6 Variations on the Documentary Form
In an effort to clarify several recent posts and comments about documentaries, I thought it might be time to expand the discussion to cover the range of different forms that exist within the documentary genre. In a nutshell, there are 6 generally agreed upon documentary techniques, several of which aren’t all that common with contemporary filmmakers.
The first and probably least-common technique is the Poetic Documentary, which first appeared in the ’20s as a sort of reaction against both the content and the rapidly-crystallizing grammar of the early fiction film. The poetic mode moved away from continuity editing and instead organized images of the material world by means of associations and patterns, both in terms of time and space. Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil from 1982 is a rare recent(ish) example of this style.
A second form, the Expository Documentary speaks directly to the viewer, often in the form of an authoritative commentary employing voiceover or titles, proposing a strong argument and point of view. These films are often rhetorical efforts to persuade the viewer into a particular reading of the subject matter. Shows and films like A&E Biography, America’s Most Wanted; many science and nature documentaries; Ken Burns’ The Civil War (1990) and Frank Capra’s wartime Why We Fight series are examples of expository works.
The Observational Documentary attempts to simply and spontaneously observe with a minimum of intervention. Filmmakers who worked in this sub-genre often saw the poetic mode as too abstract and the expository mode as too didactic. The earliest examples of observational docs date back to the 1960’s when technological developments (lightweight cameras and portable sound recording equipment for synchronized sound) made it possible to move more freely in and around the subjects and stories being told. Often made without voice-over commentary, post-synchronized dialogue and music, or re-enactments, observational documentaries aimed for immediacy and intimacy, with individual human characters in ordinary life situations. Frederick Wiseman, P.A. Pennebaker and Charlotte Zwerin tend to this style of documentary filmmaking.
Participatory documentary filmmakers believe that it is impossible for the act of filmmaking not to influence or alter the events being filmed. What these films do is emulate the approach of the anthropologist with the filmmaker undertaking the role of the participant-observer. Not only is the filmmaker part of the film, we also get a sense of how situations in the film are affected or altered by their presence. Vertov’s early The Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March (1985), Nick Broomfield’s and Michael Moore’s film could be considered, in varying degree and sometimes only by accident, participatory documentaries.
The Reflexive documentary is a rarity with proponents of this form of filmmaking ill at ease with seeing themselves as transparent windows on the world. They instead draw attention to the works themselves, and the fact that they are mere representations of reality and not reality itself. The key question posed is how the world is represented by the documentary film. This question is central to this sub-genre of films, examples of which include Vertov’s (again) The Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Buñuel’s Land Without Bread and David and Judith MacDougall’s Wedding Camels (1980). I would argue that last year’s Exit Through the Gift Shop could be considered a reflexive documentary.
Performative documentaries stress subjective experience and emotional response to the world. They are strongly personal, unconventional, sometimes poetic and/or experimental, and might include hypothetical enactments of events designed to make us experience what it might be like for us to possess a certain specific perspective on the world that isn’t our own. Jenny Livingston’s Paris Is Burning (1991) is an example as is Alain Resnais’ Night And Fog (1955), with a commentary by Holocaust survivior Jean Cayrol. Renais’ film is not a historical account of the Holocaust but instead a subjective account of it… it’s a film about memory.
What’s interesting about these varied forms of documentary filmmaking is how variations on “the truth” can be exposed by employing different forms of investigation, depending on the topic. Subject matter that might remain difficult to shine a light upon using one technique, might be more easily accessed using another methodology. In a recent post about the Paradise Lost series, I posited that these documentaries were somehow undermined by the obvious advocacy the filmmakers had for their subjects when in fact the participatory style the filmmakers settled upon may in fact be best part about them. I remain of the opinion that the observational documentary remains the purest kind of non-fiction filmmaking, but recognize that there are stories better served using other techniques and cinematic methodologies.
Bill Nichols’ books Introduction to Documentary (2001) and Representing Reality (1991) are sources for the forms and descriptions listed above.