Join Ashley Kennedy for an in-depth discussion in this video What is a documentary?, part of Introduction to Documentary Video Storytelling.
- [Voiceover] Throughout the history of cinema documentary films have been so many things in so many ways. Depending on a wide variety of technological, cultural, philosophical, and political factors they've been ever changing to fit within their world at the time. And it's been quite a time. Going back more than 120 years the very first moving images weren't technically documentaries, at the time called actuality films, just short, unedited shots of real events.
Things as simple as workers leaving a factory. This 46 second film from 1895 is one of the very first motion pictures. As film language evolved, as film-makers began experimenting, and as equipment became better and more portable documentaries began exploring new frontiers. With things like scenic travel log films of places all over the world, exploratory ethnographic films of more exotic subjects, as well as early biographical documentaries of important people at the time and throughout history.
Documentary film-makers also began inserting their authority by actually staging scenes to create drama and romanticism for their audiences, sometimes even at the cost of accuracy. Like directly these Nanook Eskimo to hunt with the harpoon where they normally would have sported a rifle for the job. There were also experimental city symphony documentaries that created a poetic representation of urban life. There was the classic newsreel film, which were exceptionally popular in the early to mid 20th century and covered countless news and cultural events until television took the place of reporting news to the masses in the 1950s.
Also big at this time was the ever influential propaganda film. Especially during war time and political events on all sides of the movement. Educational films of the mid century took on all types of topics. From benign social films on family values to good old fashioned science films, well all parts of academia actually, to education devoted to the ever present threat of nuclear attack for example.
As culture changed and activist attitude became the norm highly political films began taking root in the 1960s and 70s. Part of revolutionary activist cinema that attacked government, religion, and other institutions. Indeed, both cultural and technological changes in the 60s brought much different documentaries into popularity. Including the direct cinema movement of the 60s and 70s. Direct cinema had many related flavors.
Including more fly-on-the-wall techniques where we attempt to look at people live their lives to more participatory cinema verite techniques where the film-makers become involved in the film. - Come on in, we're not ready. - [Voiceover] Is that Earl down there? - [Voiceover] Yeah. - [Voiceover] Oh, wow. - [Voiceover] Hi. - [Voiceover] And from the 1980s to today the modern documentary has been ever on the rise and has been so many things. Modern documentary film-makers have borrowed techniques from all of the aforementioned styles and they've invented brand new modes of operation as well.
And in this course we'll dig into that history to really understand how far we've come. Okay, so that's a lot, but when it comes down to it what really makes a good documentary? It's the same thing for any type of film, great storytelling. Now the one unifying factor for documentary film is simply that the story must be grounded on nonfiction material. Nonfiction is a relative term though. Many times nonfiction events are synonymous with true events, but it's safe to say you can't label documentaries as inherently true.
That comes back to what I was just saying, documentaries fall within the realm of telling a cinematic story and therefore they are usually films that must be structured within some type of narrative arc with a beginning, middle, and an end. Of course most stories, but certainly not all, look more like this, an arc containing the most basic elements of storytelling. Therefore, no matter how pristine, unaltered, or factually accurate the materials are still a film-maker must take the raw elements of film, picture and sound, and edit them together to fit within some type of structure.
This editing, in effect, essentially changes the nature of reality in some way, either a little or a lot. And sometimes it comes under scrutiny about how much reality was changed to fit within the context of the film. Now there's also the actual presence of the film-maker that you've got to consider. Obviously the existence of the film-maker and possibly an entire production crew are not a normal part of documentary subjects lives.
Indeed, once a documentary film-maker enters the picture these real people are situated within the framework of a film. Now there have been many different strategies in approaching this topic. Everything from adopting a fly-on-a-wall tactic, in which the film-maker attempts to intervene as little as possible, to taking on a full participatory approach, which brings the film-maker into the documentary as a character, being fully transparent about their presence, and of course there are many film-makers that take a much more structured approach and rigidly schedule interviews and stage reenactments and that sort of thing.
But regardless of how a documentary is shot it is nonetheless shot. And this of course intercedes with the realness or truth of the people, events, and ideas being captured. Okay, so we've been talking about these various ways that a quote unquote true documentary is certainly relative, because of things like the construct of storytelling and the presence of film-makers, but you can certainly take this up several more notches if you want. There are many documentaries that certainly contain a clear bias or agenda.
These types of films may be biased toward a certain viewpoint and use the nonfiction assets to declare a stance on an issue, or to provoke an emotional response, or even to insert itself as a political weapon. Sometimes this bias is made known and sometimes it's hidden or even subconscious. Sometimes it's even discovered through the production of the film and revealed later in the editing process. But certainly film-makers are human, as are the viewers, and human emotions, perspectives, and preconceptions play in the creation and the consumption of the film in various ways.
So with all of this in mind let's talk about some overarching categories or modes of documentaries that address nonfiction film-making in different ways. The names for these six modes technically come from Bill Nichols 2001 very well-known book Introduction to Documentary, just so you know. We'll kind of breeze through these now, but I'll refer back to these throughout the course, particularly in chapter three. First up is expository documentaries, which are likely what many think of as the classic style of documentary.
Things like educational films, historical films, biographies, and even propaganda. The purpose of the expository documentary is to educate, recount history, to make an argument. They typically present themselves as factual or objective. They're usually didactic in that they tend to draw their own conclusions, sometimes going so far as to tell the audience what and how to think. Over the years there have been many different types and styles of expository documentary, but in general most contain many of the characteristics that we just mentioned.
There are also observational documentaries. This is the fly-on-the-wall technique where the film-maker tries to intervene as little as possible. Observationalists tend to reject the structure and didactic nature of expository documentaries and instead consider their films much more organic in nature. Allowing the audience to make inferences and form their own conclusions. This technique was derived in the 1960s. Not only due to the changing culture, but also because of technological advancements that allowed for mobility.
Things like lightweight cameras and portable sync sound equipment to allow for closer and easier contact with subjects. As such often the style of this film is quite intimate with the goal of revealing the human character, often through ordinary life situations. Again, this style typically harbors a very different set of characteristics from expository docs. There are also participatory documentaries, which were also born in the 1960s for many of the same reasons as observational documentaries.
In participatory documentaries the film-maker actively engages with the subjects, not trying to observe per se, but very transparently showing themselves as an active and sometimes even central character within the film. Another type of documentary is the reflexive documentary. Reflexive documentaries are self conscious of the fact that they are documentaries, and usually provoke commentary or critique of the documentary film form. At the very least showing you things like the film crew at work, but often going further than that.
Reflexive documentaries provoke reflection by drawing attention to the constructiveness of the film and they prompt audiences to question the truth, the authenticity of documentaries. They often reject typical expository structure and are often also critical of observational documentaries because of the potential for invasiveness and exploitation. So a lot going on with this type of documentary and we'll explore some of these a little later in the course. Performative documentaries are often very personal, and sometimes very poetic or experimental, very emotional.
Often they contain hypothetical performances that allow the audience to potentially understand what it's like to be someone of another ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. And they often relate these personal accounts to larger political or social movments. And often film-makers use techniques from narrative or avant-garde cinema. So some really interesting aspects with this documentary mode and we'll be looking at some of this later. And then finally the poetic documentary is often quite experimental or avant-garde.
Its structure tends to be quite abstract. Common film techinques often include creative montages and other types of visual association. Many times really emphasizing rhythm and tone as well as innovative sound design, so it's sort of like a poem as a film. Alright, so with all of this context we'll take a closer look at documentary storytelling techniques in the next movie.