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By exploring the relationship between documentary and reality define the genre. (Please note the term ‘reality’ here does not mean the genre ‘reality television’).
Documentary has become so scattered and diverse that it is hard to define the genre,
‘Documentary film has often been looked at as that which communicates the real not the imagined,’ (Pearce & McLaughlin 2007, p.47)
it tells stories, makes claims or remarks about the real historical world rather than the contrived areas of fiction. The documentary filmmaker gathers, structures and edits the material in a manner that changes it from a simple record of actuality into a form which we can refer to as documentary dialogue. Therefore it is seen as an engaging sort of cinema but its customary techniques to enhance its aim or purpose has led to issues surrounding verisimilitude. I intend to analyse further the relationship between documentary and reality exploring the conventions and modes used to define the genre.
Automatically when we view documentaries we feel closer to the truth for two reasons: first that there is a lack of fictionalised features and second because the events shown have not been coordinated by the filmmaker. But this is a naÃ¯ve approach we have to be aware that the account offered is one that is seen from a particular perspective. A documentary film is one that offers information about factual topics with a variety of aims, to record important events and ideas; to inform viewers; to convey opinions. To achieve these aims a number of common conventions are used including: actuality (occurrences in front of the lens be it events, people or places), voice-over (the filmmaker offering information, explanations and opinions), interviews (witnesses or participants directly relate their experiences), archival footage (show historical events or to add detail without additional filming), reconstructions (false scenes that provide the viewer with factual information and give a sense of realism), montage (visual representation of characters thoughts helping the viewer understand what the character is saying) and the exposition (creates the viewer’s first impression and introduces the content) these all create a sense of presence. The overall impact of these devices is to heighten the effect of realism for the viewer; making declarations about the real world and offering filmed evidence to support it.
In order to explain documentary further Bill Nichols identified six documentary modes
‘That function something like sub-genres of the documentary film genre itself: poetic, expository, participatory, observational, reflexive, performative.’ (Nichols, 2001, p.99) I will briefly consider these modes each in turn.
The poetic mode is a skewed and creative expression; its desire is to grasp the hidden truth through poetic manipulation as seen in Walter Ruttmann’s (1927) film ‘Berlin: Symphony of a Great City’ which presents an extended montage chronicling the daily life of this German city. In the scenes such as the policeman guiding traffic followed by two rows of matching bobble head toys’ nodding suggests a tone of conformism and ashamed loyalty of the citizens. Expository documentaries on the other hand use rhetorical methods to create realism, this mode has a straight narrative structure with a direct relationship between the images and voice-over where interviews are only used to support the film’s argument ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ is an example of expository documentary as it trusts on verbal commentary and challenging judgment to make its case about global warming. This frankness is similar to the observational mode known as Direct Cinema. Here it appears documentary is impassive, having an impartial attitude on its subject which can be seen in Richard Pennebacker’s Don’t Look Back (1967). The participatory mode is where the filmmaker does not stay aloof but rather engages with it. Micheal Moore’s film ‘Roger and Me’ (1989) displays this trait with a frankly moralistic documentary. The reflexive mode comments on the means of representation itself; it uses techniques that query the notion of documentary as a category or mode. For instance Errol Morris’ ‘The Thin Blue Line’ (1988) an account of the breakdown of justice, urges the viewer to think about comparative points of truth and deceit by using reconstruction and repetition of scenes. Finally there is the performative mode which introduces concerns around the filmmaker and subject performance stressing the emotive and shared impact on the audience. In turn each mode uses the means of the narrative and realism in different ways, using conventional elements to create a range of text with ethnical matters, textual structures and typical expectations among the viewers.
In the documentary genre, it is observed that reality is seemingly evident, wholesome without any manipulation; compared to fiction film however the margins between reality and fiction are indefinite
‘Documentary’s selection and ordering of the images and sounds of reality constitute an account of the world; however, it thereby becomes prey to loss of the real in its narratives of reality.’ (Cowie, 2011, p.1)
It is the degree that these events are affected or directed by the filmmaker that causes concern for documentary. In Nanook of the North (1992) Robert Flaherty engrossed himself in the lives of the Inuit people, devoting a year living with them. This implies a participant observation attitude, where the filmmaker notes modestly and forms as impartial a record as possible. However for the purpose of dramatization Flaherty manipulated events, all of ‘Nanook of the North is said to be one gigantic re-enactment’ (Nichols, 2001, p.13) for instance he filmed Nanook hunting with customary harpoon rather than the more modern weapons that he actually used. Such devices are actually central and perhaps inevitable practices in documentary production but the use of reconstruction has remained controversial raising issues on ethics as to whether a documentary filmmaker should engineer things in order to realising the truth of the subject matter.
Documentary footage can only have a claim on the real if it is somehow taken unawares but this is untrue, all documentaries treat their material artistically. The experts in direct cinema alleged that the occurrence of the camera and filmmakers did not impact on their subject matter. ‘Grey Gardens’ (1975) by the Maysles Brothers is a very famous fly-on-the-wall documentary about Edith Beale and Edie Beale, Jackie Kennedy’s aunt and cousin; it is a far cry from observational documentary. As the filmmakers constantly relate with these obviously psychologically troubled women which rears important questions about the morals of documentary filmmaking. Sometimes while filming they just want to clarify information, such as a photograph but frequently their contact is more difficult
‘Because the women’s hold on reality is so tenuous the Maysles walk a fine line in the film between examination and exploitation, foregrounding an issue that is always inevitably present in direct cinema’ (Grant & Hillier 2009, p.74)
‘Grey Gardens’ is a film that employs notions of performance and self-representation where both filmmakers and subjects are delighting in their individual presentations.
There are different points to which the subjects of a documentary may be seen to be performing for the cameras
‘A person does not present in exactly the same way to a companion on a date…and a filmmaker in an interviewâ€¦they modify their behaviour as the situation evolves.’ (Nichols 2001, p.9)
The participation in shared roles has remained vital to the documentary project. Similarly there have been degrees of self-consciousness or acknowledgment by the filmmakers of the role they are performing in the production of a documentary. The fact that documentaries will always be about the real world, real people and real issues, the idea of enactment with them is hypothetically profound and spontaneous as it appears opposed to concepts of truthfulness and undistorted reality. However in Nick Broomfield’s films ‘Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer’ (1992) and ‘Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer’ (2003) we are time and again drawn to his role as the filmmaker and moderator. At the end of the day his films are much more about him and the process of filming as they are about Aileen this offers a sense of truth, as behind the story is an condemnation of the media and the legal system of America. Consequently Broomfield’s films focus the role of the documentarist and the ways in which the filmmaker’s contact with the reality they are capturing influences the subsequent film.
Documentary has always had an awe inspiring outcome on its audience the relationship between documentary and reality is debateable as most documentaries do integrate particular fictional elements to elevate the visual effect and entertainment value of their film. Though they claim to present the world as it is and try to hold the attention of their audiences by the strength of their argument, documentaries can never accomplish the level of impartiality to which they from time to time desire ‘it can tell the truth but not the entire truth.’ (Chapman 1988, p.23) Therefore by analysing some of the conceptual and practical issues involved in defining the genre along with its relationship with reality across a variety of documentary modes the genre of documentary will always cause debate regarding its definition. Therefore all we can expect is that it will be a fair and honest representation of someone else’s experience of reality.
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