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Introduction to Documentary
By Bill Nichols
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2010 Bill Nichols
All rights reserved.
How Can We Define Documentary Film?
ENTER THE GOLDEN AGE
This introduction to the ways in which documentary engages with the world as we know it takes up the series of questions indicated by the chapter titles. These questions are the commonsense sort of questions we might ask ourselves if we want to understand documentary film. Each question takes us a bit further into the domain of documentary; each question helps us understand how a documentary tradition arose and evolved and what it has to offer us today.
The current Golden Age of documentaries began in the 1980s. It continues unabated. An abundance of films has breathed new life into an old form and prompted serious thought about how to define this type of filmmaking. These films challenge assumptions and alter perceptions. They see the world anew and do so in inventive ways. Often structured as stories, they are stories with a difference: they speak about the world we all share and do so with clarity and engagement. Anyone who has come of age since the 1980s doesn't need to be convinced of this, but older generations may have to adjust their assumptions about the power of nonfiction relative to fiction. In a time when the major media recycle the same stories on the same subjects over and over, when they risk little in formal innovation, when they remain beholden to powerful sponsors with their own political agendas and restrictive demands, it is the independent documentary film that has brought a fresh eye to the events of the world and told stories, with verve and imagination, that broaden limited horizons and awaken new possibilities.
Documentary has become the flagship for a cinema of social engagement and distinctive vision. The documentary impulse has rippled outward to the internet and to sites like YouTube and Facebook, where mock-, quasi-, semi-, pseudo- and bona fide documentaries, embracing new forms and tackling fresh topics, proliferate. Still one of many routes that aspiring directors take en route to their first feature film, documentary filmmaking is now, more than ever, an end in itself. The cable channels, low-cost digital production and easy-to-distribute DVDs, the internet and its next-to-nothing costs of dissemination, along with its unique forms of word of mouth enthusiasm, together with the hunger of many for fresh perspectives and alternative visions, give the documentary form a bright and vibrant future.
The Oscars from the mid-eighties onward mark the ascendancy of the documentary as a popular and compelling form. Never known for its bold preferences, often sentimental in its affections, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has nonetheless been unable to help itself when it comes to acknowledging many of the most outstanding documentaries of the current Golden Age. Consider the Oscar winners and some of the runners-up from the 1980s:
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), about the pioneering gay activist and politician Harvey Milk
Broken Rainbow (1985), about the eviction of 10,000 Navajo from their ancestral lands in the 1970s, and Lourdes Portillo and Susana Muñoz's Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (1985), about the mothers who protested the illegal "disappearance" of their sons and daughters by the Argentine government, along with runner-up Ken Burns's first Oscar-nominated film, The Statue of Liberty
Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got (1985), about the great jazz musician, and
Down and Out in America (1986), about those most affected by the mid-eighties recession; the co-Oscar winners in 1986
Runner-ups Radio Bikini (1987), about the atomic bomb blast that resulted in radiation death and injury to many, and Eyes on the Prize (1987), the epic story of the civil rights movement
Hotel Terminus (1988), about the search for the infamous Nazi Klaus Barbie, and runner-up Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Peña's Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1988), about the murder of a young Chinese-American man whom an unemployed Detroit autoworker attacked, partly out of irrational rage at the success of the Japanese auto industry in their competition with domestic car makers
The AIDS-related tale of the Quilts Project, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989)
American Dream (1990), Barbara Kopple's penetrating study of a prolonged, complex labor strike, and runner-up Berkeley in the Sixties (1990), a rousing history of the rise of the free speech and the anti --- Vietnam War movements.
Conspicuous by their absence from this list are some of the first major box office successes of the late 1980s and early 1990s: Errol Morris's brilliant The Thin Blue Line (1988), about an innocent man awaiting execution in Dallas, Texas; Michael Moore'sRoger and Me (1989), about his mock-heroic attempt to ask the head of General Motors, Roger Smith, what he planned to do about all the folks left unemployed when he closed a factory in Flint, Michigan; and the extraordinary chronicle of 4 years in the lives of two high school basketball players whose ambition it is to play in the NBA: Hoop Dreams (1994).
These films, like dozens of others that have found national and international audiences at festivals, in theaters, and on cable and websites, attest to the resounding appeal of the voice of the filmmaker. This is not simply a voice-over commentary—although it is striking how many recent films rely on the actual voice of the filmmaker, speaking directly and personally of what he or she has experienced and learned. It is a voice that issues from the entirety of each film's audio-visual presence: the selection of shots, the framing of subjects, the juxtaposition of scenes, the mixing of sounds, the use of titles and inter-titles—from all the techniques by which a filmmaker speaks from a distinct perspective on a given subject and seeks to persuade viewers to adopt this perspective as their own. The spoken voices of filmmakers like Jonathan Caouette (Tarnation, 2003), Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me, 2004), Zana Briski (Born into Brothels, 2004), and, of course, Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11  and Sicko ) remind us that these filmmakers maintain their distance from the authoritative tone of corporate media in order to speak to power rather than embrace it. Their stylistic daring—the urge to stand in intimate relation to a historical moment and those who populate it—confounds the omniscient commentary of conventional documentary and the detached coolness of television news. Seeking to find a voice in which to speak about subjects that attract them, filmmakers, like all great orators, must speak from the heart in ways that both fit the occasion and issue from it.
THE SEARCH FOR COMMON GROUND: DEFINING DOCUMENTARY FILM
Given the vitality of expression, range of voices, and dramatic popularity of documentary film, we might well wonder what, if anything, all these films have in common. Have they broadened the appeal of documentary by becoming more like feature fiction films in their use of compelling music, reenactments and staged encounters, sequences or entire films based on animation, portrayals of fascinating characters and the creation of compelling stories? Or do they remain a fiction unlike any other? That is, do they tell stories that, although similar to feature fiction, remain distinct from it? This book will answer in the affirmative, that documentaries are a distinct form of cinema but perhaps not as completely distinct as we at first imagine.
A concise, overarching definition is possible but not fundamentally crucial. It will conceal as much as it will reveal. More important is how every film we consider a documentary contributes to an ongoing dialogue that draws on common characteristics that take on new and distinct form, like an ever-changing chameleon. We will, however, begin with some common characteristics of documentary film in order to have a general sense of the territory within which most discussion occurs.
It is certainly possible to argue that documentary film has never had a very precise definition. It remains common today to revert to some version of John Grierson's definition of documentary, first proposed in the 1930s, as the "creative treatment of actuality." This view acknowledges that documentaries are creative endeavors. It also leaves unresolved the obvious tension between "creative treatment" and "actuality." "Creative treatment" suggests the license of fiction, whereas "actuality" reminds us of the responsibilities of the journalist and historian. That neither term has full sway, that the documentary form balances creative vision with a respect for the historical world, identifies, in fact, one source of documentary appeal. Neither a fictional invention nor a factual reproduction, documentary draws on and refers to historical reality while representing it from a distinct perspective.
Commonsense ideas about documentary prove a useful starting point. As typically formulated they are both genuinely helpful and unintentionally misleading. The three commonsense assumptions about documentary discussed here, with qualifications, add to our understanding of documentary filmmaking but do not exhaust it.
1. Documentaries are about reality; they're about something that actually happened.
Though correct, and although built into Grierson's idea of the "creative treatment of actuality," it is important to say a bit more about how documentaries are "about something that actually happened." We must note, for example, that many fiction films also address aspects of reality. Do the Right Thing (1989) deals with the very real issue of racism ;Schindler's List (1993) tells the true story of Oscar Schindler, a Nazi Party member who saved the lives of over a thousand Jews, and JFK (1991) reexamines the actual assassination of President John F. Kennedy, using Abraham Zapruder's documentary footage of the president as the rifle shots struck him.
We might, therefore, modify this definition of documentary by saying, "Documentary films speak about actual situations or events and honor known facts; they do not introduce new, unverifiable ones. They speak directly about the historical world rather than allegorically." Fictional narratives are fundamentally allegories. They create one world to stand in for another, historical world. (In an allegory or parable everything has a second meaning; the surface meanings therefore may constitute a disguised commentary on actual people, situations, and events.) Within an alternative fictional world a story unfolds. As it does so it offers insights and generates themes about the world we already inhabit. This is why we turn to fiction to understand the human condition.
Documentary films, though, refer directly to the historical world. The images, and many of the sounds, they present stem from the historical world directly. Although this statement will receive qualification later, documentary images generally capture people and events that belong to the world we share rather than present characters and actions invented to tell a story that refers back to our world obliquely or allegorically. One important way in which they do so is by respecting known facts and providing verifiable evidence. They do much more than this, but a documentary that distorts facts, alters reality, or fabricates evidence jeopardizes its own status as a documentary. (For some mockumentaries and for some provocative filmmakers this may well be exactly what they set out to do: as we will see, Land without Bread (1932) is a prime example of this possibility.)
2. Documentaries are about real people.
This statement, although true, also needs modification. Fiction films also focus on real people, except that these people are usually trained actors playing assigned roles (characters). Viewers often go to fiction films to see their favorite stars, even if the film itself seems mediocre. In fiction real people assume roles and become known as the characters who populate a fictional world.
A more accurate statement might be, "Documentaries are about real people who do not play or perform roles." Instead, they "play" or present themselves. They draw on prior experience and habits to be themselves in the face of a camera. They may be acutely aware of the camera's presence, which, in interviews and other interactions, they address directly. (Direct address occurs when individuals speak directly to the camera or audience; it is rare in fiction where the camera functions as an invisible onlooker most of the time.)
The presentation of self in front of a camera in documentary might be called a performance, as it is in fiction, but this term may confuse as much as clarify. What happens in a documentary differs from a stage or screen performance in the usual sense. Real people, or social actors, as Erving Goffmann pointed out several decades ago in his book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), present themselves in everyday life in ways that differ from a consciously adopted role or fictional performance. A stage or screen performance calls on the actor to subordinate his or her own traits as an individual to represent a specified character and to provide evidence through his or her acting of what changes or transformations that character undergoes. The actor remains relatively unchanged and goes on to other roles, but the character he or she plays may change dramatically. All of this requires training and relies on conventions and techniques.
The presentation of self in everyday life involves how a person goes about expressing his or her personality, character, and individual traits, rather than suppressing them to adopt a role. It is how people undergo change as people, rather than how they represent change in fictional characters. There is no specific training for self- presentation other than the experience of becoming a member of society.
Instead of a gap between the presentation of self and the actual person, the "front" a person presents serves as a way to negotiate with others about the nature and quality of an interaction as it unfolds. Self-presentation allows the individual to reveal more or less of him- or herself, to be frank or guarded, emotional or reserved, inquisitive or distant, all in accord with how an interaction unfolds moment by moment. The presentation of self is less an adopted mask than a flexible means of adaptation. It suggests that individual identity develops in response to others and is not a permanent, indelible feature. Some have even argued that gender identity (how a person understands his or her masculine or feminine nature) possesses a fluid, adaptable quality. The presentation of self comes into full play when people come before the camera and interact with filmmakers. It is not the same as adhering to a predetermined role.
In other words, a person does not present in exactly the same way to a companion on a date, a doctor in a hospital, his or her children at home, and a filmmaker in an interview. Nor do people continue to present the same way as an interaction develops; they modify their behavior as the situation evolves. Friendliness prompts a friendly presentation, but the introduction of a sarcastic remark may prompt guardedness. In documentaries, we expect social actors to present themselves in this sense, not perform the role of a character of the filmmaker's devising, even if the act of filming has a definite influence on how they present themselves. Fiction films such as Battleship Potemkin (1925), Bicycle Thieves (1948), Salt of the Earth (1954), and Shadows (1960) and TV shows like Real World or Survivor give us untrained social actors playing roles so strongly shaped by the filmmaker or producers that these works are usually treated as fictions even though their style locates them very close to the documentary tradition.
Excerpted from Introduction to Documentary by Bill Nichols. Copyright © 2010 Bill Nichols. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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