Bill Nichols talked about how documentary films can be very similar to fiction when it comes to creatively recreating something, documentary is “the creative treatment of reality” and although there are modes, theories and ways in which we can make documentaries be more effective, there are no rules in the way we decide to treat reality.
In Nanook of the North (1922) Flaherty recreates the life of the Inuit and does it in a very realistic manner but still taking some creative liberties to make it look a lot more interesting, Man With a Movie Camera (1929) , city symphonies, all those early nonfiction films were experimenting with the medium and finding their own way to represent their reality.
For this documentary I wanted to focus on what Nicols Talked about the different approaches of representing reality, the recreations we decide to use. Instead of having talking heads or actors narrating the stories of abuse, I wanted to have something a little bit more abstract, more poetic.
Similar to Sans Soleil (1983) I wanted to use excerpts of different accounts of abuse survivors and juxtapose with the intention of conveying a clear message that is not only focused on one person but in many. The intention of creating a collage-like narration is also to show that there is a pattern in the way abuse takes place.
In a poetic matter, the film “sacrifices the conventions of continuity editing and the sense of a specific location in time and place…” (Nichols, 162) The characters do not take form, we never see them on screen and their stories are incomplete, the poetic mode lets us engage with the story in a different way, it encourages and opens up the possibility of an alternative form of knowledge.
Instead of using the real victims to narrate the stories I opted to ask other people to read them, some of this people was selected at random, this came in part because I wanted to give the victims some anonymity and also as a way to make others aware of the issue and understand that anyone can become a victim of abuse. In Stories We Tell (2012) the filmmaker recreates home movies and by combining real footage with the recreations, she gives a sense of authenticity but at the same time recognizes the artificiality of it as a way to comment on the fact that the stories we tell are constructed by us. My approach, however, wasn’t to focus on the artificiality but as a way to be inclusive and say “anyone could be a victim”
While watching Notes on Blindness (2016) I thought a lot about the blurred line that sometimes exists between fiction and documentary films, the power of reenactments as a creative tool to heighten emotions, performance brings “heightened emotional involvement to a situation or role” instead of having someone to act the stories of abuse I decided to use a more abstract approach and try to recreate emotions through dance and music.
On his book, Nichols says that “Performative documentaries bring the emotional intensities of embodied experience and knowledge to the fore rather than attempt to do something tangible” the feelings behind the stories are very hard to describe or exteriorize, showing what happened to the victims seemed unnecessary to me and the choreography by Elise Beers seemed to exteriorize the feelings behind the story. Not only the dance was a performance but the readings, although delivered by non-actors, while reading I asked them to empathize with the people and act as a proxy.
One of the most important things about documentary films has to do with “voice”, in this case, I wanted to give voice to the survivors, however, it’s undeniable that the voice of the filmmaker will always be present in their work. The way the documentary is constructed combines the poetic with a performative approach which makes it so the use of only one element (music, images, sound) will not work independently, it is the combination of all of them in a specific manner that makes it go in a specific direction.
While trying to give voice to the survivors I came to the conclusion that it was necessary to make a call to action, since the topic is a social issue I found out that one of the things most survivors and victims want is to speak up and help others avoid becoming victims, they see their stories as a learning experience for others to avoid certain patterns in life.
One of the ways I wanted to raise awareness and call to action was by having a voice of authority, is not only the victims speaking but they are survivors. In the last minutes of the film I included an excerpt from Leslie Morgan Steiner’s TED talk , she talks about some statistics and gives some insightful information on the subject which gives the film an expository quality in which the professional commentator’s tone gives “a sense of credibility and omniscience”(Nichols, 169)
Making this film taught me more about the fact that documentary films are a combination of modes, styles, and media and even though sometimes they can be categorized they will always be able to fit in more than one category. The same way each individual has its own perspective, documentary films act as individuals that show the many ways reality can be treated.
This documentary is very personal and at the same time it tries to “give voice to (issues) that remain ignored or suppressed” (Nichols, 299) These issues are addressed while talking about my life and personal experiences but at the same time using outside sources.
I wanted this to be autobiographical as I was inspired by some of the documentaries we watched in class. In Nobody’s business (1996) we have a filmmaker trying to awake his father’s interest on his grandfather by showing him evidence from the past, this becomes not only the story of his father but his own.
My documentary tries to give form, name, and visibility to an identity that, for me, never had one (Nichols,299) Being short is something I usually don’t think about or consider important, but I know others do and for that reason, it has somewhat shaped the way I live.
Inspired by Stories We Tell (2012) I wanted to use home movies, unfortunately, I don’t have access to any so I decided to use photographs and youtube videos as “reenactments”. Unlike Stories We Tell, the reenactments are trying to be as artificial as possible.
In a way, my documentary is an essay, as it focuses on an idea more than a person, throughout the film the narrator guides the audience as a voice of authority who is both a witness and a participant but is never on screen.
The film can also be considered an essay because of its three-part structure, the first one being where the central idea is introduced. With a simple statement, “I was Short” It tries to direct the audience to an idea more than the person.
The second part uses pathos to make the audience understand that the problem is not necessarily personal but it can be anyone’s, it doesn’t matter if the subject doesn’t seem to be affected by it, others might be.
In the third part, the tone changes a little, while the images and dialogue are still lighter and comical, it emphasizes what “the real problem is” and shows how is it’s usually overlooked.
The last part works as a conclusion because it combines all the information that was presented before and tries to give a solution to the problem stated in the first part.
The beauty of home movies can be found in the imperfect, as Péter Forgács calls it: “perfection of imperfection” after reading both Forgács’ and Fung’s essays I started to question, is the advent of technology killing the imperfection of home movies?
We live in a time where having a personal diary is very rare but facebook, Instagram or even snapchat stories become a way to record whatever is happening in people’s life. Social media has become something like a mixed media diary. There is, however, a big difference between a personal diary and social media one of them being the most obvious: one is personal and the other one is instantly available to an audience.
The popular book Diary of a Young Girl also known simply as the Diary of Anne Frank is a great example of how was the life of a Jew family during the Nazi occupation. Did Anne know her diary was going to be read by millions and made into plays and movies? if she knew, would the diary be different?
Nowadays we seem to focus more in the way that people perceive us rather than the way we perceive ourselves and the world, our personal views on social media are usually linked to what other people will think of us, we try to polish whatever we are going to post. When we have a camera pointing at us our attitude can be similar to the one that we have on social media, we represent ourselves as we want others to perceive us. This is particularly true today because we know that it is possible to instantly upload a video to youtube or post it in social media where we are going to be exposed to millions of users.
When I was a little kid, home movies were meant to be watched by family members, and rarely by friends, there was no such thing as “vine stars” or “youtube celebrities”. Our 15 minutes of fame were limited to the family and our moments on screen were sometimes too embarrassing to event want to show the footage to a broader audience. It is because of the limitations to broadcast a film that home movies used to be perfectly imperfect, and even though they usually reflected the ‘happy moments’ they were still completely unfiltered because they were meant for a small audience.
Today people not only carries a camera in their pockets at all time but also the ability to broadcast or live stream instantly. The fact that we assume that the home movies we produce can be available to anyone at any given moment makes us filter ourselves more. The filter can be literal, people can edit embellish footage with their fingertips.
Home movies as we see on films like Maelstrom are dead, what we have today is an unprecedented phenomenon of content overload and as we already know this can be a perfect tool to create thousands of cat videos, document catastrophes or simply post that funny mix of fails.
While watching Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) I was impressed by the reflexive technique, I loved the way the filmmaker ‘deceived’ the audience and makes us “…question the power of the camera’s gaze to represent, and misrepresent, others” (Nichols, 195) I wanted to evoke a similar feeling by juxtaposing images with a narration that when watched together seem to be related but in reality they aren’t. What I was narrating wasn’t a personal experience as it may seem at first, I am reading from someone else’s experience and later in the film the source from which I read the introductory sentence is revealed.
Another way that I used to make the audience understand that the first statement wasn’t mine is by narrating a similar statement but this time juxtaposing the voice with the correspondent images.
My intention at first was to make a film that is more self-aware but then I decided to explore the performative mode and have part of it be a little autobiographical this happened when I started to narrate my thoughts of me being by the lake watching people take photographs. This mode was inspired by Agnes Varda’s film in which she narrates her thoughts as she interviews urban gleaners.
There is a “combination of the actual and the imagined” and as I narrate the story of the lake I try to do it in a satirical but sincere way. In that sense, the film is also performative because instead of addressing the audience factually, it does it in a more emotional way.
When I have a conversation with Luis I explore both, the reflexive and the participatory. The conversation was somewhat staged but completely unscripted and instead of just observing Luis eat his ‘pan de Muerto’ I decided to join him and interact with him appearing in front of the camera instead of staying behind.
My objective was to close the documentary by going back to a narration style and join all parts of the film by stating that, while photos capture the appearance of the dead, “el Dia de Los Muertos captures the Soul”
Like any other “ism” the metamodern approach can be hard to describe in a few paragraphs, some people still struggle to understand what makes it different from the postmodern and although the concept has been around since the 70’s, the ideas that make the metamodern have been around since the mid 50’s but in 2010 Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker popularized the idea with their notes on metamodernism and then Luke Turner created the Metamodernist Manifesto in an attempt to define the metamodern spirit.
In a nutshell, the metamodernist discourse proposes that there is a point in which postmodernism falls short to describe our culture. Metamodernism is a place in between the logic of modernism and the cynicism of postmodernism, it is a way to describe a new feeling that oscillates between the sincere and the ironic.
According to Nichols, the reflexive mode of documentary challenges the realist style of filmmaking and makes the audience “question the power of the camera’s gaze to represent and misrepresent…” (Nichols, 195) the reflexive mode makes the familiar strange and by using this “alienating” technique, we become hyper-aware of reality.
Because the reflexive mode seeks the truth through the loss of authenticity it can be considered as the metamodern approach to documentary filmmaking. In this mode the filmmaker “draws our attention to our assumptions and expectations about the documentary form itself” (Nichols, 198) and thus reveals the truth through a construction of reality, the people becomes the messenger but the message.
The film Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) is a great example of the sincerity of the insincere. Trinh T. Min-ha starts her documentary making us believe she is in Vietnam interviewing woman that experienced the oppression that came after the war, throughout this interviews we are confronted with a series of very stylized shots that make the audience feel “strange” and question the sincerity of the subjects, or at least what we think are the subjects.
In the middle of the film, Trhin reveals that we are looking at a construction, what we are experiencing is fake but at the same time it’s real. Even though we are aware of the construction and the fakeness of the film, we can also find the authenticity, there is a lot of truth behind the constructed reality, just like Vertov shows the process of cutting a film and makes us aware that what we are watching is a construction, we can still know that we are looking at reality.
It is impossible to completely place a documentary in a specific mode just like is impossible to completely describe culture by putting a tag but it’s useful to make connections that help us understand films better, that is why I think the reflexive mode of filmmaking is in a very metamodern way, the exploration of sincerity through the insincere.
On a film set, dozens are working behind the scenes, some of them get more recognition than others. Outside the industry, people doesn’t know what a grip does and their labor is often ignored by those who don’t know how a film set works.
This documentary was shot from the perspective of a grip, in which the filmmaker is an observer and captures all the labor of the grip/electric department.
The spontaneity of the action and the fluidity of the camera makes this film observational,in which no interviews or voice over takes precedence and the result resembles “life as it is lived”. As seen in Some Kind of Monster (2004) the filmmaker is present on the scene and observes the subjects as if he was invisible, although sometimes the camera is acknowledged, the filmmaker never tries to influence the action.
As the title of the documentary suggests, the film is also influenced by the soviet film Man With a Movie Camera (1929) and the early city symphonies. These films are characterized by the editing that sacrifices continuity and their poetic way to treat the historical world, in which the filmmaker tries to present a portrait of the daily within a city; Gip With a Movie Camera tries to present a portrait of the daily life within a film set.
As Bill Nichols said: “The poetic mode of documentary shares a common terrain with the modernist avant-garde” and this is one of the reasons I decided to experiment with speed and show the action of the subjects in a way that sacrifices continuity and also avoids giving the appearance that the action is happening in real time.
The music, Solfeggio in C minor by Eugen cicero, was very important to me because I wanted it to resemble a live performance in which the music follows the action. The juxtaposing images of the grips working on set and the rest of the cast and crew are accompanied by the music that follows the speed of the images.
Grip With a Movie Camera was intended to be a “poetic observation” informed by the films seen in class and the experimentation with two modes of documentary.
A man talks about his recent divorce: “See, the reason we divorced was because she..and I tried, but then she…” and he keeps going on how it was his wife’s fault. The listeners agree with him, or at least think he has good reasons. The wife does the same thing with another group of people by telling them how it was her husband’s fault, the reaction of her audience is the same as the man’s.
Who has the most fault, the husband or the wife?
From the perspective of the wife it was all his husband’s fault, in order to prove that, she would tell stories and anecdotes, find physical proofs and why not, have some witnesses of how terrible her husband was. The same thing happens if the husband tells his story and for the people who doesn’t know both sides of the story it would be easy to believe in the version they are listening.
Expository filmmaking is a powerful weapon because “It assembles fragments of the historical world into a…rhetorical frame” (Nichols 167) in order to work, this assemblage should be credible, convincing and compelling. Although the purpose of the expository mode is to uncover the truth, the argument can be like listening to a recent divorcé talk about his ex-spouse.
The reason for this comparison is because expository documentaries can be telling the truth but most of the times the vision tends to be very one-sided and the use of rhetoric makes it convincing enough for people to believe it. The convincing nature of these kinds of documentaries be positive when talking about an idea that will move people to act and do good, but it can also be a terrible thing when dealing with topics that will cause the audience to form prejudices.
A great example can be found in The Mormons (2015) where the filmmaker portrays the Mormon religion from the perspective of people who left the church, the film intends to be a way to inform outsiders what the Mormon church is like, but fails to give a fair amount of information by only giving one side of the story.
Michael Moore is well known for producing films that are meant to expose the truth about divisive topics, when talking about his film Bowling for Columbine (2003) he explains why his films can be subjective,they represent the filmmaker’s point of view. The problem comes when films pretend to be the absolute truth, take the example of The Corporation (2003) the voice of God narration, the editing, the music and all the experts talking as voices of authority makes the audience believe that what they are seeing is a complete truth.
Expository films can be a great tool to educate people and encourage change, they can be a motivation to become more informed and eventually help someone form an opinion about an important issue, however, their nature is to be convincing. The same things that are positive about documentaries can be the opposite if the audience is not aware of the fact that even if the information is right, the construction is left in the hands of the filmmaker and for the uneducated audience that construction will become the truth.
Cinema started as a curiosity, a novelty. It’s hard to believe that that this invention is capable of changing the world, but in many ways, cinema has been an influence in some of the most important events that shaped the world as we know it.
When we hear the world time travel it sounds like something that is only possible in science fiction, but humanity has achieved a way to look through a window to the past, almost as if being there in person. Documentary filmmaking serves as this window that lets the spectator see the life in a different time and a different place, this window however is shaped by the filmmakers, they decided the angle, the timing and the order of images that we are going to look at. The thought of film as a window can be very powerful because when juxtaposing images and sounds the filmmakers can evoke feelings and thoughts that the audience will believe are true.
Just by separating film as Fiction or Nonfiction, the audience is already predisposed to see either the treatment of reality or a fictional story that has been staged for their amusement. The power of Documentary filmmaking lies in the fact that the audience is already expecting to see “reality” or at least something very close to it. Because of that power, non-fiction films become convincing advocates and the ultimate weapon for propaganda.
There are many examples of films being advocates, Coal Face (1935) shows the efforts of workers in the mining industry and the rise of machines that facilitate their work, and Night Mail (1936) follows the train that delivers mail to Scotland. Those British documentaries follow the lead of previous Soviet Documentaries like Turksib (1929) that gives voice to the working class and features the progress of the country thanks to the combination of manpower and machine.
The power of film as propaganda is clearly exemplified by Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) which, if seen without having any knowledge of Nazi Germany or Adolf Hitler, is a powerful portrayal of a hero that comes from the skies to unite and save Germany. Riefenstahl achieved something that hasn’t been done before, with full government support and almost unlimited budget, the film became an awe-inspiring piece of cinema. A text attributed to Riefenstahl on the arrangements made for the film says: “That the Fuhrer has raised film-making to a position of such pre-eminence testifies to his prophetic awareness of the unrealized suggestive power of this art form.”
Triumph of the Will stands as a witness of Germany’s infamous past and a testimony of the power of documentary filmmaking. The footage of Riefenstahl’s film was also used by the opposition to show the demonic power of Nazi Germany, proving that films are not completed by the filmmaker but by the audience.
Cinema stands as a witness of our history, it shows the human potential for good and evil as seen in films such as Resnais’ Night and Fog (1956) or Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) documentary filmmaking puts in perspective the nature of humanity, it observes and guides the audience to a point of self-discovery and analysis. No other media can evoke empathy with such beauty and power.
When Pierre Jules César Janssen wanted to record Venus passing across the sun in 1874 he demonstrated a natural human impulse for freezing time, the desire to keep the images our eyes are recording and take them out for others to see. Humanity started to document reality since he was living in caves, as seen in the early prehistoric murals, with the materials available man tried to represent his reality and put it out for others to see.
The dictionary definition of document is a piece of written, printed, or electronic matter that provides information or evidence or that serves as an official record. According to this definition, we can say that documentary can be traced to the beginning of history, when man started to record its activities and the desire to provide a record evolved and branched out to many forms of art.
To understand what a documentary is, we should consider the etymology of the word document who has its origins in the Old French, from Latin documentum ‘lesson, proof’ (in medieval Latin ‘written instruction, official paper’), from docere ‘teach.’ What the first filmmakers wanted to do with the new found medium was to teach, to prove a point. As seen in the experiment performed by the photographer Eadweard Muybridge who with a succession of cameras proved that when horses gallop there is an instance when none of their legs touch the ground. In a similar manner, Étienne Jules Marey captured the movement of birds and also invented the Fusil photographique, the photographic gun, in which the term “shooting” when talking about capturing moving images,was more literal than it is now.
Although many illustrious minds contributed to the creation of the cinematograph, the man behind the machine that opened the world to the miracle of moving images was Louis Lumiére who managed to create a light, portable camera that served as a printing machine and projector at the same time. It was thanks to the Lumierés and the cinematograph that the audiences had “an unprecedented sense of seeing the world”
The conflict when trying to define documentary comes with the fact that it’s not only the document but the voice what matters the most. The document itself in its ability to record the world with fidelity gives us the appearance of truth because we are prompt to believe in what we see thus the document is not what makes the documentary, but the combination of document and voice as Bill Nichols said: “Documentary flourishes when it gains a voice of its own” to understand how documentary gains a voice of its own, Nichols talks about the film Nanook of the North (1922) and how he recreated the life inside of an igloo by having their subjects reenact the life inside of a half oversized igloo which gives the camera crew the commodity and the light necessary to shoot a scene that in that time would have been impossible to film inside of a real igloo.
Nichols gives four elements that form the basis of Documentary and it is only when all of them converge that the documentary comes into being:
- Indexical Documentation (Shared with scientific images and the cinema of attractions)
- Poetic Experimentation
- Narrative Storytelling
- Rhetorical Oratory
Considering the origin of cinema, both the process of photographing moving images and the filmmaker as a creator who decides how to capture them. We can get closer to a definitive definition of documentary filmmaking,the line between fiction and nonfiction can be blurred at times but in the end, documentaries open the windows of our own world.