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”:

Monday, May 26, 2014


IV.6. The Relevance of the Vertov Legacy to the Digital Revolution:

The Vertov legacy in documentary has been extensive, and is still growing today. 

For example, Vertov was the direct progenitor of the cinema verite movement in the 1960s that used new light-weight cameras and equipment to show the world in ways it had never been shown before, and the name cinema verite itself is a direct translation of Kino Pravda.   The influential French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard was also a great admirer of Vertov for his ability to fuse political statement with artistic creativity, and started La Groupe Dziga Vertov in 1968 with several collegaues to make political films following the example set by Vertov with Kino Pravda almost half a century earlier.[1]

His appeal is not limited to the French nouvelle vague and practitioners of cinema verite. Anyone seriously interested in the potential of cinema and cinematic language found useful ideas and observations in Vertov’s works and writings.
His Futurist faith in technology also resonates today.

 In addition to dynamic change, the Futurists adored modern technology, and Vertov worshipped the film camera and explored its potential in ways few have ever done. He took his Lumiere camera on trains, boats, cars and trains, and even underneath trains. He showed intimate moments of daily life in public places with hidden cameras, experimented with pixilation and reverse motion, and frequently had reflexive shots of his camera operator in action. [2]

His documentary feature, “The Man With The Movie Camera” is still admired as a creative masterpiece, and, most recently, was voted 8th best film of all time in the 2012  Sight and Sound  poll.[3]

This poll included all film genres – fiction, as well as documentary. In the 21st century, with an increased interest in documentary due to the rapid proliferation of digital technology, cinema historians are once again rediscovering the works and writings of Vertov; after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s  many of his films have become available to see on YouTube and elsewhere in the Western world, and English translations of his writings are also now available to the general public.

 Now, fortunately, people can judge his relevance for themselves, rather than relying on the interpretations of experts like Ivor Montagu and John Grierson.[4]
IV.7. Towards an Operational Definition of Documentary:

 Perhaps it is now time, with the sudden dominance of digital equipment, to once again resurrect the legacy of Dziga Vertov and the Cine-Eye aesthetic and see if it can provide criteria for creating an operational definition for documentary.  

The reasoning behind this stems from necessity, since defining documentary according to content, as many have done, is simply intellectually and logically impossible; as we have already seen, such a definition is based on completely subjective variables.

Likewise, any definition of documentary based on an assumption of the documentarians’ alleged or implicit intentions runs the risk of becoming mired in even more hopelessly subjective speculation.  Indeed, the contemporary debate between documentary theorists in the Anglophone academic world questioning the very rationale for documentary has created an intellectual cul-de-sac.

 For example, British post-modern documentary theorist Stella Bruzzi caps an incoherent intellectual broadside against fellow documentary theorists Linda Williams , Erik Barnouw, Michael Renov and Brian Winston with the following assertion:”all documentaries are inherently doomed to failure…Too often in the past documentary was seen to have failed (or to be in imminent danger of failing) because it could not be decontaminated of its representational quality.”[5]

There are fundamental flaws in Bruzzi’s  argument. First of all, she is unable to quote any documentarian saying that it is his or her creative goal to objectively represent reality, and therefore can present no empirical support for her thesis.  The reason for this is simple: there are no documentarians of note who have ever said such a thing.

Secondly, Bruzzi also asserts in this context that it is impossible for a documentarian to record a subject without the subject being unaware of the process. This statement is demonstrably untrue, and is even contradicted by the writings and work of Vertov, who frequently employed hidden camera techniques to catch his subjects “off guard. ”

In his Cine Eyes Field Manual, Vertov writes, ”Filming unawares – an old military rule; gauging, speed, attack”… Vertov then goes on to list 8 different ways in which the subject can be filmed unawares.[6]

A more contemporary example of a documentarian using a hidden camera can be also found in Danish Mads Brugger’s lively documentary The Ambassador (2012),[7] in which the director manages to purchase a position as an ambassador from Liberia to the Central African Republic to see if he can buy conflict diamonds. Much of the action involves interaction between the fake ambassador and local dignitaries – all recorded with hidden camera.

In other words, Bruzzi has based her argument on a demonstrably false premise.

As has been shown, the issue of documentary’s representation of reality has been an intellectual challenge to a generation of academic documentary theorists, who, in the words of historical documentary researcher Dirk Eitzen, have,” tended to devote their energies to showing how documentaries are constructed or artificial or ‘fictive’.” [8]

While not wishing to dispute the philosophical merits of this argument, Eitzen echoes the views of Patricia Aufderheide when he suggests that these documentary theorists might be better served if they considered the social impact on audiences of widely seen and well made historical documentaries such as Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985)[9] and Ken Burns’ Civil War (1990).[10]

Eitzen writes: “Philosophically speaking, reality and our representations of it are truly ‘incommensurate’. Practically speaking, however, documentarians do have the power to really put us in touch with our reality – just as “really”, that is, as our senses put us in touch with reality. We can never know reality, it is true, but we can very definitely know certain things about it. Evolution has guaranteed this.”[11]

 With the rapid growth of digital technology in documentary, notions of what is and what is not acceptable representation are changing as well. Therefore, it would perhaps be more practical to avoid altogether such highly charged issues such as what constitutes representation and what is the nature of reality when seeking a workable definition of documentary.  
If we are going to provide a clear and concise definition of what is, and what is not, documentary, we need to focus on how documentaries are made, rather than what they might or might not depict.

 In this context, in his seminal work on documentary production, “ Directing the Documentary”, Michael Rabiger observes that the debate regarding the identity of documentary has largely faded away among established filmmakers, adding that,” Except for women’s and gay political issues, academics have largely taken over the arguments. Little about the original debates has ever been settled, and the documentary remains a minefield of temptations and possibilities, just as in the early days... Documentary is a branch of the expressive arts, not a science.”[12]

 Jack C. Ellis and Betsy MacLane, authors of “ A New History of Documentary Film”, offer a similar response to documentary theorists like Bruzzi : “ However useful they may be for viewers seeking a deep understanding of the films, the writings of film theorists are not very much a part of the world of documentary making and watching.”[13]

A simpler methodology for defining documentary is offered by American media theorist James Monaco ; according to Monaco, cinematic styles concentrating on what is in front of the camera can be defined as realist; those cinematic styles with a focus on what goes on behind the camera he defines as expressionist. For illustrative purposes, he defines the Lumiere Brothers’s work as realist, and Melies’ work as expressionist.[14]

There is also significant support for such an approach in science. As Dr. Rudolf Carnap explains, Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle  has forced us to accept that we live in an indeterminate world, where there is never 100% certainty.  For example, there are phenomena which we know to exist, but which are too small or complex to measure accurately.[15]  Scientific phenomena that cannot be defined by their intrinsic essence, are sometimes defined according to how they are measured, in what are called correspondent or operational definitions.[16]

The British documentary theorist Dai Vaughan has summarized the essence of Vertov’s Theory as follows: The cine-camera is endowed with all the potentialities of human sight – and more. It can peep with unblinking gaze into every corner of life, observing, selecting and capturing the myriad details of appearance and transaction  which constitute the reality of our epoch. The camera should, therefore, be used to record not the simulated emotions of paid actors in locales created by the plasterer and the set-decorator, but the authentic and unrehearsed behavior of real people in the streets and houses in which we live. All artifice should be eliminated, except in the unavoidable process of editing.”[17]

Let us now consider a possible operational definition of documentary based on what might be termed The Dziga Vertov Documentary Canon:



In reality, few documentarians are absolute purists on this second point. As documentarians and all practitioners of cinematic craft know well, there are few absolutes in cinema; rather, one creates creative goals and then strives to achieve them as best one can. Fidelity alone to a given set of rules does not determine an artistic products success or failure. Indeed, the so-called failure may be far more interesting than the supposed success. Vertov himself admits he violated his own “rules” on more then one occasion.

Acordingly, this definition should be seen more as providing stylistic guidelines rather than laws etched in stone – along the lines of the Danish Dogme-95 Manifesto, which created an aesthetic without being doctrinaire.[18] What makes Vertov particularly intriguing as a paradigm for the creation of an operational definition of documentary is the dialectic between his theory and his practice – the interplay between his writings and his extensive body of work. His observations on documentary technique are very detailed, and appear to be refreshingly honest.  
For example, he himself confesses to some staging and manipulation in his work for practical production purposes , noting that the goal should be to keep such staging or manipulation to an absolute minimum.  However, as a documentary producer, Vertov was well aware that, when one has a job to do, one cannot always be an absolutist; unlike a critic, sometimes it is necessary for a film producer to compromise to get the job done.

Theoretical and ideological discussions aside, it is also worth remembering that Vertov’s  silent masterpiece, “The Man With The Movie Camera”  is still recognized as being so far ahead of its time in terms of documentary and cinematic techniques that some critics feel that it could could still serve as a manual in visual documentary techniques and aesthetics for future generations.[19]

[1] Wikipedia (
[2] Link to “Kino Pravda, Parts 1-5”:
[3] Wikipedia (
[4] Link to “The Man With the Movie Camera”:
[5] Stella Bruzzi ( New Documentary) Second Edition. Routledge, 2006, p. 6
[6] Hicks Iibid)p. 24
[7] Link to trailer for “The Ambassador”:
[8] Dirk Eitzen (Against the Ivory Tower – An Apologia for ‘Popular’ Historical Documentaries) in Rosenthal and Corner( ibid), p. 417
[9] Link to Part 1 of “ Shoah”:
[10] Link to Part 1 of “ The Civil War”:
[11] Eitzen (ibid.) P. 415
[12]  Rabiger (ibid).p 9
[13] Jack C. Ellis and Betsy  A. MacLane (  “ A New History of Documentary Film”) Continuum Press, 2006. P. 335
[14] James Monaco (How To Read a Film) Fourth Edition, Oxford University Press, 2009,p.318
[15] Rudolf Carnap (The Philosophical Foundations of Physics) Basic Books, 1966, p.283
[16] Carnap (ibid.)p.232
[17] From Dai Vaughan’s summary of Dziga Vertov’s Kino Eye Manifesto in Lewis Jacobs ( The Documentary Tradition) Second Edition, WW Norton, 1979, p.53

[19] Hicks (ibid.) p.