Documentary: Task 1 – A Critical Review of the development of the Moving Image Documentary Format

A Critical Review of the development of the Moving Image Documentary Format

6 Modes of Documentary:
Expository Mode (Voice of God)
The title says it all for this type of documentary, and is perhaps the most common mode of all documentaries. This documentary “emphasises verbal commentary – often using a narrator”(1) whom is sometimes the director of the Documentary. The Expository mode’s purpose is to “address the spectator directly, with titles or voices that propose a perspective, advance an argument or recount history.”(1) and “they (the images) serve to illustrate, illuminate or act in counterpoint to what is being said by the author”.(1) An example of this would be ‘Blackfish’ by Gabriela Cowperthwaite.
Poetic Mode (Subjective, Artistic, Expression)
Perhaps the most abstract, and complex, of all the modes – “This abstract approach to documentary filmmaking emphasizes visual associations, tonal or rhythmic qualities, description, and form. These films often bear a close resemblance to experimental and avant-garde film.”(2) “The poetic mode “moves away from the ‘objective’ reality of a given situation or people, to grasp at an “inner truth” that can only be grasped by poetical manipulation”. In other words, the audience are shown an abstract, subjective, representation of reality achieved through techniques such as emphasised visuals and a narrative organised to fit the mood of the documentarian/documentary rather than the linear, logical organisation films followed prior to this.”(3)
Observational Mode (Window on the world)
“This mode uses the observations of an unobtrusive camera to create direct engagement with the everyday life of subjects.”(2) as it “attempt(s) to observe aspect(s) of the historical world as they happen. Typically (has) no voice-over commentary, no supplementary music or sound, no intertitles, no historical reenactments, no behavior repeated for the camera and no interviews. Social actors behave as if no film makers were there.”(1) An example of an Observational Mode Documentary would be a ‘behind the scene’ film, such as a band as they tour.
The Participatory Mode
“Involves an interview between filmmaker and the subject – this allows the film maker to address people who appear in the film, formally – this is opposed to addressing the audience through voice-over commentary. Also involves some participation from the film maker as well as social actors – this gives the audience a sense of what it is like for the filmmaker to be in a given situation and how that situation alters as a result.”(1) “Archival footage to examine historical issues is also included”. (2) An example of this would be ‘Finding Vivian Maier’ by John Maloof and Charlie Siskle.
The Reflexive Mode (Awareness of the process)
“This mode, which includes the mockumentary format, calls attention to the assumptions and conventions that govern documentary filmmaking to increase our awareness of how films construct representations of reality.”(2) This mode of documentary “speaks not only about the historical world, but about the problems and issues of representing it. (As the) documentaries set out to re-adjust the assumption and expectation of its audience, not add new knowing to existing categories.”(1) Reflexivity documentaries are used to draw “our attention to our assumption and expectations about documentary form itself”, while it “points towards our assumptions and expectations about the world around us.”
The Performative Mode
“This final mode highlights the subjective or expressive aspect of the filmmaker’s own involvement with a subject to heighten the audience’s responsiveness to the subject and to this involvement. These films reject objectivity and favor emotion.”(2) This documentary gives the audience a biased view – mainly the director’s, or creators, opinion – for example Michael Moore film ‘Bowling for Columbine’.

The Idea that documentaries are more ‘Truthful’ than Fiction
“Documentaries hold a particularly resonant role in the society of today as a visual medium in which to learn and evaluate the facts of a certain situation. We are expected to believe what we see and as viewers and consumers of this information, we expect to be shown the truth of an event or events that take place on the screen before us, as the saying goes, “a picture never lies”. But what if we can’t see the whole picture, the bigger picture, the picture cut from view, the edited expression of the reality of an event? Do we as the viewer have to construct this bigger picture ourselves? Are we expected to derive the truth from the information given to us by the photographer?”(1)
Documentaries have been a form of visual entertain as early at the 1800s (primarily due to the Lumber brothers), and whether it be looking at a legend – or looking at the life a single mother who raises 13 adoptive kids (two who are her birth sons), My flesh and blood. Documentaries present aspects – or events – of life, or history, which the directors has chosen to explore. What is within the film are the ‘facts’ found by the researcher. However while the facts maybe true, what can manipulate the viewers new found knowledge is the presentation of the found information. Depending on what information the directors allows to be seen, the directors can give a biased – and personal – view (Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore), instead of a balanced view (or even an over all view) in a documentary (Searching for Vivian Maier by John Maloof, Charlie Siskel).

The Origins of the documentary form
The Lumiere Brothers – 1800s
In the year of 1895, 22nd March in Paris at the Societe d’Encouragement a I’Industrie Nationale the Lumiere Brothers. Their documentary lasted for thirty-eight seconds, and its title literally explained what the short film was about. The film had been recorded three times before the producer – Louis Lemiere was happy to show it to the public with his brother, Auguste. This one small video would go down in history as a contributor to the beginning of Cinema.
The final footage depicted hard workers heading home after a long day at work. With no music, nor dialogue, or even editing, the documentary could be perceived as boring by today’s standards. But back in the 1800s, when the brothers had created this piece, along with many other short films, people would have be astonished by it. For this was something that was brand new, and exciting – something that had never been seen before. And this film, quiet possibly, set the basic foundation for what would be presented in the documentaries of the future. “Erik Barnouw described the effect this way: “The familiar, seen anew in this way, brought astonishment.”3 Lumière may have acted out of convenience or from insight when he choose to film his own workers leaving the Lumière factory for his demonstration. Viewers could attest that what they now saw on a screen was what they could have already seen in reality. If there was a trick, it was the trick of appearing to duplicate reality. What could have been more overwhelmingly convincing of the powers of the cinématographe than to see something already recognizable and familiar re-presented in a totally unfamiliar but remarkably recognizable manner?” (1). Their documentaries were mainly called ‘Actualities’.

(The footage originally belongs to the Lumiere brothers, and the YouTube channel presenting it is ‘Change Before Going Productions’.)

Alberto Cavalcanti – 1920s
Documentaries have supposedly been more identified from the period from the 1930s. One example is “Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures” (translates as: Nothing but the hours) (1926), (which) could just as easily be classified as part of the early history of experimental cinema, but, given the vague state in which all non-feature fiction existed, it can just as properly be considered an early example of the documentary tradition” (1).
The short silent film showed the city life of Paris in 45 minutes. Like The Lumiere brother’s film the film’s main subject is something simple, yet familiar. It showed Real Life. This particular subject is what creates a documentary.
And this piece contributed to the beginning of the documentary type known as ‘City Symphony’. “This offered a new challenge for cinema to which only documentary was capable of answering. City symphonies were documentaries that tried to capture the life of a city and create something beautiful out of it; they were stories about people who live around others without knowing each other.” (2) “In city symphonies there is not much of explanation: the amount of inter texts is marginal, and there’s usually no commentary track at all. But a later “city symphony” The Seine meets Paris (1957) by Joris Ivens has a poetic commentary track by the poet Jacques Prevert.” (2) ‘Nothing but the hours’ was among the first city symphonies to be made, starting the trend. This type of documentary could be classed as the simplest form of documentary.

(The footage originally belongs to Alberto Cavalcanti, and the Youtube channel presenting it is ‘Doctor Ojiplatico)

Robert Falherty – 1922
However a couple of years earlier a director by the name of Robert Falherty created the piece ‘Nanook of the North’. Which has been described as “the first feature length film and the first to use” what was described as “the creative interpretation of reality”(4) by John Grerison. Supposedly meaning that “Falherty had staged most scenes for the comer in order too make the scene more dramatic and exciting.”(4) And this is arguably the stepping stones of how the more modern documentaries would begin to take shape

(The clip originally belongs to Robert Falherty, and the Youtube Channel presenting it is ‘Kanal von ZorbasLeGreque’)

John Grerison – 1936
John Grerison played a contribution to the creation of the “poetic realist approach to documentary”(4). One of the most iconic pieces of the time was Nightmail (a documentary film which Grerison narrated(5)) a documentary that “began as a informational film about the rail train from London to Edinburgh, but the filming and editing emphasised the poetic elements of film form: Movement, rhythm,light and sound.”(4)

(The clip originally belongs to Harry Watt and Basil Wright, the directors, and the Youtube channel presenting it is ‘skawashers’)

Direct Cinema and Cinema truth – 1950s/60s
Direct cinema was “a movement that began in the United States, (that) aimed to present social and political issues in a direct, unmeditated, way giving the impression that event are recorded exactly as they happened without the involvement if the film maker”(4). In other words “the film maker (had) a political and/or social agenda and seek(ed) to present the events as real, even though they (were) in full control of the editing process.”
Mean while over in France a similar movement was taking place known as ‘Cinema truth’. It was a movement that “is a minimalist style of film making that convey(s) the sense that the viewer is given a direct view of what was actually happening in front of the camera without the artifice usually incorporated in the film maker process.”(4) Cinema truth makers supposedly favoured “hand held camera, natural light, location filming and direct sound.”(4) And with the birth of cinema truth, this gave way to the film style known as ‘Rockumentary’ – a supposed recording of “real life” events that have taken place.

6 Modes of Documentary:

The concepts of Objectivity and Subjectivity:

The Idea that documentaries are more ‘Truthful’ than Fiction:

The origins of the documentary form
3. Film from
(Doctor Ojiplatico)