Documentary theory


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Documentary theory

  1. 1. Zac Walker
  2. 2. “Recordings of sound, and images, of actuality.” John Corner (1995) University of Liverpool Documentaries
  3. 3. The purpose of a documentary is to report a subject or issue using supporting and relative evidence. This evidence can be with footage of the actual events or reconstructions based on fact when this footage it unavailable. Their aim is to present the facts about real life to an audience who possibly would not have been exposed to them otherwise. The production team bring together these facts during editing and present them in such a way as to create a socially critical argument, that invites the audience to draw their own conclusion. One of the reasons behind why they work is that as an audience we feel we have “a right to know” about these issues surrounding our lives, and British documentaries especially are known for their investigative journalism. “Documentaries present facts using real events, persons or places then creatively interpret or comment these realities and people’s concerns with them.” - Peter Mayeux
  4. 4. History of Documentaries The term “Documentary” was first used by John Grierson (Coalface, Housing Problems) in 1926 at the General Post Office when the genre was being defined. His definition of what made a documentary was the creativity of actuality. He attempted to give a glimpse of other’s lives by displaying real people, in real situations, in their real environment. However the genre had a sense of persuasion to one side of the argument more than the other, which is not something wanted in the documentaries of today. Since then the genre has developed due to advances in technology and how they are being received by the public however there are key features which all examples should use.
  5. 5. Features of a Documentary According to John Corner a documentary should include the following features:  1. Observation - the audience is a eye witness to the evidence by being shown footage in a way which makes them feel almost as if they were truly there. However the way in which this happens often makes the participants objects, not subjects.  2. Interview - Documentaries rely on this feature. They can be used to show a contrasting point of view to the observations previously shown. A shot of a single person can be boring for an audience to watch, especially if they have a lot to say or are talking about a complex subject. A common convention to keep the audience’s attention is to dub over images or pieces of footage which support the speech, as well as intercutting sections of observation.  3. Dramatisation - by producing some reconstruction material based on the facts of the real event, it reinforces the idea the audience is an eye witness to the events shown in the footage. Creating conflict and drama will enhance the experience for the watcher also.  4. Mise En Scene - the different aspects of MES are important in creating a reality which will convey the message that the production company want the audience to see.  5. Exposition - this is the line of the argument the documentary intends to make, by the end of the film this needs to be clear. John Corner believed that exposition can be plain or indirect, where the audience can make up their own mind. Other important features are: - The inclusion of music and sound, this helps to convey specific emotions, and make reconstructions more convincing. - Interviewing technique, by filming interview footage first, a member of the crew can make notes on what cutaways need to be found to dub over what is being said. The interview needs to be done in a professional matter, the set-up needs to be finished before the person you are interviewing arrives as this strengthens the trust needed for a successful interview. Knowledge of the subject you're going to talk about is key to being able to probe for more information. - Selection and Construction, this is done during the editing process, deciding what makes it into the final product. This is also a process that can change the overall impression of the documentary and the footage gathered depending on the intention.
  6. 6. Features of a Documentary They do not need to contain analysis or political, religious, social views. They are not current affairs programming which are part-way between a documentary and the news, usually no more than 30 minutes (any longer they become a documentary) and offer a more in- depth view of the news and are important for exploring more weighty issues and and social development. Current Affairs programs often come under criticism of showing only ratings-driven populist issues and of distorting and misrepresenting the views of their contributors. Like many other forms of media, documentaries follow the traditional conventions of a beginning, middle, and end. - Beginning, There are a few typical ways of starting a documentary, the central question could be posed, action footage could be showed to grab interest, or similarly interviews could be quickly cut together displaying conflicting views. - Middle, This section examines the issue focussing on people's opinions, reinforcing the argument. By presenting more evidence and conflict it blocks the narrative from closing. - End, The exposition is finally fully apparent and any doubt from the audience is resolved. A lasting impression and new world view is left with the audience. Documentaries are a view of reality, though they have elements of fiction for aesthetic purpose, the narration being one of these elements. They typically societies victims, suing humans as their evidence. There are different types of documentary, and depending on the type, the documentary makers will focus Tonight with Trevor McDonald is one program accused of changing it's content to gain more viewers
  7. 7. Types of Documentary Fully Narrated - These rely on a direct mode of address in their “voice-of-God” style narration to convey exposition, and making sense of the visuals on screen. Fly-on-the-Wall - In contrast, these kinds of documentary rely solely on observation without any commentary. This makes the audience feel as if they are there watching real people in their reality, however they are still sometimes heavily edited later in the production process to possible alter the meaning of what is being said. Mixed Documentary - Combining interview, observation and narration, and is presented in a more news report style. They are more edited than most, and need to be more selective about what footage is chosen to make it to the final cut, but in this they should be more balanced. A criticism is that they are bound to represent an objective reality.
  8. 8. Types of Documentary Self-Reflective - The subject will acknowledges the camera, however it inevitably becomes about the filmmaker, not the topic they are looking into. This has lead critics to say that they become narcissistic and sometimes confusing. Docudrama - this is a reenactment of what happened, as opposed to real footage of actuality. They are more popular with television companies as they are not always as controversial and can be made more dramatic to keep their audience engaged. They claim to represent the truth but can only hope to deliver fiction, making them misleading and in some cases dangerous. Docusoap - Originating from the UK, this style has become more popular in the past few years. They show people in mundane environments, not seeking to explore, but to eavesdrop on the daily lives of people, meaning they also have a low production cost.
  9. 9. Types of Documentary Steven Barnett has criticised the docusoap sub-genre of "Disneyfication", the dumbing down of documentaries, choosing popular topics and not hard-hitting stories to gain viewers, not quality programming.