What did you expect to see when watching a documentary film?
Are there particular subjects that lend themselves to a documentary approach? Think about any documentaries that you have seen recently either on television or at the cinema
As well as the issue of subject matter we should also think about the ways in which they were filmed. In what ways does a documentary film differ from a feature (fiction) film?
How is watching a documentary different from watching a feature film? What are our audience expectations of each type? How are we meant to react to what we see?
Documentaries are often seen as informing or entertaining us about real situations and real issues.
They are in part called documentaries because they are not fiction films. They are regarded as a different type of film with different aims and objectives with different approaches and styles, that is conventions, when telling their story.
Purpose of documentary
Firstly, they concentrate upon actual evidence relating to real events in history and the world around us rather than fictional stories.
Secondly, the way documentaries are made, that is the devices/techniques used to film real people, real events or explain historical events and scientific discoveries for example, tend to be different from fiction films.
Thirdly, documentaries speak about or allow others to speak for themselves. The documentary filmmaker often acts as a representative of the public.
Fourthly, documentaries provide a particular view, interpretation or understanding of the evidence put before us.
Documentaries rely upon a story or narrative. This may be, for example:
Solving a problem. Why did the Titanic sink?
An argument. Should drugs be legalised?
An assertion or claim. Life for the poor in nineteenth century England was like this
If we think of a classic story structure then we would say that a story contains some of the following:
Characters, events taking place over a period of time, settings, cause and effect.
What else would you expect to find in a story?
Documentaries are not just about entertainment. Importantly, the documentary filmmaker hopes to reveal to us something we are probably unaware of about the past or present. This sets up for the viewer a series of expectations of what a documentary may include, for example:
the nature of their content may be seen as serious.
the content is taken in some form from real life.
the way it is filmed or the images used are representative of the subject and help us understand the issue under consideration.
often a commentary may be used on the soundtrack to explain and makes sense of what we are watching.
Purpose of documentary
What is shown in the film is seen as real - real people, real situations and real events often filmed like a window on the world..
The documentary puts forward an argument or a case through which we expect to learn something.
By explaining events or putting forward an argument documentaries have an instrumental power to alter the way we think about the world.
They can educate and inform and perhaps help change our own attitudes and minds.
The title of the film is also important in raising expectations in an audience.
Types of documentary
Types of documentary
Fly on the wall documentary
In which the camera becomes invisible whilst following people in the course of their daily lives e.g, No going back, Airport, Vets
Only one highly portable camera is used in this very personal & individual form. The camera is used as a ‘confident’ . This is gradually replacing fly on the wall.
Docusoap or reality TV
Usually part of a series of programmes which feature a look at an institution through a set of ‘characters’ who appear each week e.g, Big Brother, America’s Next Top model, Wifeswap, Shipwrecked.
Where the events are re-created using actors but actual facts and real events form the story. E.g, Hillsborough,
Documentary a real or constructed view of reality?
Selection- Whatever ends up on the screen or in the paper, much more will have been left out- any news story has been selected from hundreds of others which the producers decided for you were less interesting, any picture has been chosen from an enormous number of alternatives.
Organisation - The various elements will be organised carefully in ways that real life is not- in visual media this involves mise-en-scene and the organisation of narrative, in the recording of an album the production might involve re-mixing a track. Any medium you can think of will have an equivalent to these. This organisation of the material will result in…….
Focusing- mediation always ends up with us, the audience being pushed towards concentrating on one aspect of the text and ignoring others. If you are watching a film the camera will pan towards an important character, in a tabloid the headlines will scream, for your attention. It can be easy to ignore how different from our everyday lives this is. If you are walking through a field, you are unlikely to see a sign saying "look at this amazing tree." You make your own decisions about what is worth our attention. The media text, through mediation, tries to do this for us.
This is a Greek word meaning the attempt to portray reality as accurately as possible. In a sense it seems to be the idea behind all documentaries but as you should know from your study on representation it is an impossibility -- because of mediation, the audience never receives an accurate portrayal of reality, only a flawed representation of it. You should see documentaries as being just as much constructed and almost fictional as for example a soap.
When you are studying documentary you should be looking just as he did with representation for the process of mediation -- for the tricks the documentary maker will use in order to make you forget that you are seeing his or her version of the truth rather than the real thing.
Four conventions of documentary
Voice of God didacticism
This uses the direct address style of an authoritative voice over narration to explain the images: the meaning of the pictures that we see is anchored by the explanation given by the narrator. Nature documentaries are typical of this style.
This style gives the impression of directly portraying reality by using hand-held cameras which often wobble and the voice over narration is dispensed with in favour of allowing viewers to make their own interpretation of what they see and hear.
String of interviews
This uses the direct address of people talking to the camera about their own experiences.
This draws attention to its mode of construction. These kinds of documentary are almost a comment on all the others -- they make the business of mediation obvious and give alternative views that go against the general representation in the programme.
The problem with these is that they are no longer separate entities- as with all genres in the 1990s, distinctions are now being blurred as the different types are mixed in new forms such as the video diary.