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Thinking about documentaries

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Nowadays I spend quite a lot of my time painting. And I paint a certain kind of portrait; in a certain sense my paintings are similar to documentaries: I’m interested in the concrete realities of people – and particularly their moods. I’m interested in discovering how well I can create a work that points to an objective reality and yet somehow embodies experiential subjectivity.

So, it’s not surprising that I have been interested in documentary film-making too. A long time ago I helped a student prepare their thesis on ‘art and truth’ in the course of which I read about ‘new’ documentary; it was this that helped me to develop a thumb-nail sketch of a theory of documentary. (However, I won’t elaborate on that theory here.)

Perhaps because I was first schooled as a scientist, I was always rather sceptical about documentary film-making: I had the feeling that the maker of such films was inevitably thinking about the reception of their work and therefore would use tricks and techniques to shape the form and content of the films. In other words, I believed that the film-maker would design a piece of film to tell an appealing or riveting story – and, in so doing, would, at the very, least gloss over or distort reality.

But Stella Bruzzi’s (2000) book suggested a corrective to my thinking about documentaries and early theories of documentary practices. Her book is a demanding read – and often couched in the kind of language that is rather obscure and a little bit exclusionary: she tends to write for academics and for people who are used to the discourses of critical theory and cultural studies – but she clearly knows her stuff and engaging with her writing is worth the effort. She includes references to all sorts of actual documentaries and her work culminates in an analysis and discussion concerning the most recent genre known as ‘performative’ documentaries. These are types of film that explicitly reflect performances – either that of their subjects or of the film-makers or of both. In these cases some sort of performance is made for the camera or in response to the camera – but this does not invalidate the realities that are under review.

Stella Bruzzi begins by setting out the objectives and the motivation for her book: she hopes that her writing will serve to invite the reader to re-assess some of the ways in which documentary film has been theorised and she wishes to bring the theoretical discussion of documentary up to date. She thinks that not enough discussion has been devoted to the character of modern documentaries and she asserts that a primary motivation for the book is to introduce an alternative way of discussing documentaries. Bruzzi then turns to outline what she takes to be the enduring ‘shortcomings and pre-occupations’ of documentary theorising.

First, she rejects the idea proposed by Bill Nichols that there has been a kind of evolutionary process at work in the development of documentaries. She does not think that earlier types of documentary – such as the ‘expository’ or didactic – have been superseded by more modern types in a process akin to Darwinian evolution. On the contrary, documentaries remain eclectic and take as their goal the accurate portrayal of a series of facts. There is no good evidence that they have developed from simple to more complex forms.

Second, she takes issue with the assertion that documentaries are doomed to fail because they cannot truly represent reality. She thinks that documentary film-makers always knew that there was a gap between representation and reality and that it would be absurd to think that representation and reality could collapse into an identical thing.

Third, she recognises that the makers of documentary are in fact far less worried about the apparent limitations of the documentary form than academic theorists. In other words she finds that the practice of documentary film-making is aware of theoretical concerns – such as the contrast between appearance and reality – but is not impeded or thwarted by such considerations.

Fourth, (and with good evidence) she thinks that documentaries always reflect a dialectical interplay between maker, subject and audience. This is not fully grasped by earlier theorists. Indeed, just to underline this, James Pope – a modern non-fiction film-maker – remarks that a key question asked before a documentary gets made is ‘why now?’ (I.e. What is the case for making a documentary now?) And this question inevitably focuses on whether or not there is an audience for the work – along with thoughts about what sort of reception might be given to the work. Thus, he emphasises film-making strategies that consider the reality of contemporary audiences and how audience characteristics, tastes and concerns are factored into the documentary-making processes.

Fifth, Bruzzi thinks that, to a greater or lesser extent, some sort of performance is intrinsic to documentary. It may be explicit; thus documentary makers such as Dineen and Broomfield include themselves as central performers in their work; it may be more subtle: the maker may design their work so that it is something performed for an audience. (After all, a documentary is necessarily a communication – otherwise there is scarcely any point in making the thing.)

James Pope, in his reflections on modern types of documentary, has addressed the nature of the performative documentary: he notes that the ‘performative’ is really a development of the participatory mode of film-making; he thinks that the ‘participatory’ type simply reflects the fact that the film-maker is present in the film, asking questions of contributors – and that a truth arises as a result of that interaction. (Truth is therefore dynamic and emergent.) However, he is clear that in the performative documentary the experiences and background of the filmmaker are highlighted, so that the interaction produces a truth that is more evidently subjective. But the presence of subjectivity does not deny the objective. The categories subjective and objective are not mutually exclusive.

He also neatly points out that in the performative documentary the film-maker is ‘performing themselves for the camera’; this is an important observation and coincides with a broader philosophy of art. (Philosophy of art holds that you cannot ‘get’ the work unless you ‘get’ the artist.)  He continues by recognising the fact that in making themselves ‘obvious we, the audience, know that the results of the film are influenced by their own knowledge.’ In consequence, James Pope rejects Roland Barthes’s perception of the ‘death of the author.’ In modern documentary authorship is alive and well.

In conclusion, the main ingredients in a documentary are the film-maker, the subject and the audience. And, far from failing to access, cheat or distort reality, the documentary can allude to or highlight a piece of the world that is, in some sense, irreducibly ‘there.’ It is not possible for reality and representation to collapse into an identical unity. But it is possible for a plausible narrative and a series of images to combine such as to communicate, sensitively, an actual state of affairs. On a personal note, I think that the documentaries featured in the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ selections are excellent examples.