Documentary Film and Fictional Technique from Michael McVey, Skiffleboom.com
April 22, 2010 – Bunker Hill Community College
VMA 115 – History of the Moving Image – Professor Pastel
Writing Assignment #3 – Documentary
In a 2-3-page paper, address the following questions:
Use several specific examples from two of the following films to answer the questions below: Nanook of the North, Triumph of the Will, The Plow That Broke the Plains, Salesman, Don’t Look Back, High School, Our Daily Bread, Roger and Me:
1. Explain how a documentary film can use fictional techniques, yet claim to represent ‘reality.’
2. Identify some of those fictional techniques, using specific sequences from the film(s). That is, describe a particular sequence from a movie and explain how it uses fictional techniques to make its point.
3. Explain how a documentary film is different from a fictional narrative – i.e., why should we trust what that what it shows is “true” to reality as opposed to being merely “made up?”
The documentary form has existed since the birth of the motion picture camera. The Lumière brothers’ early footage was captured on location using real people. Their early film La Place des Cordeliers à Lyon captured an unstaged street scene, and can be considered one of the first documentaries. Over the past century, attempts to document reality have changed radically. Advances in technology and technique have resulted in a variety of documentary styles, calling into question the definition of the word “documentary.”
Documentary films often employ fictional techniques. Manipulative editing, staged shots, manipulated audio, scripted narration, overlaid graphics and music – many of these techniques can be found in documentaries. How can fictional techniques be used in a documentary engaged with reality and truth?
Capturing reality is the conceit of documentary film. Since reality can never be truly replicated by film (or any medium), the term documentary can apply to approximations of reality. Both fictional and documentary films employ “lies” in order to tell “truth.” Raw footage and audio is edited into a watchable length, with emphasis on dramatic structure. Since people edit the footage, the editing choices have authors and points of view. So if a documentary cannot be reality, it certainly can represent reality. It can be representative of the filmmakers’ perspective.
Our Daily Bread presents reality with a distinct perspective. Shots of workers eating lunch punctuate a sequence of pigs being slaughtered, gutted, and cleaned. The filmmakers carefully chose this juxtaposition as a dramatic device. The viewer is given the imagery to contemplate. While the presentation of the imagery is crafted, the imagery itself captures actual events.
Nanook of the North contains many staged events. Robert J. Flaherty accentuated the Inuit lifestyle’s romance and danger and presented in it as documentary. Staged events are a staple of narrative film. It was reported that Nanook was not the subject’s real name. Nyla was not Nanook’s real wife. Events were photographed with direction from Flaherty: Nanook was instructed to use traditional Intuit hunting weapons, as opposed to guns. His igloo was clearly constructed to accommodate film equipment. The filmmaker’s intended to accurately portray a vanishing lifestyle. But unwieldy technology and a hostile environment forced planning and staging. Many critics feel these staged scenes, presented as truth, disqualify the film from true documentary status.
Michael Moore’s Roger and Me unapologetically borrows many fictional techniques. Scripted voice over, the juxtaposition of soundtrack music over imagery, the inclusion of overlapping audio – these are just a few elements Moore borrows from narrative film. Yet the film is curiously considered a documentary over Nanook of the North. This can be attributed to the inclusion of Moore within his own film. Moore is very much a part of the story. Because of this, scenes that may otherwise appear staged are not; the stager is a part of the scene he is staging. Nanook’s Flaherty and the filmmakers hid their presence. As a result, their footage can be considered misleading.
Roger and Me follows a three-act structure, which is commonly found in fictional narrative. During the climactic speech by Roger Smith, the film cuts between footage of Sheriff Fred Ross evicting a family on Christmas Eve. Used to illustrate hypocrisy, this ironic intercutting leads the viewer to believe these events happen simultaneously. Narrative film often stitches together shots taken at two different times. In The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Sam and Frodo rest on their journey to Mordor. This scene contains a two-shot of the characters talking. The shots were taken two years apart from each other, but are edited together seamlessly. Both documentary and narrative film can structure time and continuity, regardless of reality.
The Maysles Brothers’ Salesman is a documentary in the style of direct cinema. The film contains no omniscient narrator, but contains a scene in which Paul’s monologue is used as narration. Paul drives through Miami, talking about his fellow salesmen, while the scene cuts to each of the men he describes. This editing clarifies and describes each of these men from Paul’s point of view. This technique borrows from fictional narrative while sustaining its “truth,” or exclusive use of shot footage.
Earlier documentaries, such as The Plow That Broke the Plains, use narrators to tell their stories. Narrated documentaries can be accepted as “true,” as they deal with facts and true events. But such films contain staged footage, and while their content may be taken from actuality, the film itself is not true. It is illusion that deals in truth.
Salesman contains a flashback device: Paul sits on a train, heading back from a sales conference. The film overlaps audio, cutting to the actual sales event. This flashback is fictional narrative a device. It also reveals the filmmaker’s intention to present reality subjectively. There is no way to know what Paul was thinking about during that moment. But the filmmakers suggest he thought about his conference. They use images of Paul to smoothly transition through time. The filmmakers suggest that Paul probably thought back on the conference during his trip home. Since the assertion seems likely, the many viewers may accept this editing manipulation. Some viewers adhere to strict definitions, such as cinéma vérité purists, and do not consider this technique valid when portraying “reality.”
In Salesman, the Maysles Brothers goal is to represent reality truthfully. The film is shot as objectively as possible. The brothers acknowledge that the camera’s presence affects behavior, but they keep interference to a minimum, photographing subjects just as they are. In editing, the presentation of their material is highly crafted. The Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin elected Paul’s salesman character as the film’s through-line. Focusing on Paul gave the movie conflict – his failure to sell reveals his humanity, and sets him apart from the others.
Reality is filtered by the filmmakers’ involvement. The documentary film cannot capture objective reality, but it can represent the subjective reality of the filmmakers. The Maysles Brothers do not equate truth with rigid accuracy in their films. There are frequent breaks from actuality in The Plow That Broke the Plains. The film was designed as propaganda, and does not capture objective reality. It portrays actual events and issues through the filmmakers’ subjective crafting. The audience determines the truthfulness of the film.
When viewing documentaries, audiences should not accept that what they see as entirely true. Documentaries deal with the topic of truth and reality, but they themselves cannot be objective. Footage can be staged. Audio can be dubbed. Time and space can be manipulated and presented as truth. It is critical for viewers to gain awareness of documentary technique while absorbing content. Without this awareness, viewers may be easily manipulated.
This is a major difference between fictional narrative and documentary: Fictional narrative does not claim to be true. It is deliberately manipulative, which is part of the unspoken agreement between audiences and filmmakers. Most sane people watch fictional works with the knowledge that they are not real. There is vast diversity among documentary styles, but documentary generally attempts to portray real life events in a dramatic context. Documentary can strive for objectivity in presenting truth and reality, but is ultimately subjective, like narrative film.