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.
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.
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 .”
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. Led by Lindsay Anderson , Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz, Free Cinema reacted against Griersonian didacticism by showing daily lives of ordinary citizens without editorializing .
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.”
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.”
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”, 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”, 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
 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
 Link to “The Night Mail”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmciuKsBOi0
 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 .
 Lindsay Anderson on Free Cinema: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IX33mYO4K1w
 Aufderheide (ibid). p.44
 Lewis Jacobs ( The Documentary Tradition ,Second Edition) WW. Norton, 1975. P.404
 Brian Winston ( The Documentary Film as Scientific Inscription) in Theorizing Documentary, Michael Renov, Editor. Routledge, 1993.pp 46-49
 Link to an episode from “An American Family”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ukNL26zQv7w
 Link to “Three Songs of Lenin”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JeWK5iRp0BE