Wednesday, June 24, 2015


Historical Drama:  While there is general agreement that the term historical drama refers to fictitious events set in a historical context, there are some variations on this genre which fall between the lines.  For example, what is one to make of the many historical documentaries done by the BBC and others that now show re-enactments of historical events and characters?

By Vertov’s expressed standards, these films would not be documentaries if they have theatrically re-created events with actors playing the roles of historical figures; they may be excellent docudramas, but they are not documentaries.  The issue is a fundamental issue of directorial control: as soon as you have theatrical re-enactments you are exerting dramatic control over the material  which will affect the viewer’s perceptions both consciously and subconsciously.

As soon as you show the face of, say, the leader of the Visigoths as he prepares to sack Rome, you are leaving documentary, and entering the realm of historical drama. Some historical television documentaries, like Simon Schama’s productions on BBC, carefully observe this distinction by limiting their images to showing an on-camera presenter, often speaking in present time from the historical location, which is also shown in present time.

Among other things, historical interpretation is a highly complex art, requiring extensive research, not to mention funding for scenography and locations that are usually far beyond the means of a producer of historical documentary. This challenge has inspired some creative solutions.

For example, rather than do an inferior re-creation on a tight budget, some directors, like the American Ken Burns, in his highly successful series on the American Civil War titled “The Civil War” (1990) have carefully limited themselves to use of  authentic historical images as well as contemporary texts such as letters read by actors, and have managed to produce powerful historical documentaries while remaining faithful to traditional documentary conventions.[1]
On subsequent productions like “Baseball” (1994) and “Jazz” (2001), among others, Burns demonstrated that it is possible to respect traditional documentary technique and tell engaging stories about historical processes and events, provided one possesses the aesthetic discipline and professional integrity required.

Burns has  won two Academy Awards for his work, and enjoyed commercial as well as artistic success; today his productions are used as educational tools in many American schools, and his work has spawned a generation of imitators. [2] Therefore, historical documentaries would fall within the realms of our definition, while historical dramas or historical fiction would not.

Reality Based Television: Sometimes referred to as reality television, or infotainment, reality based television refers to genre of television programs in which real people are put in comic or dramatic situations designed to evoke an entertaining response for spectators. Examples from the early history of television include television game shows and talk shows.

After strikes in the 1980’s by The Writers Guild and The Screen Actors’s Guild, Hollywood television producers sought new ways to produce entertaining television programming material without paying for talent and scripts.  The first successful reality-based programs in the United States had a law and order theme, such as “Cops”, produced by John Langely and Malcom Barbour, which was first broadcast in 1989.

The concept of “Cops” was simple enough: a camera crew would be embedded with a police unit, and would then follow them on their patrol as the police answered calls and made arrests.  Heavy emphasis was placed on authenticity in the opening disclaimer, read by actor Burt Lancaster: “Cops is about real people and real criminals. It was filmed entirely on location with the men and women in work in law enforcement.”[3]

Shot entirely in cinema verite style, “Cops” proved to be a wildly successful program around the world. In 2012, the 850th   episode was broadcast by Fox Television, the producer, in the United States.  Over the years, however, there have been questions about documentary ethics involved, and in May, 2013, Fox Television announced it was discontinuing the series.[4]

Similar ethical issues arise with the so-called docusoap, a term used to denote the next generation of reality-based programming typified by the “Survivor” series.   “Survivor” was first broadcast in the United States in 1992; the program creates a highly charged but very artificial situation by throwing a group of carefully selected contestants into an exotic location where they had to pass a series of grueling physical tests to compete for a cash prize.

Personal conflicts between contestants are encouraged, and carefully recorded; the ideal result was a Darwinian snake pit from which contestants would be evicted, one by one, until finally only one survivor remained and was crowned the winner of the substantial cash prize. - hence the title. Today, versions of “Survivor”are produced in many countries around the world.[5]

Since “Survivor “and its various and sundry spin-offs are fundamentally television game shows, they cannot be considered documentary, even if the programs may contain documentary elements. Indeed, the producers of “Survivor” have never pretended the program is documentary. The entire situation is contrived, and the participants are heavily manipulated. Were it not for the need for commercial television programming, the situation being depicted would never exist at all. Therefore, what is being documented is a fiction, with the only caveat being that the contest is supposed to be rigged, like other game shows.

While it might seem self-evident that game shows cannot be considered documentary, Stella Bruzzi makes a fanciful case that docusoaps are part of something she calls new observational television, or factual entertainment. She writes, ”As in the case with cinema verite and direct cinema in the 1960’s, the evolution and current extension of the parameters of observational film and television is in large part due to specific technological advances.” [6]

While it is certainly true that technological innovations have greatly facilitated the production of docusoaps and other examples of reality-based programming, one can also say with certainty that the rapid evolution of digital technology has greatly facilitated all manner of creative endeavours, and not just docusoaps.
The technology does not just generate the product; rather, producers use the new technology to create new products to satisfy specific needs.

As was the case with reality-based programs like “Cops”, the docusoap format was created specifically to enable producers avoid paying television actors and screenwriters the fees they were owed according to union contracts.

In addition, most docusoaps are never shot on location or in real-life situations; instead, they depict the actions of individuals thrown together in a completely contrived situation. In this situation, individuals are frequently manipulated ( and allegedly even sometimes scripted) off-camera, and are encouraged to create drama for the camera.

All of these features might make for titillating television entertainment, but they are all fundamental violations of the ground rules for documentary.  Hence docusoaps, along with reality based television  and infotainment, although all contain some documentary elements, fall outside the parameters of our operational definition of documentary.

As Rabiger has noted so eloquently,” the public has an insatiable appetite for “infotainment” shows based on police recordings, accidents, and bizarre events captured in home movie clips. By no stretch of the imagination are they documentary, even though they do document how people react in trying situations. They do, however, use documentary observation and provide work for documentary crews. Perhaps they help us, in a roundabout way, to define what documentary is not.[7]

Propaganda Documentaries: The issue of what is, and what is not, propaganda has also long been a bone of contention in the world of cinema. One fundamental issue is that the very word propaganda resonates quite differently depending upon who is using it. Patricia Aufderheide defines propaganda documentaries as being made with the goal of convincing viewers of  an organization’s point of view or cause,  while noting that they are “an important source of funding and training for documentarians worldwide and sometimes an important influence on public opinion.”[8]

Dziga Vertov, for example, was proud to be making propaganda documentaries in the service of the communist party and the Soviet revolution. As previously noted, his problems arose when his ostensible clients in the party decided he was not making the kind of propaganda they wanted. He was unwilling to sacrifice his belief in the validity of his documentary canon to make the kind of films they wanted, so his ideological and aesthetic adversaries succeeded in shutting him down. Before that, however, Vertov managed to make a number of documentaries that are still respected today for their cinematic value, unlike the pedestrian exercises in social realism produced by his rivals.

In this context, one should acknowledge that both Stalin and Hitler were correct in their conclusion that fiction entertainment is a far more effective vehicle for the delivery of a propaganda message than documentary; the Hollywood classic “Casablanca” (1941) was easily the most successful propaganda film of the war, and much of its success was doubtless due to the fact that many viewers do not even think of it as propaganda. The best propaganda does not advertise its intentions; rather, it strikes a popular note in the guise of entertainment.

A far more controversial historical example is presented by Leni Riefenstahl's “Triumph of the Will” (1935), a stunning film about a Nazi party congress in Nuremberg which, politics aside, has long been recognized as a masterpiece of technical perfection, and which was banned for years because it was considered to be so inflammatory.

 As shown in Ray Muller’s fascinating documentary biography “The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl” (1993) Riefenstahl insisted that she was just a artist providing a visual record of the event. Indeed, she refused to ever admit she was even a member of the Nazi party, even though it is clear she never could have made the film without Hitler’s enthusiastic support.

When an incredulous Muller points out she had enjoyed extraordinary access to Hitler, and that the entire event appears meticulously staged and choreographed, she remains adamant that the film was just a work for hire .Her denials are contradicted by the film itself; every camera angle and camera movement is impeccable, and orchestrated . Nothing seems to have been left to chance. 

Muller’s close inspection of the production reveals that a good deal was, in fact, staged for the camera. Indeed, a strong case could be made that the entire rally at Nuremberg was staged for Riefenstahl' s benefit, since Muller reveals that she had shot the entire event the year before in the much less well-known “The Victory of the Faith”(1933), which Muller implies was something of a dress rehearsal.[9]

What with all this staging, and a dress rehearsal the year before, “The Triumph of the Will” is arguably not a documentary. Rather, one might more correctly term it an industrial; indeed, with 30 cameras and a crew of 172, one might even call it one the most extravagant commercials ever made. [10]  Ironically, the extraordinary production value and aesthetic perfection of the film appears to have made it a somewhat unsuccessful propaganda vehicle in Germany. In spite of a massive release, the film was not generally popular; perhaps Vertov was right when he told his cameramen to avoid staged events like processions and parades because they are boring. [11]

Regardless, in what has proved to be the ultimate irony, the material in the film proved to be very useful for anyone making an anti-Nazi propaganda film, and was used extensively for that purpose.[12]

On the other hand, Riefenstahl’s magnificent “Olympia “(1936), about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, was a worldwide hit, and is arguably a documentary. While the technical perfection of the mise-en-scene and the camerawork is exquisite, there is much more drama, since the film shows real sporting events, with real competition, and no staging or rehearsals.[13]

Riefenstahl defies easy categorization. Even though she had a well-documented infatuation with Hitler and the Nazi ideology, and was sent abroad as a glamorous international star to be used as propaganda tool, she stubbornly refused to ever admit she was a Nazi or intended to make propaganda films. Unrepentant to the end, as well as artistically active and proficient,  Leni Riefenstahl remains something of an enigma[14]

Some critics like Susan Sontag, have noted Riefenstahl’s seemingly persistent fascist obsession with strong male bodies in her films, as well as in her later photographic books on the people of Nubia in the Sudan, but Riefenstahl also became the first foreigner to ever be awarded honorary Sudanese citizenship for her efforts to document their people. Even today, her aesthetics are still influential, as can be seen in contemporary commercials for Calvin Klein.

 For students of documentary and cinema, Riefenstahl and her work raise many difficult questions; at the very least, they provide important case studies for anyone seeking to understand the nature of cinematic propaganda, not to mention the role of the artist in the creation of such propaganda. Curiously enough, even though Riefenstahl is widely recognized as one of the great directors of documentary of all time (as well as easily the greatest female director of documentary), it does seem a bit odd that some contemporary documentary historians, such as Jane M. Gaines, and Stella Bruzzi ,do not even find her worthy of mention in their books on documentary.

A more recent interesting twist on propaganda documentaries is provided by French director Barbet Schroder’s “General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait“(1974). Hired to make what was supposed to be a propaganda film in the Riefenstahl tradition about the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, Schroeder and his cameraman Nestor Alemendros instead covered all of the awkward moments in the events clumsily staged by their client, who appears to occasionally suspect that they are not shooting exactly what he had intended to orchestrate.

 As the title indicates, Schroeder does not pretend that these events in the film were not staged; quite to to the contrary, he reflexively relates Amin’s stated intentions. However, Schroeder bravely and cleverly manages to reveal all the intended manipulation, making a fool of Amin in the process. When the film was praised in Paris as a brilliant comic expose of an African dictator, Amin was furious. He proceeded to kidnap all the French citizens in Kampala and lock them up in a local hotel.

He then gave them Schroeder’s telephone number and, as the spectator is informed in a postscript to the film, insisted that two cuts be made in the most embarrassing material.  Schroeder made the cuts, and the Frenchmen were freed.By any standard, “General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait “is an excellent documentary.[15]

IV.10. Conclusion:

Documentarians chose the documentary genre as a mode of expression because they believe they have something to say, and they consciously chose the documentary form. When documentarians make that choice, they are also aware that they are making a compact with the audience that they will respect and observe the conventions of documentary that are currently the norm.

Out of necessity, therefore, digital documentarians must adhere to the same basic aesthetic conventions as their predecessors who made documentary films. While the technology has changed, the basic documentary conventions remain – at least, for the time being.

 These conventions are grounded in documentary tradition, practice and theory, and therefore any definition of documentary must have its roots in that tradition and theory to be viable.

The choice of Vertov was not based on sentimentality; Vertov is anything but sentimental, nor is his thinking anachronistic. Indeed, there are some documentary historians, like Jeremy Hicks, who feel that Vertov has particular relevance for Digital Documentary:

Digital imagery seems to herald a new scepticism towards documentary as an objective register, further weakening the Griersonian realist tradition. Vertov’s explicitly partisan exhortation, as well as his skepticism towards the image and the recording process, echo central themes of the digital age. Indeed, it has been argued that his search for non-narrative solutions to the organization of material anticipates those of the database. Yet, for all his relevance to these themes, Vertov’s revelation of the persuasive power of images was ultimately rooted in record.”[16]

Chapter V, VI, and VII shall now examine Digital Documentary Pre-production, Digital Documentary Production, and Digital Documentary Post- production.

[1] Link to the Gettysburg Address Sequence from “The Civil War”:
[4] Link to an episode of ‘ COPS”:
[6] Bruzzi (ibid)p 121
[7] Rabiger( ibid) p.40
[8] Aufderheide ( ibid) p. 65
[9] Link to “The Horrible Wonderful World of Leni Riefenstahl”:
[10] Ray Muller, (The Horrible Wonderful World of Leni Riefenstahl) (1993)
[11] Link to “Triumph of the Will”:
[12] William K. Everson (The Triumph of the Will)Infinity, September 1964, from Jacobs (ibid)p.138-139
[13]  Link to “Olympia”:
[15] Link to “ General Idi Amin Dada”:
[16] Hicks ( ibid). p136

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”: