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Lessons of Documentary: Reality, Representation, and Cinematic Expressivity
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Jonathan Walley

Oprah Winfrey, introducing the “Best Documentary” segment of the 2010 Academy Awards:

After 83 years of Oscars, here’s one thing we know for sure: if we’re feeling lousy, if the news is bad and people are hurting, what do we do? We go to the movies, and we escape. But I’m here to present the award to the best movie that did not let us escape: the outstanding documentary of the year.

Brief though they were, Winfrey’s comments reflect a historical conception of documentary as an “oppositional” cinematic practice, a rejection of the popular fiction film’s escapism. This rhetoric of documentary as a minority art form struggling (“against great odds,” Winfrey also said) to counteract the ideology of mainstream cinema has recurred across its history. It even turns up in contexts we might expect to be inhospitable to such ideals, like the Academy Awards. The oppositional view carries over into the classroom, where it informs film history and filmmaking courses alike, reinforcing received notions of documentary that students already have.

The standard history of documentary provides the basis for this oppositional view. In its earliest years, the cinema’s appeal was precisely that it documented the world, and with unprecedented verisimilitude and detail. Early films attracted and astonished viewers simply on this basis. These films (sometimes called “actualities”), which recorded every facet of life in every part of the world, are often taken as primitive progenitors of documentary. But a distinct form called “documentary” could only have appeared when documenting reality was no longer the de facto use of the film medium and thus became a meaningful choice, which could only happen after the ascendency of fictional narrative cinema to the position of dominance (around 1906-07). The term “documentary” was not even used until the mid-1920s. It might therefore seem that documentary could only be legible against the backdrop of the fictional narrative cinema, as an “alternative” defined less by its own inherent qualities than by its presumed differences from fictional cinema (differences that become value-laden: truth vs. illusion, social engagement vs. escapism, honesty vs. manipulation, etc.).

Such differences do make documentary attractive. Like other forms of “alternative” cinema (e.g., experimental film), the documentary is more heterogeneous than fiction film, both formally and in the range of topics it addresses. Indeed, because documentary films have taken so many forms, it is difficult even to define “documentary,” to pin down what makes it a distinct, recognizable form. Critics and filmmakers have struggled with this for decades; the attempt to “define documentary” is at the heart of most major scholarly studies of the form, and controversies have arisen over whether certain films “really are” documentaries. This frequently happens when documentaries are up for awards, as in the case of Michael Moore’s Roger and Me (1989), and, more recently, Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010), by and about British street artist Banksy. Hence, the very idea of talking about “the” documentary is tricky. We can pick out consistent traits in mainstream narrative films, even in “indie” and “art” cinemas, but finding similar unifying traits within documentary, amidst its countless variations, is much more difficult.

This difficulty frequently stems from another unique facet of documentary: the questions it raises about the relationship between reality and representation, and the nature, even the possibility, of truth and objectivity in such representation. Certain fictional narrative films may possess complex philosophical themes, but documentary by its very nature, as a form that claims to represent reality “truthfully,” raises philosophical questions automatically: given that “truth” is such a fuzzy concept, that our understanding of reality is so subjective, that knowledge is fleeting and contingent, and that cinema is inherently illusionistic, can there really be a form of film that captures reality, represents truth, and creates knowledge?

But this is precisely what attracts me to documentary, as both film scholar and teacher. To study documentary is to grapple with intriguing questions and important ideas. And teaching documentary involves challenging students to re-think some of their fundamental presuppositions about the nature of film, reality, knowledge, and truth. I enjoy teaching documentary because it connects my narrow little subject to some of the loftier ideas at the center of a liberal arts education.

But while it is tempting to think of documentary in oppositional terms – which favor it over the escapist, manipulative, and unsophisticated fiction film – this view creates a liability for documentary. To explain this requires another brief historical digression. Cinema faced an obstacle to its acceptance as an art form precisely because it began its life as a documenting medium: it produced perfect images of reality automatically, by way of mechanical means that required no artistry on the part of its operator. Validating cinema as an art form called for generations of filmmakers and critics to demonstrate that film did not merely replicate reality, but could transform it via aesthetic devices unique to the medium (e.g., framing, lighting, photographic effects, and editing). And the staggering range of expressive possibilities that filmmakers cultivated in the early decades of cinema was largely the product of their efforts to make film into a storytelling medium. This required them to convey increasingly complex narrative information, express (and provoke) emotions, and, perhaps most importantly, dramatize abstract ideas.

To oppose documentary to the fiction film, then, threatens to deprive the former of all the aesthetic options and expressive resources pioneered by the latter. Such an opposition is both aesthetically limiting and historically inaccurate. Documentary may have crystallized as rejection of popular cinema’s fictions, but not of its expressive language. From the beginning, documentarians sought to strike a balance between the documentation of reality and its creative transformation. In the words of one of its first practitioners and theorists, John Grierson, documentary was “the creative treatment of actuality.” The only alternative was for documentarians to revert to the primitive cinema of pure documentation, reducing film to passive recording instrument and filmmaker to chronicler.

I have invoked something called “cinematic expressivity,” by which I mean the use of aesthetic techniques and devices more or less specific to cinematic media to express or amplify meaning, heighten viewers’ emotional responses, and/or create sensory pleasure. Such techniques and devices, whether employed in fiction or non-fiction filmmaking, are not merely ornamental; they do not simply make a film more aesthetically pleasing, but are constitutive of our total experience of a film – sensuous, emotional, and intellectual. On this view, cinematic media are not neutral vessels for “film content.” The expressive means brought to bear on the representation of reality transform that reality, as in Grierson’s famous formulation. The great works of the documentary tradition, then, are also outstanding examples of cinematic art in general, because they systematically employ the same range of expressive devices as the canonical films of the narrative tradition.

But recently I have seen a troubling shift in documentary. The most visible examples of the form – those that win major awards, generate “buzz,” enjoy theatrical releases – strike me as abandoning the expressive ethic of the tradition and embodying simplistic conceptions of the form. Put another way, these documentaries reduce a complex form to a narrow and uninteresting format, one that represents a drastically impoverished range of aesthetic options. Call this the “talking heads plus B-roll” format (the term is not my own, but a common designation used, derogatorily, by filmmakers and critics). “Talking heads” refers to interview footage (e.g., of experts on the subject at hand); “B-roll” refers to footage that “illustrates” the talking heads’ statements. For instance, in Trekkies (1997), a film about particularly rabid fans of the Star Trek television and movie franchise, Leonard Nimoy recounts his first Star Trek conference in close-up – a “talking head”: cut to archival footage of an early conference, with the young-looking stars of the show (including Nimoy) appearing overwhelmed by the huge turnout and enthusiasm of the attendees.

The “talking heads plus B-roll” format (hereafter “the format”) predominates in most contemporary documentaries. It is filled out by a few other familiar devices, including voiceover narration, on-screen text (used to orient the viewer to the time and location of the action or the identity of the talking head), and scenes in which the camera follows either the filmmaker or one of his/her subjects – merging the presence and authority of a talking head with the ambience and illustration of B-roll footage. In Spellbound (2002), a film about young spelling bee champions, each subject is followed through some aspect of their “training,” and eventually accompanied by the film crew to a spelling bee. This footage is punctuated with more formal “talking head” interviews, so that a full picture of the entire topic emerges from a series of specific instances peppered with commentary.

There are variations on these devices, but it is safe to say that “the format” is the dominant style of the contemporary popular documentary. And it is even safer to say that it is ubiquitous in student-made documentaries. Having taught film and video production classes over many years, I have seen “the format” represented to students as practically synonymous with documentary, as if the entire form was reducible to one format.

Art instructors teach their students the conventions and traditions of their art forms. This knowledge is at the core of cinema studies courses; the ability to recognize the artistry at work in a film is the basis upon which our students can cultivate critical viewing and thinking skills. But familiarity with these conventions and traditions also guides the efforts of developing artists, providing them with basic structures within which to work. They may also be taken as starting points for innovation: knowing an art form’s rules and conventions enables students who want to innovate to do so meaningfully. In film production, for instance, we expect our students to learn the techniques of continuity editing or three-point lighting, or the conventions of major film genres, as these constitute a fundamental “grammar” of cinema in which all filmmakers should be fluent, even if they wish to violate convention and develop novel techniques.

The talking heads plus B-roll format is different. The conventions of cinematography, editing, lighting, genre, et. al., can be used well or badly – employed with great subtlety and sophistication or in utterly conventional ways. Again, they are part of that rich vein of expressive options students can mine. “The format,” on the other hand, severely restricts that range of options, which is lamentable given how aesthetically varied and inventive documentary film has been. But the real significance of “the format” is the shift it represents in the position of language (written or spoken) among cinema’s myriad expressive means. In each of its recurring devices – interview footage, voiceover narration, and on-screen text – language is the primary vehicle for the expression of ideas. Even the B-roll footage is merely a redundant illustration of language, simply confirming spoken or written assertions. In short, “the format” relies on language so heavily as to make the expressive “language” of cinema practically unnecessary. Cinematic media function as mere audio-visual recording devices, which undoes decades of work by filmmakers and critics to establish cinema as a unique art form rather than a mechanical device whose only artistic value could be the practical one of documenting and preserving other art forms (e.g., theatrical performances). I thus take “the format” as a symptom of a crisis in the documentary tradition.

A few comparisons of contemporary popular documentaries to their predecessors will illustrate this shift. Given space limitations, my examples must be brief, but hopefully they will be suggestive; at the very least they will draw attention to worthwhile films that interested parties can investigate for themselves. These films raise a variety of issues for in class discussion of documentary. This is especially the case when they are subject to comparative analysis, which throws the aesthetic, historical, and philosophical questions to which I’ve already referred into bold relief. In a documentary course I taught recently, I flagged this on the very first page of the syllabus:

This course focuses on a body of documentary films that aspire to be cinematic art as much as they aim to document, persuade, or propagandize. The films we will see are important works in the history of film art: as aesthetically, emotionally, and philosophically compelling as they are informative. These characteristics distinguish them from the more straightforwardly expository or journalistic documentaries of the mainstream.

Two recent documentaries, the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth (Guggenheim, 2006) and Oscar-nominated Gasland (Fox, 2010), expose the detrimental environmental effects of unchecked industrial practices. The former is surely the apotheosis of “the format,” as it documents former vice president Al Gore’s illustrated lecture on global warming – a “talking heads plus B-roll” treatment of a talking head (Gore) using b-roll (Powerpoint) to support his claims. Gasland employs “the format” in a more standard way, incorporating voiceover narration, on-screen text, and interviews in an argument about the environmental consequences of natural gas drilling.

The extent to which these two films are compelling is largely a matter of how interesting we find their subjects. This, in turn, comes down to how compelling we find their arguments about those subjects, their organization of written and spoken language (including litanies of scientific data). The primary means of expression is language, which communicates information that pre-exists, and is largely indifferent to, cinematic treatment. That is, cinematic form is employed as a neutral vessel for the linguistic content that constitutes the bulk of each film’s message.

Compare these films with three earlier environmental documentaries: Pare Lorentz’s Farm Security Administration-produced The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938), and Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness (1992). The first two, like An Inconvenient Truth and Gasland, possess rhetorical structures, but the arguments are made as much through sophisticated compositional choices, editing strategies, and sound-image relationships as they are by language. Complex causal claims are made entirely without voiceover narration or text. A particularly powerful scene in The Plow That Broke the Plains communicates the connection between increased wheat harvesting in the U.S. and the material needs of the allied forces in WWI by intercutting shots of tractors and harvesters with shots of tanks and battleships. The escalation of both the war and the (over)production of grain is dramatized by a strategic ordering of the shots: as the scene progresses, each shot is of more, and larger, farming and war machines. These kinds of stylistic choices, recurrent across both Lorentz’s films, require the viewer to do remarkably subtle inferential work to piece together the argument from the abstract cues provided, A purely linguistic argument bypasses such viewer engagement.

In Herzog’s film, about the effort to extinguish the massive oil fires that ravaged Kuwait after the first Gulf War, voiceover commentary accompanies stunning images of these fires, but is so poetic and ambiguous that it undermines the authority of the spoken word. The voiceover offers no historical context and no explanation of the firefighters’ methods (the film also lacks on-screen text). In fact, it frequently interprets the images in ways that contradict our expectations, describing them in heroic, epic terms despite their patently horrific nature (Herzog was criticized for aestheticizing the destruction caused by the war). In one scene, in which firefighters appear to re-start a previously extinguished fire, the voiceover incredibly suggests that it is an act of madness driven by an insatiable need for fire.

Another popular documentary genre is the “true crime” film. Recent examples, such as Cropsey (Zeman and Brancaccio, 2009) and Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (Berlinger and Sinofsky, 1996), faithfully adhere to “the format,” and thus call to mind television journalism ala Dateline and 60 Minutes (the popularity of “the format” among students is surely due in part to the fact that it is the template for this type of television programming). Again, language – interviews, police documents, court testimony, newspaper headlines, on-screen titles, and voiceover narration – is the primary means by which the films convey information about their cases, and the viewer is made a more or less passive witness.

The Thin Blue Line (Morris, 1988), about a man imprisoned for the 1976 murder of a Dallas, Texas police officer, provides a striking counterexample to the routine, TV news-flavored true crime documentary. Rather than abandoning “the format,” Morris embraces it, but only to attack the assumptions about the efficacy of language at its heart. Morris intercuts conflicting accounts from multiple “authorities,” and includes damning admissions and slips of the tongue made by several talking heads. Another cliché documentary device, the re-enactment, appears across the film, but each time enacting one of numerous opposing accounts of the crime and thereby revealing their incompatibility and the unreliability of the statements made by the interviewees. Even police records and court documents are called into question by Morris’s masterful editing. As in The Plow That Broke the Plains, the spectator is required to puzzle through a complex argument articulated not in plain language but through a series of subtle cinematic devices – and yet the film was so effective that it led to the release of the man who had been wrongly imprisoned.

Of course, my examples barely scratch the surface. A fuller account would include the silent-era films of Dziga Vertov and Robert Flaherty, the aggressively modernist political films of Emile de Antonio, the experimental ethnographies of Jean Rouch, the postmodernist documentaries of Trinh T. Minh-ha and Marlon Riggs, and the avant-garde documentaries of Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, and Ben Rivers. It would also point to contemporary work in this tradition (including by Trinh and Rivers), which continues to create ingenious aesthetic alternatives to the simplistic expository approach of “the format” and its over-reliance on the crutch of language. If these films are “oppositional,” it is as much to mainstream documentary and its limited conceptions of meaning, expression, and spectatorial engagement as to the escapism and social disengagement of the fiction film. These are the real values of the documentary tradition that I believe we should teach our students, in the hopes of raising their expectations of the form and heightening their critical awareness of its potential.

2011 © Jonathan Walley

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