Documentary Films

Your final project involves making a short documentary film.  Before you start making your first documentary, we are going to learn a bit about documentaries.

How many of you have seen a documentary?

Why should you watch a documentary?
1) They show us what we will probably never see.
2) Humanize a complex story.
3) An interesting look into history.
4) Tell us something about our world.

There are different kinds of documentaries>
1) Expository or essay style:

is investigative and academic. It is investigative because the film collects evidence, academic because it presents an argument or point of view on a subject. The cinematic elements of an essay-style documentary can include interviews, a presenter in vision and/or voice-over narration with supporting images and visual sequences.  An example would RIP: A Remix Manifesto.

2) Observational style, or “Fly on Wall”:

As the name implies, the approach is very hands-off; the camera follows action that is beyond the control of the filmmaker. The impression created is of a story unfolding in chronological order.  If the filmmaker has a point of view, it is hidden in this narrative structure. The cinematic elements include hand- held camera work; subjects speak to each other, not an interviewer; the structure is in a story format.  An example would be Spellbound (2004).

3) Interactive or reflexive style:

The dominant idea in this documentary approach is that the filmmaker is not trying to hide that a film is being made; in fact, the people in the film are seen interacting with the film crew and/or the documentary includes information about the production. Cinematic elements include the filmmaker in vision or on the soundtrack discussing the film and interacting with the subjects. Usually, these films are made with a fluid, hand- held camera style and shots are held a longer time than in essay style. As in the observational style, these films follow a seemingly chronological narrative structure that lead to an ending that is often difficult to predict. The notion of this unpredictable ending aligns it as closely as possible with life itself.  An example is The Cats of Mirikitani (2006).

4) Performative:

the filmmaker, who is the subject of the film, undergoes some sort of physical or visceral process solely for the purposes of the film. Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me (2004) would be considered a performative documentary. Cinematic elements include the subject speaking directly to camera or in voice-over in the first person.

A documentary aspires to tell the truth, but that isn’t always the case.  Why do you think that is the case?

When you watch a documentary, it is important to take note of a couple things,

Firstly, what is the point of the film?  Why did the filmmaker decide to make this film?

Secondly, is there a bias in the film?  Even if the filmmaker has tried to present a balanced perspective, there will always be some sort of bias at work. But bias shouldn’t imply deception because even the most rigorous scientific experiments include a bias, that is, certain parameters are established for an experiment while others are excluded. Having said that, bias can be difficult to detect in documentary because of the overt realism of its images. Bias would be more readily discernable if the viewer could see what the filmmaker chose to leave out but, of course, this is usually not possible. The bias is easier to detect if the audience knows the context in which the story of the documentary takes place. (Canada 2011)

Thirdly, when you watch a documentary you should ask whether the filmmaker is sympathetic or critical of the subject of their film. This is sometimes called the voice of the documentary; in what tone is it addressing its subject? I.e. critical, sympathetic, impartial. And in what tone is it speaking to the viewer? I.e. strident, humorous, authoritative, tentative. (Canada 2011)

It also to pay attention to the soundtrack of the film.  Is there even music?  Or is the sound mostly interviews?  The camera angles and camera movement can also tell you a lot about the film.  Is the camera moving a lot?  Why is that and does it add to the film?

References
Looking at Documentaries, an educational resource.

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