Introduction to Documentary

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					Introduction to Documentary
Documentary – a definition…
Documentary – a definition…
• An approach to the ‘real’ as opposed to the
• Deals with issues of fact, of real events and of
• ‘Documentary’ is often set up in conflict with
  ‘fiction’ – creating a binary opposition
• The fictional = lies….entertainment films
• The factual = truth…documentaries & ‘realist’
• “The creative treatment of actuality.” –
  John Grierson
What makes a film realistic?

• Blair Witch Project
• In terms of representing the ‘truth’,
  documentaries are generally accorded the
  highest status.
• To ‘document’ a subject implies keeping a factual
  record for future reference.
• However, even the most realistic documentaries
  have to be constructed.
• Bruzzi (2000) “We need to accept that a
  documentary can never be the real
  world…documentaries are performative acts
  whose truth comes into being only at the
  moment of filming.”
Nanook of the North
                                                A 1922 silent
  One of the world's
                                                film by Robert
  first examples of a
  ‘cinema verite'

                                             Explores the struggles
                                             of the Inuk Nanook and
 The film is considered                      his family in the
 the first feature-length                    Canadian arctic.

                            Flaherty has been criticized for
 “A film maker must often   staging several sequences and
 distort a thing to catch   thereby distorting the reality of
 its true spirit.”          his subjects' lives
John Grierson
•   1898 – 1972
•   Scottish documentary maker
•   Founder of British documentary film making.
•   Influential friendship with Robert Flaherty (who he
    referred to as the ‘father of documentary’)
•   Argued that documentaries should combine information
    with education and propaganda.
•   He oversaw the production of over 40 documentaries on
    aspects of British life in the 1930s and 1940s.
•   The idea was to engineer social reform by highlighting
    some of the deprivation endured by working class people
    (‘Coalface’ 1935)
•   Focus on ordinary lives (‘Night Mail’ 1936)
Night Mail                                        1936 documentary
                                                  about a mail train
                                                  from Scotland to
The most                                          London
successful film of the
British documentary

                                                          with a
  A promotional film                                      budget of
  for the post office                                     £2000
  (produced by the
  GPO film unit)
                         A poem by English poet W. H.
                         Auden was written for it, used
                         in the closing few minutes
Cinema Verite
• 1950s – more detailed and naturalistic approach
  to documentary film making developed
• Cinema verite (cinema truth) style developed in
• The intention was to observe and record the
  reality of everyday life as it happened without
  the usual organisational planning & structured
• The approach was made possible by new
  lightweight mobile cameras.
• The television had become the principal medium for
  documentary production.
• The genre was typified by the use of an authoritative
  presenter and/or voiceover,
• Recorded interviews with experts and ordinary
• Visual ‘evidence’ via location shots, archive film,
  photographs etc.
• Seamless editing and smooth narrative flow of such
  documentaries (still prevalent today), contribute to
  creating a sense of irrefutable truth and
• This disguises the editorial values and choices which
  shape the making of all documentaries.
• This is an era where it has been argued that the
  documentary is outmoded.
• “We are in post documentary times.” (Corner
• However, the success of ‘nature’ or ‘wildlife’
  documentaries continues to grow.
• Popularity of BBC series such as ‘The Blue
  Planet’ (2001)
• Recent successes for cinematic documentaries –
  ‘Touching the Void’ (2003)
Touching the Void
                         documentary film
                         about 2 climbers
    Hugely               almost fatal
    successful           attempt to climb a
    at the box           mountain in the
    office               Andes

  “The most successful
  documentary film in
  history” – The
Michael Moore          American film
                       maker, activist,

 His presence
 and performance
 are key
 components of              Makes openly
 his popularity             rhetorical
                            documentaries –

  Farenheit 9/11 has
                           films which are upfront
  made more money
                           about wanting to
  than any other
                           persuade the audience
  documentary to
                           of a particular viewpoint
Supersize Me                    2004 American
                                documentary written
                                by & starring Morgan
Spurlock's film follows a 30-
day period from February 1
to March 2, 2003 during
which he eats only
McDonald's food.
                                    explores the fast
                                    food industry's
       Nominated for
       an academy
Documentaries on TV
• Find a definition and example the different types
  of documentary.

•   Expository
•   Observational
•   Interactive
•   Reflexive

• Wednesday 2nd Feb
Fly on the wall
• During the past 20 years, the cinema verite style
  of documentary film making has become
  increasingly popular in TV.
• Known as ‘fly on the wall’, this approach
  represents the subject apparently unmediated by
  a film crew, a presenter or reshooting.
• Those participating tend to speak for
• Their words and actions are apparently merely
  recorded and observed, not reflected on or
  mediated by a presenter.
Fly on the Wall
In helping to define the distinctive fly on the wall
approach, Roger Graef listed certain rules to be
applied in the production:

• Filming events exactly as they happened
• Agreeing in advance the specific subjects to be
• Showing the edited version to the participants,
  but only to ensure any factual errors may be
Critics of fly on the wall have argued…

• While seeming more natural’ and unmediated,
  these documentaries are subject to considerable
  editorial control during post production.
• Shooting ration - up to fifty hours of recorded
  video to one hour broadcast
• Editors will try to generate as much dramatic
  interest and entertainment as possible.
• There is a growing overlap and convergence of
  documentary and drama on TV.
• As early as 1966 – Ken Loach applied cinema
  verite style filming to a drama about
• Cathy Come Home
• The documentary feel of the film created a
  stronger sense of realism and contributed to its
  strong impact on audiences.
Reality Television
• A hybrid of the documentary genre.
• Emphasis that they feature ‘real life’ and ‘real
• A growing phenomenon which seemingly allow
  people to appear as themselves.
• They utilise actual (or sometimes reconstructed)
  scenes, often made possible by the growth in
  availability/technical sophistication of the
Reality Television
• Covers a wide variety of programmes featuring
  people in different roles…
• Seen by many as a corruption of the documentary

• Many argue that reality TV fails to be genuinely
  informative or revelatory.
• Video footage of ordinary people’s personal
  experiences may be exploitative in pandering solely
  to audience voyeurism.
• Achieves high ratings at relatively low expense.
• Cheap programming which drives serious,
  expensively well researched programmes off our

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