Documentry Films Making : “Documentary films are a subtle way of bringing about a social change,” are the words with which American documentary film-maker Tom Shepard chooses to introduce his work.
A documentary film is a movie that attempts, in some way, to document reality. Even though the scenes are carefully chosen and arranged, they are not scripted, and the people in a documentary film are not actors. Sometimes, a documentary film may rely on voice-over narration to describe what is happening in the footage; in other films, the footage will speak for itself. Often, a documentary film will include interviews with the people in the film.
Documentary Films strictly speaking, are non-fictional, “slice of life” factual works of art – and sometimes known as cinema verite. For many years, as films became more narrative-based, documentaries branched out and took many forms since their early beginnings – some of which have been termed propagandistic or non-objective.
Documentary films have comprised a very broad and diverse category of films. Examples of documentary forms include the following: •’biographical’ films about a living or dead person (Madonna, John Lennon, Muhammad Ali – When We Were Kings (1996), Robert Crumb, Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time (1992), or Glenn Gould) •a well-known event (Waco, Texas incident, the Holocaust, the Shackleton expedition to the Antarctic) •a concert or rock festival (Woodstock or Altamont rock concerts (Woodstock (1970) and Gimme Shelter (1970)), The Song Remains the Same (1976), Stop Making Sense (1984), Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991)) •a comedy show (Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy shows) •a live performance (Cuban musicians as in Buena Vista Social Club (1998), or the stage show Cirque du Soleil-Journey of Man (2000)) •a sociological or ethnographic examination following the lives of individuals over a period of time (e.g., Michael Apted’s series of films: 28 Up (1984), 35 Up (1992) and 42 Up (1999), or Steve James’ Hoop Dreams (1994)) •an expose including interviews (e.g., Michael Moore’s social concerns films) •a sports documentary (extreme sports, such as Extreme (1999) or To the Limit (1989), or surfing, such as in The Endless Summer (1966)) •a compilation film of collected footage from government sources •a ‘making of’ film (such as the one regarding the filming of Apocalypse Now (1979), or Fitzcarraldo (1982)) •an examination of a specific subject area (e.g., nature- or science-related themes, or historical surveys, such as The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, or World War II, etc.) •spoof documentaries, termed ‘mockumentaries’ Difference between Film and Documentary. There’s a difference in the way it looks and the way it sounds. A film seems smoother yet more distant from our life. Is there a way you could create that effect with computer software or something??
Types of documentary films1. Poetic documentaries, which first appeared in the 1920’s, were a sort of reaction against both the content and the rapidly crystallizing grammar of the early fiction film. The poetic mode moved away from continuity editing and instead organized images of the material world by means of associations and patterns, both in terms of time and space. Well-rounded characters—’life-like people’—were absent; instead, people appeared in these films as entities, just like any other, that are found in the material world. The films were fragmentary, impressionistic, lyrical. Their disruption of the coherence of time and space—a coherence favored by the fiction films of the day—can also be seen as an element of the modernist counter-model of cinematic narrative. The ‘real world’—Nichols calls it the “historical world”—was broken up into fragments and aesthetically reconstituted using film form
2. Expository documentaries speak directly to the viewer, often in the form of an authoritative commentary employing voiceover or titles, proposing a strong argument and point of view. These films are rhetorical, and try to persuade the viewer. (They may use a rich and sonorous male voice.) The (voice-of-God) commentary often sounds ‘objective’ and omniscient. Images are often not paramount; they exist to advance the argument. The rhetoric insistently presses upon us to read the images in a certain fashion. Historical documentaries in this mode deliver an unproblematic and ‘objective’ account and interpretation of past events.3. Observational documentaries attempt to simply and spontaneously observe lived life with a minimum of intervention. Filmmakers who worked in this sub-genre often saw the poetic mode as too abstract and the expository mode as too didactic. The first observational docs date back to the 1960’s; the technological developments which made them possible include mobile lighweight cameras and portable sound recording equipment for synchronized sound. Often, this mode of film eschewed voice-over commentary, post-synchronized dialogue and music, or re-enactments. The films aimed for immediacy, intimacy, and revelation of individual human character in ordinary life situations. 4. Participatory documentaries believe that it is impossible for the act of filmmaking to not influence or alter the events being filmed. What these films do is emulate the approach of the anthropologist: participant-observation. Not only is the filmmaker part of the film, we also get a sense of how situations in the film are affected or altered by her presence. Nichols: “The filmmaker steps out from behind the cloak of voice-over commentary, steps away from poetic meditation, steps down from a fly -on-the-wall perch, and becomes a social actor (almost) like any other. (Almost like any other because the filmmaker retains the camera, and with it, a certain degree of potential power and control over events.)” The encounter between filmmaker and subject becomes a critical element of the film. Rouch and Morin named the approach cinéma vérité, translating Dziga Vertov’s kinopravda into French; the “truth” refers to the truth of the encounter rather than some absolute truth. 5. Reflexive documentaries don’t see themselves as a transparent window on the world; instead they draw attention to their own constructedness, and the fact that they are representations. How does the world get represented by documentary films? This question is central to this sub-genre of films. They prompt us to “question the authenticity of documentary in general.” It is the most self-conscious of all the modes, and is highly skeptical of ‘realism.’ It may use Brechtian alienation strategies to jar us, in order to ‘defamiliarize’ what we are seeing and how we are seeing it. 6. Performative documentaries stress subjective experience and emotional response to the world. They are strongly personal, unconventional, perhaps poetic and/or experimental, and might include hypothetical enactments of events designed to make us experience what it might be like for us to possess a certain specific perspective on the world that is not our own, e.g. that of black, gay men in Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied (1989) or Jenny Livingston’s Paris Is Burning (1991). This sub-genre might also lend itself to certain groups (e.g. women, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, etc) to ‘speak about themselves.’ Often, a battery of techniques, many borrowed from fiction or avant-garde films, are used. Performative docs often link up personal accounts or experiences with larger political or historical realities.