Definition of DOCUMENTARY
1: being or consisting of documents: contained or certified in writing ;
2: of, relating to, or employing documentation in literature or art; broadly: factual, objective ;
Realism is the dominant mode of representation in TV, mainstream films and print. The term usually implies that the media text attempts to represent an external reality: a film or TV programme is realistic because it gives the impression that it accurately reproduces that part of the real world to which it is referring.
Realism first came to prominence as a literary movement in the 1800’s. In terms of Film Studies, it is with the advent of documentary realism that our focus really begins. The first recorded films e.g. Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895) and Baby’s Breakfast (1895) were known as ‘actualities’, meaning they were records of reality. Documentary, therefore, was cinema’s first genre.
Documentary is traditionally associated with objectivity, authenticity and truthfulness. We tend to accept documentaries as ‘truth’ but they are highly constructed.
The father of the documentary form is generally considered to be Robert Flaherty, who made Nanook of the North (1922). However, Flaherty was later discovered to have constructed this documentary in a way that way more similar to fiction filming.
The Codes and Conventions of Documentary
1. Sound & Voice
Voice Over: Usually authoritative and encourages the audience to think that the speaker has specialist knowledge about the subject of the documentary. Voice over gives a direct address to the audience and provides exposition, essential information and argument. Broadly speaking there are two types:
‘Voice of God’: The voice over is used to suggest that the information is fact. For example, Morgan Freeman’s voice over in March of the Penguins.
‘Voice of the Author’: The voice over is recorded by the maker, often as they are the protagonist for the narrative (e.g. Michael Moore, Nick Broomfield or Morgan Spurlock). This type helps to reinforce the perspective of the author and encourages the audience to agree with them.
Diegetic sound will help to promote the sense of authenticity. Non-diegetic sound, usually music, will help create specific meanings. For example, in Super Size Me the use of childish music helps the audience understand that McDonalds targets children in an underhand and devious way.
Verbal Communication is a crucial element of the contemporary documentary. Two types can be identified. Firstly overheard exchange, a recording of seemingly spontaneous dialogue between two or more participants engaged in conversation. Secondly, testimony refers to the recording of information or opinion by witnesses, experts or other participants.
2. Seeing is Believing
‘Real’ Events: Documentary is essentially seen as ‘non-fiction’ although there are debates around this (e.g. Catfish). However, a convention of documentary is that all events presented to us are to be seen as ‘real’ by the audience. The recent cycle of ‘Found Footage’ horror (e.g. The Blair Witch Project  , REC. , Cloverfield  and Paranormal Activity ) have all exploited this ‘trust’ by using documentary techniques and framing the fictional events as ‘real’ to scare audiences more.
Documentary makers often go to great lengths to convince us that the footage is real and unaltered in anyway, although editing and voice over can affect the ‘reality’ we see.
The Technicality of Realism: To help establish the authenticity of what we see, documentary makers may often include evidence of the constructed nature of their work (Broomfield’s microphone, for example). There may also be an emphasis ‘natural’ sound and lighting. The audience is generally more willing to accept lower quality image and sound, as we understand that capturing ‘reality’ doesn’t allow for the same control over conditions for filming as staging fiction.
Reactive camerawork: The camera may often be handheld and the operator may have to react to the unplanned movements of subjects. Therefore the camera may miss some action as the operator reframes. Whip-pans might be used as the operator tries to catch up with the action.
Archive Footage/Stills: To aid authenticity and to add further information which the film maker may be unable to obtain themselves.
Interviews with ‘Experts’: These are used to reinforce the views expressed in the documentary. These types of interviews are referred to as ‘talking heads’ and careful consideration will be given to the mise-en-scene. The set dressing will often give us some information about the interviewee. Occasionally, the opinions of those interviewed will be in opposition to the message of the documentary, although the documentary maker will make clear their own disapproval, and the audience will be positioned to agree.
Vox-pops: These are a different type of interview. Instead of the carefully constructed talking head interviews, vox-pops are interviews with people on the street. Audiences accept these views as a reflection on popular opinion. The term comes from the Latin ‘Vox Populi’, meaning ‘voice of the people’.
Use of text & graphics: The use of words on screen to anchor images in time and space. Labels, dates etc. tend to be believed unquestioningly and are a quick and cheap way of conveying information. Graphics are used in a similar way to illustrate statistics quickly.
Set-ups aren’t just reconstructions of events that happened in the past but also setting up ‘typical’ scenes.For example to quickly convey ‘classroom’, a documentary maker might ask a teacher to write on a whiteboard. Strictly speaking, this is constructed. The issue is if documentary makers rely heavily on set-ups they will only be using images of ‘reality’ that audiences already recognise (confirming stereotypes perhaps) and producing challenging or new ideas about ‘reality’ will be less likely.
Visual Coding: The use of micro features like mise-en-scene and props are used to quickly convey meaning to an audience. Is that police officer any less a police officer if he/she’s not in uniform?
Selection and Inclusion: remember that the documentary maker will have selected what to include from a large amount of source footage. Footage is often rejected not just because of pacing or because of technical problems but because it doesn’t ‘fit’ the constructed narrative.
Verisimilitude is used to describe the imitation of reality in the media. This can be achieved in a number of ways through the construction of mise-en-scene. Verisimilitude might be achieved by using:
• Reactive, unsteady and handheld camera shots
• Cramped framing – the aesthetics aren’t as composed as in fiction films
• Natural lighting
• Natural or ambient sound.
Types of Documentary
Bill Nichols (2001) defines six types of documentary:
- Poetic: ‘reassembling fragments of the world’, e.g., a montage of events. (Man with a Movie Camera)
- Expository or ‘direct address‘: social issues presented in a direct form, audience acknowledged sometimes with a ‘voice-of-God’ narration and/or ‘talking heads’. (e.g. Super Size Me, Biggie & Tupac)
- Observational (fly-on-the-wall): Developed with handheld cameras and long takes in the 1950s/60s as part of the Cinema Verite movement. The audience should not be aware of the documentary maker; an attempt to capture reality as it unfolds.
- Participatory: Film-maker interviews/interacts with participants. (e.g. Super Size Me, Man with a Movie Camera and Biggie & Tupac)
- Reflexive: Aware that it is constructing its own reality. (Man with a Movie Camera)
- Performative: Represents reality in a stylised way that evokes the mood of fiction films to encourage audience engagement. It may involve reconstruction of events.
1. Super Size Me (2004, Dir. M. Spurlock)
An independent film following Spurlock’s attempt to eat only McDonalds food for 30 days.
Spurlock was motivated to make this documentary following claims from McDonalds made that all of their food was nutritionally balanced.
Spurlock’s journey is framed within the wider context of increasing obsesity in the Western world, but particularly in the USA.
Super Size Me is a persuasive documentary as Spurlock’s position is made clear from the outset. The film attempts to convince audiences that fast food corporations deliberately sell food they know to have poor nutritional value in order to make big profits.
According to Nichol’s modes, Super Size Me can be categorised as both expository (direct address) and participatory.
2. Man with a Movie Camera (1929, Dir. D. Vertov)
An experiemental silent documentary made in post-revolution Russia.
Part of the Soviet Montage movement, which experiemented with different editing techniques and how they affected an audience.
Vertov set out to portray life in ‘modern’ Russia using the framework of a ‘day’ and by using the camera operator and editor as part of the film.
This approach was in line with the ideology of a cinematic movement which strived to shock its audience and to constantly remind them that they are watching a contructed work of art.
Man with a Movie Camera can be classified as a poetic and reflexive documentary.
Biggie & Tupac (2002, Dir. N.Broomfield)
Broomfield is perhaps once of the most well known of documantarians. He usually features in his films as the investigator and protagonist.
He has become best known for his documentaries that delve into the hidden and unseemly worlds of infamous public figures. His films include Kurt & Courtney (1998), Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003) and Sarah Palin: You Betcha! (2011).
His work is all ways informed by his left wing political perspective, though in a way that is less confrontational than fellow documentarian Michael Moore.
Biggie & Tupac is shot, as is usual for Broomfield, with a minimal crew and with Broomfield himself acting as sound recordist and boom operator.
The film sees Broomfield investigating the deaths of two of Hip Hop’s most iconic figures – Notorious B.I.G and Tupac Shakur.
Broomfield displays possibly one of the most desired and enviable characteristics for a documentary film maker; the ability to get his subjects to feel comfortable enough to reveal some startling information on camera.
Biggie & Tupac can be classified as both an expository and participatory documentary.