Monday, March 24, 2014



       Naming matters. Names come with expectations; if that were not true, then
        marketers would not use them as marketing tools. The truthfulness,
        accuracy, and trustworthiness of documentaries are important to us all
       because we value them precisely and uniquely for these qualities. When
       documentaries deceive us, they are not just deceiving viewers but members
       of the public who might act upon knowledge gleaned from the film.
      Documentaries are part of the media that helps us understand not only our
      own world, but our role in it, that shape us as public actors.”

      Patricia Aufderheide, “Documentary Film- A Very Short Introduction”[1]

IV.1. What is Documentary?

Having viewed the current state of documentary from the macro perspective of the digital revolution, let us now narrow our focus and direct our attention to the form and aesthetic conventions of documentary itself. As is often the case with revolutions, one of the unfortunate side effects of the digital revolution has been a tendency on the part of some to either deny or ignore the value of past history or traditions. 

In the case of documentary, this is particularly unfortunate, because there is a rich documentary tradition dating back to the end of the 19th century that is arguably still of great relevance event today.  Finding a definition of documentary from within that tradition that would apply both to analog and digital documentary would help make that case to the new generation of Digital Natives mentioned in Chapter I.

However, there are a few major obstacles.

 Perhaps the chief impediment is that fact that while documentary is a universally recognized cinematic form, an agreement on exactly what is, and what is not, a documentary has proved elusive throughout the course of cinematic scholarship from the early 20th century to the present day.  Indeed, the issue has frequently been the subject of heated controversy.

 For example, noted American documentary theorist Bill Nichols has posited that there are three ‘commonsense assumptions’ in all documentaries:

1.    Documentaries are about reality; they’re about something that actually happened.
2.    Documentaries are about real people.
3.    Documentaries stories about what happens in the real world.[2]

One of the problems inherent in Nichols' definition is that the definition of reality itself has been a classic conundrum for philosophers since ancient times, a conundrum which has yet to be resolved. As is well known, new scientific discoveries in the 20th centuries have constantly forced us to radically re-assess our perceptions of reality, shattering in the process all hope of a deterministic world view.

We are now limited to defining our reality as the currently accepted scientific definition of that reality, fully aware that the definition will soon be subject to modification. For better or for worse, we find ourselves in an indeterminate universe, where the only constant is change; as the ancient philosopher Heraclitus put it: “All entities move and nothing remains still.”[3]

In the cinematic world, the issue of what constitutes accurate or acceptable portrayal of reality has also been a hot potato since newsreels began to recreate historical events for the camera in the earliest days of the cinema up until the present day.  For example, in 1898, travel was expensive and time-consuming, so staging the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor in some bathtub in New York made perfect sense, at least from a producer’s point of view. At that time, there were no ethical standards for documentary, since the medium had yet to be defined.

Today, of course, if a news correspondent is reporting from Baghdad, he or she has to physically be in Baghdad, and not in, say, New York or London with a digital green screen backdrop. Similarly, if a Richard Attenborough BBC special on wildlife intersperses, without a disclaimer, images of animals shot in zoos with the same animals in the wild, there is a major scandal, and the BBC has to promise to identify all faked scenes on air, and, to never to do it again.[4]

 However, contemporary educational channels like The History Channel  ( and others)  are now full of dramatic re-enactments of historical events, and few object. It would appear, then, that some re-enactment is tolerable, as long as it is acknowledged, and not deceptive.  Nichols addresses this issue when he elaborates on his first assumption:” Documentary films speak about actual situations or events and honor known facts; they do no introduce new, unverifiable ones. They speak directly about the historical world, rather than the allegorical one.”[5] 

It might appear that Nichols accepts the re-staging events, as long as they honor “known facts”, but then, in his clarification of his second assumption, he writes,” Documentaries are about real people who do not play or perform roles.”[6]

Here, it would appear he has ruled out re-enactment, but again, he employs highly subjective terms such as “real”, not to mention “play or perform roles” .He further adds to the confusion by observing that Robert Flaherty’s legendary “Nanook of the North “(1922) ‘can be said to be one gigantic reenactment, yet it retains significant documentary qualities.”[7]

According to Nichols’ own stated criteria, it would seem that “Nanook of the North” would definitely not qualify as a documentary; however, he then skirts the issue by not following his argument to its logical conclusion –  that Nanook of the North is not, by Nichols’ definition, a documentary. Instead, the question goes unanswered, and that raises further questions.  

For example, how exactly would Nichols differentiate between Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North “and F.W. Murnau’s “Tabu “ (1931) ?

In both cases, the director shot his own story with local amateur talent on exotic locations. In other words, they both made what might be called fiction films shot in a neorealist style. As Murnau’s biographer Lotte Eisner wrote,” The old argument about whether it (Tabu) is a documentary or a “feature film” is pointless. Murnau did not set out to observe native customs or record them in scientific detail. He was an artist who had set out with the endless European nostalgia for beauty and the sun. What he sought, he found. And he transformed it and gave us a glimpse of it.[8]

Robert Flaherty was a paid collaborator of Murnau’s on “Tabu”; according to Flaherty’s brother David Flaherty, the difference between the two related more to dramaturgy and aesthetics, rather than cinematic method.[9]Eisner cites as evidence the differing treatments on the same subject written by each, but also notes that the two shared writing credits on the final film, with Murnau credited as both director and producer.[10]  Regrettably, there is no mention of “Tabu” in Nichols’ book, but he does write that Vittorio DeSica’s “Bicycle Thieves” (sic) can also share these qualities with “Nanook” without being considered a documentary at all.”[11]

Unfortunately, Nichols does not elaborate on why one is a documentary, and the other cannot be “considered a documentary at all.” Since he himself states that  “Nanook of the North” is not only fiction, but is a “gigantic reenactment”, it would appear that, by Nichols’ definition, the film widely recognized as the first American documentary, is not a documentary at all.

 Perhaps Nichols is showing due deference to an iconic figure in American documentary history, but he does not appear to be employing consistent criteria.
What one can say in Flaherty’s defense is that one can hardly pass judgment on the documentary ethics of his work ex post facto; when he was making his pioneering work, there were no critical criteria for evaluating documentary in the United States. Flaherty was simply working on uncharted territory, and doing his creative best to tell a story he wanted to tell.

As noted previously, terms like “real” are highly subjective, and can be defined almost at whim. A classic cinematic response came from the late great Italian director Federico Fellini when he was castigated by ideologues for apparently abandoning the Neorealist ethic in films like “La Dolce Vita” (1960) and “8 ½ “(1963):’ Realism is a bad word. In a certain sense, everything is realistic. I see no dividing line between imagination and reality. I see a great deal of reality in imagination.”[12]

So where does this leave documentary? In academic circles in Western Europe and the United States, the post-modern critique of photography and other depictions of reality became popular towards the end of the Twentieth Century, causing considerable debate.

In “Collecting Visible Evidence”, for example, Jane M. Gaines summarized the evolution of this post-modern position when she wrote that there is no “real” world to depict, and that the only reality that we can be sure exists are the images that the artist has created. Hence, for Gaines, “true” documentary becomes impossible  .[13] However, for the broadcaster, the documentarian, and the media consumer, there is another, even larger context to consider: our collective consciousness and our collective understanding of that reality.

Patricia Aufderheide, former Board Member of the Independent Television Service in the United States and Founder-Director of the Center for Social Media of American University in Washington, D.C., offers another perspective when she puts the concept of “reality “ in the context of mass communications: “Reality is not what is out there, but what we know, understand and share with each other of what is out there. Media affect the most important real estate of all, that which is inside your head. Documentary is an important reality-shaping communication because of its claims to truth.”[14]

In other words, the relationship between the reality being represented in a work of art, such as a documentary, should not be conflated with the internal realities in the minds of the viewers consuming that documentary. They are separate, and distinct realities, although they are not mutually exclusive.

[1]  Patricia Aufderheide ( Documentary Film- A Very Short Introduction )Oxford University Press, 2007, p.4
[2]  Bill Nichols (Introduction to Documentary) Second Edition, Indiana University Press 2010, pp,7-10
[5] Bill Nichols ( ibid)p.8
[6] Bll Nichols (ibid) p.8
[7] Bill Nichols (ibid) p.13
[8] Lotte Eisner,(Murnau) University of California Press, 1973, p.204
[9]  Link to “Tabu: :
[10] Lotte Eisner (ibid) p.218
[11] Nichols ( ibid) p.15
[12] Federico Fellini ( Fellini  on Fellini) Delacorte Press, 1976, p.152
[13] Gaines ( ibid) p.2
[14] Aufderheide, (ibid.)p.5

Sunday, March 16, 2014


III.10 Documentary – Odd Man Out:

 Regardless of how one might define documentary, there are a few universally accepted distinctions between documentary and traditional motion picture entertainment. In the words of documentary historian Erik Barnouw:

The assumptions and myths of a society are so constantly recycled in its formula fiction (as well as in other media including political speeches and advertising) that its audience ceases to notice the assumptions. Other people’s fiction we can recognize as propaganda – and they ours. One’s own is entertainment. A reason for its seductiveness is that it pictures a world that makes sense, in terms of cause and effect. It is internally consistent, in contrast to the world shown in many documentaries – a world that may be full of contradictions and loose ends, and that seldom offers neat endings…. A politician who lives by mythologies may well look on the documentarist’s work as subversive. And indeed it is a kind of subversion- an essential one. And a difficult one.” [1]
As a result, the genre of documentary has always been viewed as a notoriously bad business proposition by mainstream Hollywood. In the words of the legendary mogul Sam Goldwyn: “If you want to send a message, try Western Union!”[2]

Prior to the advent of digital technology, Mr. Goldwyn’s words made good sense. Thanks to their unavoidably high shooting ratio, it was extremely difficult to make a low-budget documentary film.
Film stock itself was expensive, as were the unavoidable costs of film processing and prints.  As a result, documentaries, even without the cost of stars, were always an expensive genre, and could only be made with institutional support or the patronage of wealthy individuals who could afford to lose their investment.

Documentary icons from Robert Flaherty to Dziga Vertov to John Grierson and Leni Riefenstahl were all only able to produce their films thanks to substantial institutional or corporate patronage. Documentary films were more often than not institutional or corporate prestige pieces; if the filmmaker was lucky, he or had a benign institutional or corporate benefactor supporting his or her work. No one expected a documentary to turn a profit. As a result, documentarians either had to compromise or, shut down production altogether.

As British documentary historian Brian Winston has pointed out, even supposedly socially progressive documentarians such as Grierson actually had much more in common with propagandists such as Dziga Vertov and Germany’s Leni Riefenstahl than is often recognized. Indeed, one might reasonably argue that rather than being subversive, Grierson’s productions were propaganda for the British Empire and the preservation of the status quo.[3]

Even during the height of the cinema verite boom in America in the 1960’s, few documentaries turned a profit; the only exceptions were music-based epics of the 1960’s like Mike Wadleigh’s “Woodstock”(1970) and Leacock/Pennebaker’s “Don’t Look Back”(1967), chronicling a historic tour of England by Bob Dylan.
 Meanwhile, an otherwise excellent Academy Award winning documentary about the Vietnam War like Peter Davis’ “Hearts and Minds “ enjoyed very limited distribution, and was not widely seen.  As American documentary historian Jane M. Gaines notes,” Few of the classic documentaries have ever had mass audiences.”[4]

At that time, the average budget for a cinema verite documentary feature was about $300,000 – or about $3,000,000 today.  This was quite a bit of money, since it was only for production, and did not include money for prints and advertising, which generally meant an additional doubling the production costs for any chance of commercial success. The odds of finding a commercial producer willing to do that were small indeed.

The bottom line remained the bottom line; the Goldwyn dictum ruled supreme, and the conventional wisdom was that documentaries did not make money.
Self-financed documentaries were always an option, of course – but only for those few fortunate individuals with unlimited access to discretionary income, as well as with financially self-destructive inclinations.

Meanwhile, few countries in the developing world possessed the resources to afford the luxury of documentary production; they had other, more-pressing priorities, such as feeding their populations and developing their societies.

In the Western world, the only hope for documentary filmmakers was either a grant or financing from publically funded television networks like the BBC in England, Antenne 2 in France and PBS and affiliates in the US. (or Sveriges Television or Svenska Filminstitutet in Sweden) .If filmmaker were well connected and persistent enough, they might get some funding – but never as a business proposition.

 As a result, documentarians interested in promoting social change with their work often found themselves in the awkward position of seeking financial support from the very institutions they wished to change. This equation began to change with the emergence of high quality, but low cost digital cameras and tape in the late 20th century. The cost of film and film processing was suddenly no longer a factor; one could purchase one hour of mini-dv tape for a one-time cost of less than $10. virtually anywhere in the world, and a documentarian could literally carry hundreds of hours of tape in a carry-on bag. 

As digital production technology continued to rapidly evolve in the early 21st century, suddenly, new digital documentaries of all kinds began to proliferate; as Michael Moore’s box office hit “Farenheit 9/11 ” (2004) demonstrated, not only was a potentially lucrative commercial American market for documentaries, but  that there was even a substantial commercial market for highly politicized documentaries with controversial content. As has happened throughout the history of the cinema, conventional wisdom had been proven wrong by the commercial feedback of box office success.

With the cost of production radically diminished by digital technology, an additional obstacle to the production of socially critical documentary has been the issue of copyright.  Previously, the cost of stock footage was becoming so exorbitant that it was becoming virtually financially impossible to make a historical documentary using archival footage.

As a result, documentarians in the United States wanting to make historical compilations organized and confronted the copyright issue head on;, unlike their colleagues in the music industry, they managed to create a Fair Use protocol establishing guidelines by which they could use copyrighted material without charge, a major victory.[5]

On January 19, 2012, the following item appeared in The New York Times:
 Eastman Kodak, the 131-year-old film pioneer that has been struggling for years to adapt to an increasingly digital world, filed for bankruptcy protection early on Thursday.”[6]

Whether or not one had agreed with Susan Sontag’s 1995 assertion that movies were dead, the demise of Eastman Kodak in January, 2012, was the nail in the coffin. Film, as previously defined, was literally dead. For most documentarians , as well as anyone else interested in making low-budget productions, the transition from analog film to digital cinema has been a liberation.

In the last decades of the 20th century, many documentarians had had hopes that analog video would provide such a liberation, but they soon grew disillusioned. The analog cameras and editing equipment required to create images of broadcast quality were prohibitively expensive, and cost much more than corresponding film cameras and editing tables.

In addition, there was the issue of filmic image quality. Even the best analog video had a flat, two-dimensional look that was anathema to cineastes, and there was significant generational quality loss whenever the material was duplicated. As a result, many documentarians continued to shoot with film until the end of the millennium.

With the introduction of digital technology in the early 21st century, there was some resistance from those who still felt that filmic quality was unique, and that quality was lost with digital images, just as it had been with analog video.
However, while this might initially been the case, digital technology has improved in leaps and bounds; as usual, there are vested interests who find all change and innovation threatening, but the remarkable ability of the digital image to simulate the film image, scratches and all, has all but ended the aesthetic debate.
on image quality.

Today, in 2013 that resistance has all but vanished, with only a few pockets remaining in bastions of tradition like commercials and Hollywood, where cost is less of an issue than it is for documentarians. The fact that high quality digital production equipment is significantly cheaper than either film or analog video equipment has been equally important. For as little as $20,000 in equipment, a documentarian can now shoot and edit work of high technical quality.

The implications for both the documentarian and for society at large are significant. In a traditional Marxist sense, thanks to digital technology, the documentarian now has the means of production at his or her disposal. However, distribution remains a bit more complicated.   As James Monaco puts it: “ Today anyone can produce a book, film, record, magazine, newspaper…But can these newly empowered producers of media get their work read, seen or heard by large numbers of people?”[7]

The answer is to distribute either by DVD and internet websites; if government authorities block a given website, there is also the option of direct projection to intended audiences – a technique known as narrowcasting. With a laptop, an LCD projector costing less than $2000, a sound system and a portable generator, digital cinema can be projected to audiences lacking both internet and electricity virtually anywhere in the world- in the tradition of the Soviet Agit-Prop trains during the Russian Revolution.[8] Cheap and easy DVD duplication makes this possible.

For the commercial entertainment industry, however, cheap and easy DVD duplication remains an evil to be eliminated, particularly now that more and more countries are gaining access to the high bandwidth needed to download movies and television programs.

 We are now in the midst of a giant international legal war being fought between the traditional commercial entertainment industries and some governments, on the one hand, and the new digital information industry, on the other – popularly known as Hollywood vs. Silicon Valley.

There is an intriguing Marxist perspective on issue of digital duplication; writing in 1935-36, Walter Benjamin, the noted German art critic, distinguished between an original art work and a technologically reproduced work as follows: “The technological reproducibility of the art work changes the relation of the masses to art. The extremely backward attitude towards a Picasso painting changes into a highly progressive reaction to a Chaplin film.”[9]

In Benjamin’s eyes, the traditional bourgeois art world, with its premium on authenticity, was a ritualistic and very exclusive endeavor doomed to irrelevance by technological reproduction of art works:” Technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual… As soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function of art is revolutionized. Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics.”[10]

Given Benjamin’s views in this now famous essay, which was published after his death in World War II, it seems reasonable to conclude he would have considered digital technology very revolutionary indeed, had he lived to see it.

However, there is no way he could have foreseen the impact of the Digital Revolution on 19th century ideologies like Marxism. In the words of cinema historian James Monaco:” As the Information Age became a reality and knowledge joined labor and capital in the social equation, ideology couldn’t keep up. It is more than coincidental that the rise of the microchip accompanied the end of the Cold War, a conjunction that Mikhail Gorbachev himself once pointed out.”[11]

In short, the realities of the constantly expanding Digital Revolution defy analysis with our traditional ideological tools, which were conceived in another, bygone era, and are no longer relevant. The same would apply to Digital Documentary,
which cuts through ideological and geographical borders alike. [12]

An article in the International Herald Tribune of January 9, 2013, describes how the new digital technology has created new opportunities for artists in Cuban cinema: “ The global boom in digital filmmaking has rippled across Cuba over the past decade, letting filmmakers create their own work beyond the oversight of state-financed institutions. Independent movies have become a new means of expression in a country where, despite freedoms and economic reforms introduced by President Raul Castro since 2006, the state still carefully controls national press, television and radio, and access to the internet is very limited.[13]

It appears that, in spite of official government disapproval, what used to be called underground cinema in the United States half a century ago is now alive and well in Cuba. [14]As the article notes, this boom in Cuban digital cinema is symptomatic of a general international phenomenon.

In recent years, there have been a number of examples from different parts of the world where people, confronted by oppressive regimes, have created their own parallel, independent news networks, free from government censorship and control; given the Wikipedia definition of Newsreel as a form of short documentary film prevalent in the first half of the twentieth century, regularly released in a public presentation place and containing filmed news stories and items of topical interest , these programs might be called the first Digital Newsreels. [15]

These examples include:

The Saffron Revolt in Burma in 2007: Individual Burmese, often at great risk to life and limb, recorded demonstrations by Burmese monks and others against the Burmese dictatorship, frequently just using cellphone cameras. The material was then uploaded onto an internet website based in Norway, and edited and redistributed in Burma on-line on The Democratic Voice of Burma website. Since the Democratic Voice of Burma frequently contradicted the official government version of events with visual evidence, the military government grew increasingly frustrated with this circumvention of their authority.

 Finally, in September, 2007, the Burmese junta took the drastic action of completely shutting down the internet in Burma. Since the complete shut down of the internet would have serious repercussions for any country, many anti-government protesters saw this as a classic case of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, and therefore a victory of sorts.[16]

The 2010 Red Shirt protests in Thailand:  After the Thai Army overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and installed a government of their own choosing, there were periodic demonstrations by Thaksin’s supporters who were known as Red Shirts.  These demonstrations came to a head in April, 2010, with the occupation of a business district in downtown Bangkok.
The army sent in armored vehicles, but failed to disperse the demonstrators after a pitched battle. Instead, the soldiers fled and demonstrators managed to take over several armored vehicles. Red Shirt sympathizers taped the action, and produced DVDs with their version of the event which were then distributed and shown around the countryside with LCD projectors during Thai New Year celebrations on April 13 using the technique of narrow casting.[17]

The defeat of the mighty army was a major propaganda victory for the Red Shirts ; in 2011, after 5 years of military rule, democratic elections were finally held and the Red Shirt candidate, Yingluck Shinawatra,the sister of Thaksin, won in a landslide.[18]

The Arab Spring: One of the more intriguing aspects of the political phenomenon popularly known as The Arab Spring has been the role played by digital media in these events. While the relative importance of this role has been the subject of great debate, there is a general consensus that so-called citizen journalists have been a factor, providing information to the public outside of official government channels through individual written and visual records of events on websites, blogs and other media forms.

The regime of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak reportedly considered this phenomenon to be such a serious problem that it considered emulating the example of their Burmese colleagues in shutting down the internet in Egypt altogether, but ultimately relented for economic reasons.

The phenomenon of citizen journalists who can provide a visual record of events is now a reality in many countries around the world; a visual record which contradicts an official version of an event can have a devastating effect on the credibility of the authorities, and there have been many recent examples. One of the most notorious was the videotape from an American Apache attack helicopter killing unarmed Iraqi civilians which brought Wikileaks into the public eye. [19]

III.11. Conclusion:

Thanks to the Digital Revolution, The New World Information Order is becoming a reality in the realm of Digital Documentary, though in a far more anarchic form than the government representatives at the UNESCO conference in 1980 had envisioned.

Their successors are seeking to restore governmental controls at the World Conference on International Telecommunications held in Dubai in December, 2012. Their goal is to update a treaty created under very different conditions in 1988;critics ranging from Google to Greenpeace warn that the conference could “encourage governments to censor the internet. “This is a very important moment in the history of the internet, because this conference may introduce practices that are inimical to its continued growth and openness, ”said Vinton G. Cerf, vice president and chief internet advocate of Google.[1]

The struggle between those authorities who seek to impose government control and those who envision an unfettered digital media sphere remains far from resolved.  Stay tuned…[2] [3]

Let us now turn our attention to what might be called the Documentary Tradition , and see what relevance  the aesthetic conventions of documentary film  might have for Digital Documentary. As shall be seen, the question of what constitutes, and what does not constitute, a documentary has long been a bone of contention in both the creative and academic factions of the international community of cineastes.

While this dispute, however heated, has generally been limited to academic circles, a potentially more serious related issue for the future of documentary has been the tendency of media institutions such as newspapers and television stations to use digital technology as a cost-saving device for consolidating previously distinct professional functions. Since such changes directly affect production, Chapters V-VII will deal with the effects of digital technology on the documentary production workflow from preproduction through to postproduction.

[1] International Herald Tribune, November 29, 2012. P.1&17
[2] The June, 2013 protests in Taksim Square offered another good example of Digital Newsreels:
[3] Or, the June, 2013 Protests in Brazil:

[1] Erik Barnouw,( Documentary: A History of the Non-fiction Film)
    Second Revised Edition, Oxford University Press, 1993. pp.345-346
[2] The origins of this legendary Goldwynism are murky, like many others.
[3] Michael Renov ( The Subject of Documentary) University of Minnesota Press, 2004.p.135
[4] Jane M. Gaines ( Collecting Visible Evidence) University of Minnesota Press,1999, p. 85
[5] Patricia Aufderhiede and  Peter Jaszi ( Reclaiming Fair Use –How to Put the Balance Back in Copright)  University of Chicago Press, 2011

[6] The New York Times, January 19, 2012
[7] Monaco ( ibid) p.479
[9] Walter Benjamin, (The Work of Art in the Age of tis Technological Reproduction and other Writings on Media) Belknap, Harvard University Press, 2008, p36
[10] Benjamin, (ibid), p.25
[11] Monaco ( ibid) p. 585
[12] As previously noted, the issue of the Digital Revolution and copyright will be dealt with in more detail in Chapter VIII, Fair Use and Copyright Conflict
[13] Victoria Burnett,(Cuban Filmmakers start rolling with Technology International Herald Tribune, January 9, 2013, pp 10-11
[14]  Unfortunately, in October, 2013, the Cuban government announced they were shutting down all of these independent cinemas, since they had not been licensed, and were therefore illegal.
[17]  More on Narrow Casting in Chapter 7
[19] ( more on this video in Chapter IV)