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Unit 1: Part 2: Film


Experimental Documentary and the

The Problem with
 'The contradictory or paradoxical thing is that
in a documentary the real things depicted are
liable to lose their reality by being
photographed and presented in that
documentary way, and there's no poetry in
that. In poetry, something else happens. Hard
to say what it is. Presence let's say, soul or
spirit, an empathy with whatever it is that's
dwelt upon, feeling for it - to the point of
identification.' - Margaret Tait
 Since the very earliest photography there has
been a sense that an image can reveal the
truth of the world. Photographic images as
soon as they could be reproduced were
thought to be able to say more about what
was actual than words ever could.
Woman with injured finger being administered first aid
in the infirmary of the Hood Rubber Co: Photo by Lewis
Objective or Subjective truth?
 But in truth, reality has been framed by someone with a particular agenda
and particular prejudices and is viewed later by a viewer with their own
 There is no objective truth to be filmed and the framing of an image only
serves to reminds us of this.
 The classic documentary filmmaker's main battle is with this dilemma: to
ensure his or her neutrality; to find strategies for documenting given reality
as fully as possible.

 A documentary film attempts to present a point of

view or factual information often regarding an event,
subject or place. Typically they should be in contrast
to the narrative fiction films and genres we have
already looked at.
 Documentaries are nearly always labeled as such
and we therefore consider them in reflection of the
genre and other documentary films. We watch
documentaries with expectations. But what are
these expectations?
 Ideally we should believe that the information given
to us is factual/true
Aesthetic Devices and their
effects Objective or
 Filming of events as they happen
 An historical/social/political event is recorded before the camera
without scripting or staging. However, the filmmaker still controls
where the camera is placed, what is in focus, the editing. The ‘raw’
footage can then be further manipulated in post production
through editing and the addition of a voicover/visual aids/music
etc. The filmmaker cannot entirely control the events/interview that
unfolds before the camera.
 Visual aids (Maps/charts/photographs/animations)
 Staged/reconstructed events
 Narrative voiceover
 Presenting to camera
The Awful Truth 1999 Dir.
Michael Moore
 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xeOaTpYl8mE
 Watch the extract from Michael Moore’s The Awful Truth.
 What techniques does Moore use to create his arguments?
 Do you think his techniques work are they subjective or
 The show emulated television newsmagazine shows (such as
60 Minutes, or Moore's own previous show, TV Nation) in that it
comprised a series of documentary segments. Here the format
involved presenting them to a studio audience, often
accompanied by a coda and commentary by Moore as to what
happened after the segment was first filmed. The show focused
on exposing problems in American government, business, and
society. It often used outlandish sketches and stunts to point out
the inherent absurdity of a situation and hint at potential
 Often documentaries contain the identity, voice and even
presence of the documentary filmmaker himself .
 Filmmakers like Michael Moore express the subjective and
complex nature of documentaries.
 Many documentaries have been challenged as inaccurate.
Michael Moore’s Roger and me is one such case.
 The film presents in sequences the response of the people of
Flint, Michigan, to a series of layoffs at General Motors plants
during the 1980’s . Much of the film shows inept efforts of the
local government to revive the towns economy. Ronald Regan
visits, a television evangelist holds a mass rally and an
expensive building project is opened.
 However all of these events happen before the plant closings in
1986. Moore rearranges the chronology of the events to suit his
own views and the theme of the documentary.
Documentary truth?

 There are many different types of

documentary. They are not always objective
or even accurate. However, the evidence that
is assembled in whatever form is always
presented as if it is trustworthy.

 Compilation Film
 An assembly of images from archives
 ‘Found Footage’
 The Atomic Café 1982
 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOUtZOqgSG8
 Watch the clip of Atomic Café, the film was made in
1982 during the height of the fears surrounding the
arms race for Nucleaur weapons and escalating
confrontations between USA and the USSR.
 What is the effect of using archive footage?
 Does it make the argument more convincing or less?
The Atomic Cafe
 The Atomic Café is an acclaimed documentary film about the beginnings of the era of
nuclear warfare, created from a broad range of archival film from the 1940s, 1950s and
early 1960s - including newsreel clips, television news footage, U.S. government-produced
films (including military training films), advertisements, television and radio programs.
News footage reflected the prevailing understandings of the media and public.
 The film was produced over a five-year period through the collaborative efforts of three
directors: Jayne Loader, and brothers Kevin and Pierce Rafferty. For this film, the Rafferty
brothers and Loader formed the production company "Archives Project Inc." The
filmmakers opted to not use narration and instead they deploy carefully constructed
sequences of film clips to make their points. The soundtrack utilizes atomic-themed songs
from the Cold War-era to underscore the themes of the film.
 Though the topic of atomic holocaust is a grave matter, the film approaches it with black
humor. Much of the humor derives from the modern audience's reaction to the old training
films, such as the Duck and Cover film shown in schools.
 The film was released in April 1982. Its release coincided with a peak in the international
disarmament movement, and the film received much wider distribution than was the norm
for politically-oriented documentaries. It rapidly became a cult classic, and greatly
influenced documentary filmmaking.
The Danube Exodus Dir. Peter
Forgacs 1998
 The Hungarian filmmaker Péter Forgács is one of the most prominent so-called
found footage filmmakers. In particular home movies and amateur films serve as the
basis of stories he reveals and compose by using recovered personal and historical
 He is primarily interested in the way in which these films seem to depict only happy
moments, but on closer consideration they also appear to tell a hidden history,
which can be brought back to the surface by the recycling filmmaker.
 In the travelogue The Danube Exodus, he documents the Jewish exodus from
Slovakia just before the beginning of World War II. In two boats, a group of nine
hundred Slovak, Austrian Jews tried to reach the Black Sea via the river Danube, in
order to get to Palestine from there. Forgács based his film on the amateur films of
Captain Nándor Andrásovits, the captain of one of the boats.
 He filmed his passengers while they prayed, slept and even got married. At the end
of this journey, it is clear that the boat will not return empty: a reverse exodus takes
place, this time of repatriating Bessarabian Germans, fleeing to the Third Reich
because of the Soviet invasion of Bessarabia . . .

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z2zzc9ZDGu0
Interview/Talking Heads

 Records testimonies about events or social

movements through interviews with
witnesses and experts.
Direct-cinema (Cinema-
 Records an ongoing event as it happens, with
minimal interference from the filmmaker
(Emerged in the 1950’s/60’s when portable
camera and sound equipment became
Hoop Dreams 1994 Dir. Steve
 Hoop Dreams follows the story of two Chicago, Illinois high school
black students and their dream of becoming professional basketball
 Originally intended to be a 30-minute short produced for the
Public Broadcasting Service, it eventually led to 5 years of filming and
250 hours of footage. It premiered at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival
where it won the Audience Award for Best Documentary. Despite its
length (171 minutes) and unlikely commercial genre, it received high
critical and popular acclaim. It was on more critics' top ten lists than any
other film that year, including Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump,
The Shawshank Redemption, Heavenly Creatures and Quiz Show.
 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEzyolIXOFs
Portrait Documentary

 Often unobtrusive films of a single sometimes famous

individuals, their lives
 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ck5AIB43p_I
 American Movie is a 1999 documentary about the making of an
independent film. Milwaukee filmmaker Mark Borchardt feverishly
works to finish his independent horror film Coven, but slides into
a downward spiral of poor financing and lack of planning.
American Movie was produced by Sarah Price and directed by
Chris Smith.
 The film is subtitled "The Making of Northwestern", but only the
first fifteen minutes of the film are about the making of
Northwestern; the rest of the film centers on the making of
Synthetic Documentary

 Often documentaries combine all these

techniques together mixing archive footage,
interviews and material shot on the fly
 D.I.A.L. History Dir. Johan Grimonperez 1998
 http://www.ubu.com/film/grimonprez_dial.html
Documentary Versus Fiction
– Blurring the lines
 Often fiction films such as historical films and biographies base themselves on
actual events and can use archive footage and photographs, the actual
locations, buildings and costumes to more accurately reflect the period. Despite
their similarity to documentary these films use actors are scripted and
 JFK Dir. Oliver Stone 1991 USA
 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vW2ryP16Vk
 Watch the clip of the introduction to Oliver Stone’s JFK. Stone weaved archive
footage into newly shot footage.
 Is it possible to tell the difference?
 What does it mean to change or re-interprete historical events?

 There is a large crossover area between documentary and fiction with both
similarly containing archive and dramatised footage. Fiction films can also be
made entirely out of archive material such as Craig Baldwin’s Tribulation 99:
Alien Anomalies under America. Despite its use of archive materials and pre-
shot footage its intentions are to create a fictional story.
 Many documentaries are organised as
narratives, there are, however, other non-
narrative types of documentary form.
 Categorical form – Conveys information in a
simple fashion
 Rhetorical Form – An argument to convince
the spectator of a point.

 Related to the way in which we use categories or groupings to

organise our knowledge of the world. Documentary filmmakers
often use categories to provide a basis for organising a film’s form
or structure. For example a categorical film often begins by
identifying its subject.
 In categorical form, patterns of development will usually be simple.
 The film might move from small to large, local to national, personal
to public.
Categorical Form
 Because of its simple structure a film that moves
linearly from one example to another within a
categroy risks boring the spectator. The filmmaker
therefore needs to introduce variation to make us
adjust our expectations.
 Variations in structure- from the macro to micro and
 Variations in aesthetic technique;
1. Using Abstract or experimental techniques.
2. Using sound or music to increase tension or emotion
or contrapuntally perhaps for comic or intellectual
Artists Documentary
 The relationship between artist and subject can be freed in artists'
documentary work. Coming from different practices of portraiture
and still life painting, the artist can observe the given world
subjectively, there is no disguise of neutrality - what you are seeing
often is the way an individual artist sees and wants to reflect the
 Crucially, the artist can represent the world as he or she sees it,
away from the constraints of storytelling and independent of the
political agendas of broadcasters and commissioners.
 Once again this boundary-pushing is what
allows what Margaret Tait describes as
empathy to be freed from its usual constraints
and to be transferred to the new viewer.
ISLAND RACE - William Raban1996 28mins
Colour 16mm/Digibeta

 Filmed on the streets of the East End of London between

spring 1994 and summer 1995, Island Race contrasts ordinary,
everyday events with actions by right wing extremists, counter
anti-racist demonstrations, the funeral of a gangland leader,
and jingoistic street parties celebrating Victory in Europe Day.
 Using just picture and sound, with no added commentary, the
audience is given the space to draw their own conclusions
about the film's portrayal of English national identity in the late
1990s. (WR)
 http://www.luxonline.org.uk/artists/william_raban/island_race.html
London Dir Patrick Keiller
 Patrick Keiller's extraordinary portrait of London re-imagines the city through the
explorations of an unseen 'researcher' Robinson and his similarly unseen companion, the
film's narrator (voiced by Paul Scofield).
 'The film attempted to combine two strands of critical thinking. On one hand, there was the
'urban' literature of Poe, Baudelaire, Louis Aragon, Walter Benjamin and so on, in the
context of which London appeared to be a city where certain kinds of urban experience
characteristic of European cities were difficult to find. On the other were the various
'declinist' scenarios of English capitalism, in particular the idea that England was a
backward, failing economy because it had never had a successful bourgeois revolution.
 'Alongside these predictable concerns, however, was the awareness that Baudelaire was
just as fed up with the quartier latin as Robinson claimed to be with London. His problem
was not really London, but 'The Great Malady, Horror of Home'. Perhaps this feeling of
restlessness, that seemed to be so characteristic of London, was not really such a problem
after all. Perhaps it was something to be valued. London might be uncomfortable to live in,
but it avoided the more stupefying aspects of dwelling that a less spatially impoverished,
more 'architectural' city might encourage. Perhaps London was even, despite its obvious
anachronisms, rather modern. Even someone as narrow-minded as Robinson could hardly
fail to notice the increasingly cosmopolitan make-up of its population.
 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v84byeueCBI

 Taken from Lux Online Theme: Documentary

 Film Art: An Introduction Bordwell and