Saturday, August 16, 2014


IV.9. Borderline Forms:

Over the past decade, some documentaries, such as those of the afore-mentioned Michael Moore, have enjoyed commercial success in the United States, and the term documentary has lost its pejorative edge for many commercial producers.

Unfortunately, this change of attitude has not led to increased funding for documentary production; rather, it has led to an increase in the production of commercial productions with a documentary veneer, such as mockumentaries, docudramas, historical dramas, reality-based television, docusoaps and other spin-offs . Some critics feel these genres employ features of documentary, without actually being documentary, hence frequently causing confusion.  
They include:

Mockumentary:  This term is now commonly used to denote a fiction film shot in documentary style; it was invented by director Rob Reiner as a tongue-in-cheek description of his 1984 comedy about an aging rock band on a comeback tour titled, “This is Spinal Tap”.[1] However, “This is Spinal Tap” was hardly the first film to employ this stylistic device; as noted in Wikipedia, mockumentaries “ may be either comedic or dramatic in form, although comedic mockumentaries are more common. A dramatic mockumentary (sometimes referred to as docufiction) should not be confused with docudrama, a fictional genre in which dramatic techniques are combined with documentary elements to depict real events.”[2]

There have been other examples of mockumentaries which led the audience to believe they were documentaries exploring the intimate secrets of real people, only to reveal at the end that, in fact, the stories were fictitious. Essentially, the goal was to deceive the audience for dramatic effect. While this is certainly a valid dramatic technique, two films aroused some controversy because they succeeded so well in their deception – Mitchell Block’s “ No Lies”, about a woman who tells the story of her rape, and Jim McBride’s “ David Holtzman’s Diary” ( 1968).[3]

Perhaps the two most famous examples of what might be called dramatic mockumentary were the Italian director Gillo Pontocorvo’s “Battle of Algiers (1966), an extraordinary film about the Algerian war for independence from the French, and Peter Watkins’ The War Game” (1965),[4] an equally extraordinary television drama about the effects of a thermonuclear war on the ground in England. 
Both of these films employed a cinema verite style to throw the spectator into the middle of the intense action, and both films received many awards. Both films also received the ultimate approval for cinematic subversion – being banned for two decades – “Battle of Algiers “in France , and “The War Game” in England.[5]

In all cases, however, mockumentaries, no matter how excellent they may be in cinematic terms, are not documentaries.  Rather, they are fiction cinema using documentary conventions for dramatic effect.

The same might be said of the next category – Docudrama:

Docudrama: Wikipedia defines docudrama as:“ a documentary-style genre of radio and television programming and staged theatre that features dramatized re-enactments of actual historical events.”[6]
 This term was created to describe a television drama based on a true story, but  adapted for the television screen. Hollywood has always taken such great liberties with historical figures and events. Television viewers, on the other hand, have been a bit more demanding when it came to depiction of real people and events. The term docudrama grants the commercial television producers a legal exemption from demands for accurate portrayals. The producer purchases the rights to the story, and then makes whatever changes deemed necessary.

Such is the nature of commercial television, and no one in broadcasting would confuse a documentary with a docudrama. Unfortunately, as both Stalin and Hitler knew, spectators frequently fail to make this distinction, since people tend to believe what they see, even if they know it to be fictitious. Hence the need for government or non-profit television stations which can broadcast documentaries, which at least have some pretense of accuracy and veracity.

As mentioned before, the issue of re-enactment in documentary has always been a bone of contention. Purists might argue, like Nichols, that re-enactment does not belong in documentaries. However, others might be of the opinion that a certain amount of re-enactment is permissible, as long as it is overt, and cannot be construed as being deceptive.

 Errol Morris ‘excellent documentary about a man wrongly convicted of murder in Texas, “The Thin Blue Line” (1988), is a good example of the second case.  Morris combines interviews with some clearly staged visual re-enactment of events, but he manages to do so in a restrained, neutral fashion that merely illustrates the testimony of the person being interviewed, rather than attempting to re-create the event itself.

The characters are played by actors, but could just as well be played by animated faceless robots. The images are the kind one might expect to see in a courtroom, carefully designed not to prejudice the jury – or the spectator - in one way or another.  [7] Simultaneously, these images allow Morris to visually punctuate his many talking head interviews and dramatize them with the help of music from Phillip Glass. Therefore, “The Thin Blue Line” would fall well within our parameters for documentary.[8] However, docudramas would not.

[1] Link to trailer for “This is Spinal Tap”:
[3] Link to “ David Holtzman’s Diary”
[4] Link to “The War Game”:
[5]  Link to “Battle of Algiers – Part 1”:
[7] Jon Else, Director of the University of Calfornia School of Journalism and Documentary, feels the determining factor should be if the re-enactment is  not overt, but deceptive.( The Documentary Filmmakers’ Handbook) Edited by Genevieve Jolliffe and Andrew ZinnesFirst Edition, Continuum, 2006.p.19
[8] Link to the complete “The Thin Blue Line”:

Sunday, June 15, 2014


IV.8. Testing The Operational Definition of Documentary:

For testing purposes, now let us see how our operational definition would apply to the four categories of documentary as defined by Bill Nichols in his essay, The Voice of Documentary, in which Nichols identifies four major narrative styles of documentary:

1).  The direct address style of the Griersonian tradition .

 2). Cinema verite

3). A variation of cinema verite featuring a character or narrator speaking directly to the camera, sometimes in an interview

 4). A self-reflexive style featuring a mix of interview and comments, including observations from the documentarian.[1]

Now let us see how our operational definition would apply to these four styles:

1)   The Direct Address Style of the Griersonian Tradition: While there are always exceptions, a documentary shot in the Griersonian tradition would avoid employing dramatically re-enacted or re-staged material, if at all possible. If any cheating were done for production purposes, it was neither approved nor advertised by Grierson. In a visual sense, then, the Griersonian style would fit the operational definition of documentary as defined.

        A successful documentary in this style requires an extremely well written   
        poetic narration and an excellent professional voice; “The Night Mail” (1936)
       directed by Harry Watt and Basil Wright, with a narration written by W.H.
       Auden, is a classic example of a successful Grierson production. The
       narration is suggestive, rather than dominant, and the story is told visually.[2]

 In the hands of more pedestrian talents, however, the Direct Address can   become essentially radio with pictures, with the previously disparaged institutional Voice of God didactically blaring out the company line over some generic images, with a few V.I.P. talking heads of the bosses to give them their 15 minutes of fame. In short, the Direct Address style can easily become documentary straight out of some authoritarian Orwellian nightmare.

In this context, it is worth noting that Vertov himself did his best to avoid relying on titles to tell the story in his silent films. In his sound films, Vertov also attempted to employ sound as a creative medium in its own right;  while the second-person address to Lenin in Three Songs of Lenin might be considered a variation on Direct Address, even in this overt propaganda film, Vertov carefully avoids the omniscient third person Voice of God narration.

Today, it is safe to say that, by condescendingly treating the audience as mental incompetents incapable of reaching their own conclusions, the Voice of God narration has fallen into disfavor with more sophisticated audiences around the world.  Or, as Michael Renov has written: ”As described by countless critics, the voice-over has, in recent decades, been deplored as dictatorial, the Voice of God; it imposes an omniscience bespeaking a position of absolute knowledge .”[3]

2)   The Cinema Verite Style: According to Aufderheide, the roots of the cinema verite movement lay in an anti-authoritarian reaction to World War II, and one of the first indications was Britain’s Free Cinema movement in the 1950’s. [4]Led by Lindsay Anderson , Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz, Free Cinema reacted against Griersonian didacticism by showing daily lives of ordinary citizens without editorializing .[5]

A few years later, thanks in large part to the development of lightweight 16 mm cameras in World War II, and the crystal synch cordless sound system created by Ricky Leacock and his colleagues in the early 1960’s in the United States, cinema verite (also known as ‘direct cinema’) enjoyed a vogue in the United States and France. The new equipment granted cinematic access to new facets of human existence, and purists insisted that this depiction appear as unadulterated as possible. As a result, cinema verite purists decreed that all sound had to be recorded live, and any uses of narration or music that had not been recorded live were considered violations of the cinema verite code.

Since the very name cinema verite is an homage by the French documentarian Jean Rouch to the Kino Eye of Dziga Vertov, it seems safe to say that the Cinema Verite Style would fall within the realms of our operational definition.
Leacock’s own definition of his cinema verite style supports that conclusion:
What is it we filmmakers are doing, then? The closest I can come to an accurate definition is that the finished film- photographed and edited by the same filmmaker- is an aspect of the filmmaker’s perception of what happened. This is assuming that he does no directing. No interference.”[6]

It is important to note that some fundamental contradictions in cinema verite theory became apparent as the movement grew in popularity. While the better known term cinema verite is now generally used to describe a style of documentary filming, in the early 1960’s, there were two stylistic branches:   the  American branch, known as Direct Cinema, led by Ricky Leacock and John Drew, were staunch advocates of a  very non-obstrusive, Fly-on-The-Wall  approach, while the French, led by Jean Rouch and Claude Morin, opted for a  reflexive  style, in which the filmmaker could be a visible participant.

 There was also the issue, raised by Jean Luc Godard, of open advocacy as opposed to apparent neutrality. Some post modern academics enterered the fray, accusing the proponents of Direct Cinema made impossible claims of objectivity. In turn ,American documentarian Fred Wiseman dismissed this post modern charge as  : “  a lot of horseshit...My films are totally subjective. The objective-subjective argument is from my point of view, at least in film terms, a lot of nonsense. The films are my response to a certain experience.”[7]

Regardless, the goal of making a fly-on-the-wall recording pure human behavior was ultimately proven to be an impossible ideal by such productions as “An American Family” (1973), a 12 part documentary series about the Loud family by Alan and Susan Raymond, produced by the American Public Broadcasting Service.  The production  (not to mention the broadcasting ) of the series had a devastating effect on the Loud family, apparently causing them to do many things they would not have done without the cameras present.

This should not have been a complete surprise; common sense would indicate that the constant presence of even a minimal two or three person cinema verite crew with cameras, sound equipment and lights, would have some effect on the behavior of those being filmed. However, when it became known to the public that the producer was having an affair with Mrs. Loud, the defenders of the series conceded defeat.

The controversy surrounding “An American Family”[8], and the subsequent revelations of how family members had been manipulated behind the scenes, effectively ended the debate; today, cinema verite and direct cinema  are now generally recognized more as a style of shooting, rather than an aesthetic ideal.

3).  A variation of cinema verite featuring a character or narrator speaking  
      directly to the camera, sometimes in an interview: As Nichols notes, this style
      is the conventional style employed in many contemporary television
      documentaries today; it is also essentially the same style employed by Vertov       
      in “Three Songs of Lenin”,[9] so this style would also fall well within our
      operational definition of documentary in the Vertov tradition. Vertov employs
       all of these narrative techniques in the film, and has an interview with a
       factory worker that is extraordinarily modern, in that some mistakes and 
       awkward   moments have been retained, thus adding an air of authenticity to
       what would otherwise appear to be a staged and rehearsed interview.                          

4).  A self-reflexive style featuring a mix of interview and comments, including
      observations  from the documentarian: As previously noted, “The Man with
     The Movie Camera” has many self-reflexive elements, including shots of the
     editor waking up and getting dressed, as well as shots of the man with the
     camera at work,  setting up shots and moving to get better angles. As a result,
      this style would also fall well within our operational definitio

[1] Bill Nichols ( The Voice of Documentary) Film Quarterly 36, No. 3(Spring, 1983) University of California Press; from Rosenthal and Corner(ibid) p.17-18
[2] Link to “The Night Mail”:
[3] Michael Renov ( The Subject of Documentary) University  of Minnesota Press, 2004 p.xxi Curiously, Renov then goes on to state that some contemporary documentarians use their own voices to provide reflexive commentary on the action, as if they were variations on the same narrative technique. They are not. One is omniscient, the other subjective .
[4]  Lindsay Anderson on Free Cinema:
[5] Aufderheide (ibid). p.44
[6] Lewis Jacobs ( The Documentary Tradition ,Second Edition) WW. Norton, 1975. P.404
[7] Brian Winston ( The Documentary Film as Scientific Inscription) in Theorizing Documentary, Michael Renov, Editor. Routledge, 1993.pp 46-49
[8] Link to an episode from “An American Family”:
[9] Link to “Three Songs of Lenin”: