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Documentary Discourse and Practice

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jack keenan

on 3 October 2014

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Transcript of Documentary Discourse and Practice

A number of ethical questions for the documentary maker arise which revolve around relationship to subject and relationship to audience, these include -

Documentary Discourse and Practice
A (very) Brief History of Documentary
The first narrative film is produced, The Great Train Robbery (1903), directed and photographed by Edwin S. Porter

The rise in popularity of narrative films left early actuality films and travelogues as secondary.

1905 Cecil Hepworth's film 'Baby's Toilet' is produced

"What's clear is that this film's 'story' is constructed to quintessentially 'documentary' specifications."- Patrick Russell
Would you call this a documentary
1900 - 1910
In 1919 Dziga Vertov (born David Abelevich Kaufman) forms a group called Kinoks. Later this group will form one of the first documentary movements, Kino-Pravda.
1910 - 1920
1920 - 1930
Do the films you watched show "life as it is" or "life unawares"?
Sometimes you must
distort a thing to
catch its true spirit.
In 1922 Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North, funded by revillon freres, is released to critical and commercial acclaim. In the tradition of what would later be called salvage ethnography, Flaherty captured the struggles of the Inuk Nanook and his family in the Canadian arctic.
Criticisms of Flaherty include
The fact that Nanook was not his real name
The 'family' were not real they were chosen by Flaherty
Flaherty asked that they use spears during some hunting scenes when they would have used guns
Other staged scenes
1920 - 1930
In 1926 John Grierson uses the word 'documentary' in a review of Flaherty's Moana.

In the same year Vertov lays down a set of instructions to the Kino Eye Groups.
In 1929 Vertov makes 'Man with a Movie Camera' which has been criticised for its staged elements going against Vertovs desire for "life as it is"

Also in 1929 John Grierson released 'Drifters', a tale of herring fisherman in the North Sea.
1920 - 1930
In 1932 Grierson writes 'First Principle of Documentary' where he distinguishes between documentary and other non fiction works, criticizing the city symphony movement as a dangerous model for aspiring filmakers to follow.

Grierson worked as a filmmaker and critic and was also influential in setting up the National Film board of Canada and the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit.

Grierson saw the role of documentary primarily as a tool of educating society and highlighting inequalities.

Shared Vertov's disdain for narrative film describing cinema as a "dope peddler"
1930 - 1950
Berlin - Walter Ruttman 1927
In 1935 'Triumph of the Will' is released, a propaganda film made by Leni Riefenstahl, it chronicles the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg.

"If you see this film again today you ascertain that it doesn't contain a single reconstructed scene. Everything in it is true. And it contains no tendentious commentary at all. It is history. A pure historical film… it is film-verite. It reflects the truth that was then in 1934, history. It is therefore a documentary. Not a propaganda film"

Also note worthy in the Propaganda tradition is 'Why we Fight', a series of seven propaganda films released between 1942 and 1945 by the United States government during World War II
1930 - 1950
What do propaganda & documentary have in common?
Do some types of Docs have more in common than others?
State funded or Sponsored?
What differences does the financing of documentaries make?
Cinema Verite and Direct Cinema
Both movements valued "immediacy, intimacy and 'the real' "

Both embraced 'lo-fi' aesthetic.

Cinema Verite came out of France
Direct Cinema came out of America

Cinema verite drew on Vertovs description of kino pravda, a cinema or film dedicated to representing truth in ways not achieved in the fictional cinema.

Direct Cinema comprised journalistic reports aimed to reveal the truths of human existence which lay beneath the surface.
Both movements were closely linked to technological advances

"Both Cinema Verite and Direct Cinema are similar in that they are committed to... the advantages produced by the use of lightweight equipment" Richard Barsam (Beattie)

In America Robert Drew developed a lightweight camera

In France Andre Coutant developed a lightweight camera, 'the Eclair'

Lightweight cameras with synced sound allowed filmmakers more freedom both in what and where they filmed and how they filmed - more intimate / less obtrusive equipment.

Often seen as led by technology though many would argue that it was the aims of filmmakers which led the technological developments
The Cinema Verite movement, and the development of the Eclair, was largely based on the needs of Social Scientists as a means to objectively record information for ethnographic studies.

Ethnographers looked to film as a means to record objective studies of subjects

Verite Filmmakers such as Jean Rouch accepted that the presence of a camera compromised objectivity, rather than deny this they embraced it.

Filmmaker played a role on screen and as a provocateur rather than observer
Cinema Verite
In America, Journalistic needs provided the catalyst for birth of Direct Cinema which was largely a progression on television news.

Time-Life funded Robert Drew along with a team to develop a lightweight camera.

Drew, Leacock, Pennebaker along with others first had success with Primary (1960) which followed J.F Kennedy in Wisconsin presidential nominations.
Direct Cinema
What's the difference?
The fundamental difference between the 2 forms is summed up by Eric Barnouw as:

"The direct cinema artist aspired to invisibility; the cinema verite artist was often an avowed participant. The direct cinema artist played the role of the involved bystander; the cinema verite artist espoused that of provocateur"

The approach of cinema verite is perhaps best summed up by Rouch when he argued that the act of filming is;

"not to film life as it is, but life as it is provoked"
Jeanne Hall notes

Drew and many of his colleagues routinely conducted interviews and then edited out the interviewers questions

Further cuts were made to preserve the illusion of an uninterrupted scene such as editing out a subject looking into the camera

In other films made by Drew the filmmaker talks to the subject on camera contradicting the unobtrusive presence of the filmmaker.

Hall also notes discrepancies between the claim of neutral observer who remains objective and the clear messages made by some of the films.

Questions over whether people trained to talk to media would ever act 'unobserved'
Further Reading

Documentary Screens by Keith Beattie chapter 5

Documentary: a history of the non-fiction film by Erik Barnouw chapter5

Imagining Reality by Mark Cousins & Kevin Macdonald Chapter 9
The manifesto considers 'First Cinema' to be Hollywood which they saw as supporting bourgeois values to a passive audience, Man is treated as passive consumer.

Second Cinema' is the European art film, which rejects Hollywood conventions but is centered on the individual expression of the auteur director (a criticism also held by the Dogme95 filmmakers), 2nd cinema essentially replaced 'the system' with another 'system' still based on the same model.

Third Cinema saw film as a weapon and sought to overturn not just the way film was made, but who made it and how it was shown.

Though not part of the Latin American movement, filmmakers such as Chris Marker were praised by Solanas and Getino for his approach which handed the authority (and cameras) to the participants in their work.
1974 The Family, based on the 1973 U.S. program An American Family paves the way for reality tv with Paul Watson and his crew filming for 18 hours a day inside the home of 'an ordinary working class family' the Wilkins of Reading.

Some saw it as shocking as it portrayed some topics which were still largely considered taboo such as premarital sex, mixed race relationships and children born out of wedlock

Mary Whitehouse called for it to be banned
Paul Watson later went on to make Sylvania waters as executive producer with Brian Hill and Kate Woods, Sylvania Waters was billed as a "real life" soap opera.

Sylvania was criticized for pandering to British stereotypes of Australians

The format has been further revisited more recently by channel 4 in 2008 in The Family.

Other programmes to draw inspiration from this strand of documentary include the Osbournes and Big Brother
Les Nouvelles Egotistes
Third Cinema, the influence of Cinema Verite and Direct Cinema and Les Nouvelles Egotistes
Many filmakers, much like vertov, saw documentary film as a political weapon against capitalism. In Latin America the Third Cinema movement embodied this belief, La Hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, from 1968), directed by Octavio Getino is a prime example of this movement.
Third Cinema was a Latin American film movement of the 1960s-70s which criticized neocolonialism, Capitalism, and the Hollywood system of Film production.

The term was born out of the manifesto Towards a Third Cinema, by Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino and members of the Grupo Cine Liberación.

"The 35mm camera, 24 frames per second, arc lights, and a commercial place of exhibition for audiences were conceived not to gratuitously transmit any ideology, but to satisfy, in the first place, the cultural and surplus value needs of a specific ideology, of a specific world-view: that of US finance capital."
In the late 1960’s, many filmmakers began to embrace a more passionate and politically active approach to filmmaking.

Civil rights, anti-war movements, and the women’s movement were key themes explored by documentary filmmakers.

Independent, radical film collectives developed which aim to chronicle current political and social events and to produce films as a form of political protest and resistance.
Third Cinema
Do you agree with this?
In what way do we see the apparatus, structure and organization of film as reflective of a certain ideology?
Take 10 minutes to discuss your views on this. Please also discuss recent examples of where film has been used to challenge or reaffirm ideological or political movements.
The Birth of
Reality TV
Nick Broomfield and Michael Moores work can be seen to bare the influence of the Cinema Verite approach to filmmaking. In Reality TV by Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn the authors note that

"The legacy of Cinema Verite is also apparent in variants of the interactive documentary in which features of the Verite style have become thoroughly normalised. The use of journalistic interview, editing to reveal contradictions in testimony and argument, the conspicuous presence of the filmmaker and/or crew and the use of commentary that reflects on the filmmaking process are among the distinguishing features of the work of documentarists such as Errol Morris, Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield."
Filmmakers such as Nick Broomfield and Michael Moore feature deliberate provocation as a central theme in their films, these add drama and are used in order to reveal hidden truths. In The Leader, His Driver and The Drivers Wife Broomfield provokes Eugene Terre' Blanche in a number of ways untill he looses his temper revealing the truth as Broomfield saw it.

Another key feature of Broomfield's work is his reflexive filmmaking style where the film is as much about the making of the film as its subject. Other filmmakers to adopt this style include,
Jon Ronson
Louis Theroux
Michael Moore

Filmakers using this reflexive and often provocative style are often referred to as Les Nouvelles Egotistes
Michael Moore is one of most influential documentary makers of recent years.

Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Sicko are three of the top ten highest-grossing documentaries of all time.

Documentaries criticize globalization, large corporations, gun ownership, the Iraq War, U.S. President George W. Bush and the American health care system

Time magazine named him as one of the world's 100 most influential people.
Moore's work, whilst being highly successful has come under fierce criticism from opponents regarding many of his production techniques.

Criticism for Bowling for Columbine
Bank scene misleading
Heston speech a montage of different speeches

For more moore criticism see
Documentary Ethics
Some Definitions
Derived from the Greek "ethos" meaning "way of life," is a branch of philosophy that studies and recommends the fundamental principles and basic concepts of what is considered morally good and bad, right and wrong in human conduct.

The philosophical study of moral values and rules

With regard to professions, a code of professional standards, containing aspects of fairness and duty to the profession and the general public.
If you were filming a wildlife documentary in Antartica would you save this little chap?
Normative ethics looks at the issues that arise when we ask “what is the morally right way to act?”

Within Normative ethics there are varying beliefs on what could constitute right and wrong and how we reach that decision. Two of the most important are consequentialism and deontology.

Consequentialism believes that the morality of an action is determined by its outcome or result, for example lying could be considered right if the outcome of it was good. In the context of filmmaking perhaps the most pertinent consequentialist theory would be Utilitarianism, which argues that an action is right if it leads to the most value for the greatest number of people. Leading Consequentialists have included John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham

Deontology argues that there are fundamental rights and wrongs, contrary to the consequentialist stance Deontology might argue that lying is fundamentally wrong regardless of the outcome, John Locke argued that if a murderer is chasing a child down a street and asks where the child is hiding you have a moral obligation to answer him truthfully.
What does this mean for the filmmaker?
“The problem can be fairly simply framed: Filmmakers use and expose people’s lives. This exploitation is often done for the best of motives, but it occasionally brings unforeseen and dire consequences into the lives of filmed subjects. So the basic question is, what is the duty of care, or responsibility, owed by filmmakers to those they film?”
(New Challenges for Documentary Rosenthal)
To prove that permission to film was granted and to avoid claims of intrusion of privacy, documentary makers will often ask people to sign a consent form (or make a filmed statement) which states that they are happy to be filmed.

“Consent is flawed when obtained by the omission of any fact that might influence the giving or withholding of permission,” (Rosenthal)
Informed Consent is a term used to describe consent which fullfills certain criteria, in scientific and medical studies the minimal requirement include

The abscence of coersion or deception
A detailed explanation of the procedure and its anticipated effects
The ability of the subject to give consent
Some believe that you have a moral obligation to pay the subjects of a film, Dianne Weyermann producer of An Inconvenient Truth argues “Sometimes, you’re paying subjects who have nothing,” . “You’re making a film about them, and you don’t want to exploit them."
George Lopez, the teacher in Etre et Avoir, attempted to sue Nicolas Philibert on the basis that he was the co-author of the film and for infringement of his ‘image rights'

The parents also attempted to sue as they argued that the children were actors

Both were unsuccessfull as the judge ruled there had been informed consent and that by filming in their own environment the children were not actors
It is the very fact that a portrayal of truth is fundamental to documentary, and how they are read by the audience, that makes ethical considerations more important for the documentary maker than the fictional filmmaker.

'Most people believe pictures, particularly those accompanied by a well respected voice on television' Andrew Bennet MP in New Challenges for Documentary
Moore used footage from NBC which out of context misrepresented Sergeant Peter Damon, just because the footage is 'real' doesnt mean it remains 'real' when shown out of context.
Journalism has a history of objectivity and will largely try to portray both sides of the story, investigative documentaries often follow in this tradition however many documentary makers take a more partisan approach.

Investigative / Factual - Addresses both sides of the argument

Partisan - Has a fixed point of view

Barry Hampe (Making documentary films and reality videos) suggests that the partisan filmmaker should state their position from the outset, by making their position clear in the name of the film, to allow the audience to know that the film has a fixed position. Furthermore he suggests that any funding should be acknowledged in the opening titles.
Is this enough?
Is paying someone an act of coersion or is profiting out of a story about them a form of expoitation if you choose not to pay them?
The Errol Morris film Standard Operating Procedure came under criticism as Morris had paid some of the subjects in the film. Many critics including the New York Times argued that the credibility of interviewees diminishes when money changes hands as people will provide the answers they think are desired rather than the truth.
"At the heart of documentaries lie truth claims" Bill Nichols
Is Doisneau's the kiss
a "true" representation of
Parisian life
Which Truth did Flaherty or Moore show?
Watch the following clip, does the context change the message?
The footage was purchased legally from a news broadcaster,
legally this is acceptable but is it ethically acceptable?
Which truth are we showing?
Which Filmmakers / movements have taken each approach?
What is the Ethical question here?
The power of montage

Plan for today-
Previous examples
(Condensed) overview of key movements in Documentary
Review of the films you watched
Continue from last week - Definitions of Documentary, Categories, Pitching ideas.
Documentary Discourse and Practice


For Next Week

View at least one documentary of your choosing

Email me a short (just a few paragraphs) response to the film which provides -
An overview of the key themes the documentary addresses.
Your thoughts on other films / filmmakers / movements that may have influenced the film?
Key ethical issues that the film faced
Which of Nichols modes of representation are employed?

A selection of your responses may be used on the class blog
"Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten."
What are the key differences between the different movements we have discussed so far? What do they all have in common?
What arguments and movements does this have parallels with today?
Which previous movements do you see as influences on Reality TV?
What is your view of this style of film making?
Do you think the personality of the filmmaker adds to your enjoyment and engagement with the film?
Do you think the filmmaker can overshadow the subject?

In groups discuss the key characteristics of the movements discussed.

Consider the topics you came up with last week, which of the styles of documentary making would you draw upon and why?
What are Modes?

"basic ways of organizing texts in relation to certain recurrent features or conventions" Nichols p32

What is Representation?

The process of using a medium (video, film, audio, painting, writing ) to construct a version of the real world.
Documentary modes of representations can be seen as conventions or recognizable filmmaking approaches.
Documentary Modes.

Whilst we can look at documentary as different movements in different eras perhaps a better way to understand different types of documentary is to look at the different ways which a text portrays reality.
Bill Nichols proposed categorizing documentary by the modes of representation they employ
Nichols Identified 4 modes in Representing Reality - Expository, observational, interactive and reflexive  

Later updated this to:
Poetic, expository, observational, participatory, reflexive and performative  

Beattie includes reconstructive and observation-entertainment 

Modes are not exclusive of one another, films may employ different modes.

Adhering to certain modes can give a film more authenticity as it is part of a tradition. Inverse also true, if a mode is questioned then so to are individual films.
Expository Documentary

Widely used in early documentaries
Voice of god commentary
Addresses viewer directly 
Emphasizes the impression of objectivity but generally subjective.
Non synchronous sound is common (historical circumstances)  
Interviewees serve to support argument rather than make the argument
Images support what is being said 

Eg. Grierson, Flaherty, common in tv today and some aspects of Moore
Observational Documentary

Owes a lot to technological advances
Unobtrusive 'fly on the wall filming'
Rejects voice over, additional music, inter titles, interviews and reenactment
Editing focused towards providing an impression of  real time.
Requires filmmaker to detach themselves from events. 
Promotes a relationship between viewer and characters 

"Their unacknowledged, nonresponsive presence clears the way for the dynamics of empathetic identification, poetic immersion or voyeuristic pleasure"

Nichols Leacock, Pennebaker, Riefenstahl, Maysles, Wiseman
Interactive/Participatory Documentary

Filmmaker often becomes a character within the film often acting as mentor or provocateur.

Shift from author authority to witness authority - interviews are product of relationship between author / subject not just backing view of author as common in expository mode

Conversation is often slightly different from pure observational in that it has been pre arranged

Tends to use medium and close shots - talking head testimonies

Truth is negotiated.
Reflexive Documentary

Is often as concerned with the process as the subject
It is the most self-aware mode

By debating the difficulties of representation it allows the viewer a greater awareness of the subject

Removes illusion of 'absence' of filmmaker.

Questions the ‘truth’ of the documentary form

Brechtian- Asks us to question how we see things (Vertov, Raul Ruiz some broomfield) 
Performative Documentary

Emphasizes the subjective nature of the documentarian as well as acknowledging the subjective reading of the audience - stories are subjective and often autobiographical

Often associated with more 'art house' films (though not exclusively)
It is the text itself which 'performs' not the subjects.

Puts emphasise on personal experience 

Tries to blend or tie individual personal experiences to larger issues.

Eg Tongues Untied
Poetic Documentary

Does not use continuity editing, sacrifices sense of the very specific location and place that continuity creates

People appear as entities
Often associated with more Avant Garde 
Explores visual associations and patterns that involve temporal rhythms and spatial juxtapositions

Eg, Berlin, perhaps elements of Zidane
Consider these different modes.
How does the relationship between Filmmaker and subject differ?
How does the relationship between Filmmaker and audience differ?
How is 'truth' treated differently.

Take the subject you came up with last week, consider how you could make two different documentaries on the subject depending on the modes you employ.
Consider the ethical considerations of the topics you proposed last week.

Considering the key interviewees etc what is your responsibility towards them as a filmmaker?

What information would you provide to them prior to filmmaking and how would you demonstrate consent?

What topics or subjects would you be willing to show, what would you not show?

What might you do to protect your subjects?

Are their exceptions to this?
Full transcript