is usually informed by a particular aims to inform audiences about an event or issue, normally using a point of view, and seeks to address a particular social issue which is presenter and/or voiceover to provide a commentary. I looked at a related to and potentially affects the audience. documentary on Jennifer Lopez (shown on ITV) and found all of these. What do you think? Should broadcasters produce more documentaries on 9/11, the recent Iraq war, the continuing political Verbal information and sound tensions in Northern Ireland or more reality TV like Big Brother? – voiceover providing commentary and/or presenter; – interviews (with experts, witnesses to events, ordinary people – All those points are true but, to me, they only tell part of the story. sometimes talking direct to camera, sometimes with the What I think is crucial to all documentaries is what documentary- interviewer in the picture); makers do with the facts – the reality – that they are using as the basis of their documentary. Cinéma Vérité/Direct or : The classic documentary John Grierson, Night Mail (1936) 4: Observational Cinema D.A. Pennebaker, Don’t Look Back 3: – typical of what’s often called ‘expository’ documentary, (1966) Jean Rouch introduced handheld cameras and interviewed people on because it aims to inform – was the streets and called it Cinema Vérité. Pennebaker & Leacock used in fact a means of selling the the same techniques and called it direct or observational techniques. efficiency of the Post Office. It also tried to give the impression that As in this film on Bob Dylan, the style revolutionised documentary Britain was one big happy family. Scenes in the Royal Mail sorting making. carriage were in fact shot in a studio.styles – transformations of the real >>>>>>>>>>>>>> english and media centre | february 2004 | MediaMagazine 45
  • 3. MM– mainly natural sound but music used frequently to create programmes which inform, educate and entertain. Documentaries atmosphere or underline points. are an easy – and relatively cheap way – of informing and educating. More than that, though, television companies need to attractVisual information audiences – to justify the licence fee (if you’re the BBC) and to attract– variety of locations appropriate to subject, chosen to illustrate advertisers (who provide your finance if you’re in independent points: television or satellite). In addition to the need to provide a public• archive footage • visual effects • still images. service, BBC2 and Channel 4 have a duty to cater for minority audiences. As a result, the documentaries shown on those channelsCamerawork, lighting & framing – the way visual tend to be much less mainstream than BBC1 and ITV – although youinformation is conveyed might notice that Channel 4 pioneered Big Brother to attract younger• Camerawork – conventional use of establishing shots, generally audiences (also claimed by Channel 4 to be a minority not well static camerawork for interviews, often direct to camera, some catered for). steadicam (frequently within locations), some hand-held (often to The new digital channels and satellite have different audiences again heighten action or create a casual atomosphere). and try to produce documentary programmes in keeping with their• Framing – tends to look less set-up than films but often channel identities. Satellite broadcasters, in fact, don’t have to documentaries change between careful framing of interviewees produce programmes which inform, educate and entertain at all as and locations with sequences which are more casual. they are not bound by national broadcasting laws. BSkyB recentlyThese conventions in fact developed as the genre itself developed – commissioned a reality TV show based on six men competing for thefrom expository and investigative documentaries, to Cinéma Vérité attentions of a beautiful woman – except that the woman turned out(or direct/observational cinema) in the late 50s and 60s, to fly-on- to be a man. As The Sun said (also owned by BSkyB owner Rupertthe-wall in the 70s and early 80s, to the performative in the 80s and Murdoch) this was a ‘reality show too far’. All of these points emerge90s and to the various forms of hybrid (docusoaps and the reality TV by looking at the kinds of documentary produced by all the differentgame show hybrids) of the 90s and into the present. Have a look at broadcasters – which is something you need to do.the time-line of the main documentary styles running along thebottom of the article to remind you. Putting it all together – editing and positioningDocumentary – a developing genre? You’re now familiar with the way conventions have developedYou can see many, if not all, of those different styles of documentary through different documentary styles and how documentariesimmediately you start to look at documentaries on TV and film today. frequently mix those styles. Now you need to come back to the basicThese are the ways in which the genre of documentary has question: how do documentaries creatively transform the real? Muchdeveloped, reminding you that any genre is always open to change. of this comes down to editing – a crucial element in documentary.Many documentaries, in fact, blend different styles. Think no further At its simplest, editing a documentary is about selecting whatthan some of the send-ups: The Royle Family parodies both material will be included in the final documentary, organising it intodocusoaps and the fly-on-the-wall documentary popular in the 1970s something that will interest the audience (turning the footage into aand 80s. The handheld camerawork with natural or amateur lighting, narrative) and ending up with an interpretation of the subject of thecommon in lots of documentaries and used memorably in the mock- documentary. Documentary-makers tend to film about ten times thedocumentary horror film, The Blair Witch Project has its roots in a amount of material which is finally used (in some cases more). Rightdocumentary movement called ‘Cinéma Vérité’ in France, and direct away there are two ways in which documentaries transform material:or observational cinema in America. Interestingly, this came toprominence in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a result of new – they convert the material into a storylighter-weight cameras (effectively the first steadicams). It’s a good – they only show part of the ‘whole’ picture.example of the way technology prompts a particular camera style. What they also do is edit together material to make a point.Different styles – different audiences Michael Moore’s recent Bowling for Columbine (2002), a documentary on how two school students shot schoolchildren in theGenres are not only dynamic, reflecting changes in society, culture small town of Columbine USA, is full of this kind of editing. Oneand technology, they also represent a balance between the profit sequence starts with an interview with an organic farmer in Michigan,motives of the industry and the enjoyment of the audience. James Nichols. After this first sequence of Nichols innocentlyFirst of all, there’s a good reason why documentaries are shown on introducing himself on his farm, we are shown archive footage of histelevision at all. The laws governing terrestrial broadcasting in Britain arrest for involvement in the Oklahoma bombing and the killing ofdemand that broadcasters provide a public service and show Seriously Investigating Fly-on-the-wall 6: Panorama, BBC – Richard Dimbleby presenting5: Roger Graef, The Police The 70s and 80s brought cameras into people’s living The investigative documentary – like the expository – has tended to be associated with TV and aims to rooms and workplaces (like investigate issues. Despite looking balanced, they generally convey a flies on the wall). Do they particular point of view about the issues they investigate. simply observe?The development of the genre: the main documentary MediaMagazine | february 2004 | english and media centre 46
  • 4. MM 167 people. Timothy McVeigh was executed, James Nichols’ brother was imprisoned but there was insufficient evidence against James Nichols himself. Michael Moore comments that the ‘Feds didn’t have the goods on him’. We then see a further sequence of James Nichols, ,follow it up: MoreMediaMag: Find out more about documentary on Biggie and Tupac from MM1 full of close-ups and including cutaways of an expressionless Michael Michael Jackson from MM4 Moore, nervily defensive, accusing his ex-wife of spreading rumours Pennebaker and Hegedus; Big Brother 4; How to construct a about him. The editing – and Michael Moore’s questions – expose radio documentary from MM6 him as being at least stupid and at worst a terrorist bomber. The editing has, in other words, positioned the audience to adopt a Further reading particular point of view. This is what documentaries do all the time – Vivienne Clark, James Hunt and Eileen Lewis: Key Concepts in and something you’ll be able to uncover by asking how documentary Media Studies, Longmans (2003) – good overview section on conventions are used. Below are questions you can ask when you’re documentary exploring your own documentaries. Jo Wilcock: Documentaries: A teacher’s guide/Classroom Resources Auteur Publications (revised 2003) How documentaries use conventions Paul Wells: ‘The Documentary Form’ in Introduction to Film Studies, Ed. Jill Nelmes, 2nd edition, Routledge (1999) – good The verbal overview with case studies on Robert Flaherty, Humphrey Jennings, Leni Riefenstahl, Frederick Wiseman and Hoop • Does the presenter/voiceover attempt to persuade audiences of a Dreams/When We Were Kings point of view? Jon Ronson: ‘The egotists have landed’ in Sight and Sound, • What kind of language is used – emotive, guiding audiences to Nov 2002 – on ‘performative’ documentary and Bowling for think in a particular way? Columbine – articles can be reprinted from the Bfi website – • What kinds of interviewees are used? Ordinary people/experts? Do www.bfi.org.uk we believe some more than others? Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield have their own • Are music or sound effects used to suggest a point of view about sites:www.michaelmoore.com the subject? www.nickbroomfield.com The visual • If there’s a presenter/people being interviewed, what image is given to them and why (dress, physical image, body language, backdrop against which they’re filmed)? • How does camerawork affect your point of view about what/who is being filmed? • If visual effects are used, how do they affect your point of view about the subject? • How is editing used? (Length of shots/scenes, placing contrasting scenes next to one another to make a point, cutaways.) Are your attitudes to people and the subject affected by editing? • How does turning the subject of a documentary into a ‘story’ affect the subject? The documentary style • Does the documentary style affect how you think about the people portrayed/the subject of the documentary? MM The first hybrids Jeremy Points is the Subject Officer for Media Studies for WJEC. 8: Documentary meets soap opera – to increase television ratings? The Office – a send-up of the docusoap, focusing on key Enter the performers characters who talk direct to camera. A ‘hybrid’ documentary, 7: Michael Moore, Bowling for Columbine The 80s and 90s brought the where at least two genres are mixed. performers: Nick Broomfield and Michael Moore, who took centre The current phase of hybrids: stage in their own documentaries. Both have produced documentaries recently: Michael Moore’s brilliant Bowling for Columbine (2002), based on the killing of high school students in Columbine, Colorado in 9: documentary meets soap meets game show and even talk show – definitely increasing ratings April 1999 and raises questions about US gun laws. Nick Broomfield The more recent reality TV has returned to an earlier subject, Aileen Wournos, a female serial makes a hybrid out of killer who was recently executed and for whom Nick Broomfield documentary, soap opera, game show and even talk show, when himself was called in as a witness. Aileen: The Selling of a Serial Killer participants are interviewed. (released 2003).styles – transformations of the real >>>>>>>>>?????? english and media centre | february 2004 | MediaMagazine 47