What Is A Documentary?
A documentary film purports to present factual information about the world outside the film
A documentary typically comes to us labeled as such. The label leads us to assume that the persons, places, and events exist and that the information presented about them is trustworthy.
A documentary may take a stand, state an opinion, or advocate a solution to a problem.
A documentary utilize the three following film styles:
1. The filmmaker may record events as they actually occur, as the cameramen did in filming Hoop Dreams.
2. The filmmaker may supply charts, maps, or other visual aids.
3. The documentary filmmaker may stage events for the camera to record. The staging of the action may enhance the film’s reliability.
Other features or facts:
The documentary filmmaker may have no choice about the setting or lighting.
The documentary film asks us to assume that it presents trustworthy information about its subject.
Any one documentary may not prove reliable. Throughout film history, many documentaries have been challenged as inaccurate.
One controversy involved Michael Moore’s "Roger and Me." The film presents, in sequences ranging from the heartrending to the absurd, the response of the people of Flint, Michigan, to a series of layoffs at General Motors plants during the 1980's. No one disputes that all these events took place. The controversy arose when critics claimed that the film leads the audience to believe that the events occurred in the order in which they are shown. Ronald Reagan came to Flint in 1980, the TV evangelist in 1982; AutoWorld opened in 1985. These events could not have been responses to the plant closings shown early in the film because the plant closings started in 1986. Moore falsified the actual chronology,critics charged, in order to make the city government look foolish. Moore insists, however, that the ideas and information presented are correct and that their sequence was ordered to assist the film's form and on-screen time frame rather than the strict linear chronology.
An unreliable documentary is still a documentary. Just as there are inaccurate and misleading (I.E. 60 Minutes) news stories, there are inaccurate and misleading documentaries.
Types of Documentary
1. The compilation film – A film produced by assembling images from archival sources. I.E. – The Atomic Café – Used newsreel footage and instructional films to suggest how 1950’s American culture reacted to the threat of nuclear weapons.
2. The interview- Also known as “the talking heads” documentary; records testimony about events or social movements. I.E. – Word is Out – Gays and lesbians discuss their lifestyle.
3. The direct cinema – Also known as “cinema-verite,” French for “cinema truth.” Characteristically records an ongoing event “as it happens,” with minimal interference by the filmmaker. I.E. – The Carter, a 2009 documentary film about American hip hop recording artist Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr., better known as Lil Wayne. The film was shot in a completely cinéma-vérité style, with the production team following the artist during his tours, and gaining interviews from his manager and other associates. The director said that the film is about fame and the "artist's life". Carter was filmed using marijuana and a prescription cough syrup in soda as recreational drugs. However, the director also clearly showed his strong work ethic which has enabled his high productivity, and said that Carter was always recording, whether on the road or not. He is devoted to the process and working all the time.
4. The Combination Documentary – Pursues several of the above options at once.
1. The nature documentary - gives a close-up look to things in the natural world. I.E. The Living Desert
2. "Mockumentary" - attempt to imitate the conventions of a documentary but do not try to fool audiences into thinking that they portray actual people or events. I.E. "This is Spinal Tap" or "The Blair Witch Project"
3. Biographical - films about a living or dead person. I.E. "Nowhere Boy" about John Lennon or "A Brief History of Time" about Stephan Hawking
4. "Rockumentary" - A concert or rock festival. I.E. "Gimme Shelter" about the Rolling Stones
5. The Expose - Shedding like on some event or injustice, usually includes interviews. I.E. Michael and Me, An Inconvenient Truth
6. The "Making Of" - shows behind the scenes footage of another event, sometimes another film. I.E. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991) - about the making of Apocalypse Now (1979)
The Boundaries Between Documentary and Fiction
Sometimes our response to a fictional film is shaped by our assumptions about how it was made. This assumption about how the film was made typically comes into play when we consider historical films or biographies. Apollo 13 and Schindler’s List base themselves on actual events, while Malcolm X, Heart Like a Wheel, and other “biopics” trace episodes in the lives of people who really existed. Are these documentaries or fictional films?
Fictional film will contain actors portraying real people, written words and actions, staged events and places. "Based on actual events" does not make a film a documentary.
A film may fuse documentary and fiction in other ways. For JFK, Oliver Stone inserted compilation footage into scenes in which actors played historical figures such as Lee Harvey Oswald. An even more extreme example is Forest Gump, which uses special effects to allow its hero to meet JFK, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon.
Types of Form in Documentary Films
A film might be intended to convey information in a simple fashion and hence draw upon what we can term categorical form. Or the filmmaker may want to make an argument that will convince the spectator of something. In this case the film draws upon rhetorical form.
1. Categorical Form – A type of filmic organization in which the parts treat distinct subsets of a topic. For example, a film about the U.S. might be organized into fifty parts, each devoted to a single state. The categorical film usually begins by identifying its subject. In this type of form, patterns of development will usually be simple. The film might move from small to large, local to national, personal to public, and so on. Because categorical form tends to develop in fairly simple ways, it risks boring the spectator.
2) Rhetorical Form – A film in which the filmmaker presents a persuasive argument. The goal in such a film is to persuade the audience to adopt an opinion about the subject matter and perhaps to act upon that opinion. It tries to make an explicit argument.
We can define rhetorical form in film by four basic attributes:
a. It addresses the viewer openly, trying to move him or her to a new intellectual conviction, to a new emotional attitude.
b. The subject of the film will usually not be an issue of scientific truth, but a matter of opinion.
c. If the conclusion cannot be proved beyond question, the filmmaker often appeals to our emotions, rather than presenting only factual evidence.
d. The film will often attempt to persuade the viewer to make a choice that will have an effect on his or her everyday life. This may be as simple as what shampoo to use, or it may involve decisions about which political candidate to support, or even whether a young person will fight in a war.
There are three main types of arguments the film may use:
1. Arguments to the source – Some of the film’s arguments will usually present the film as a reliable source of information. The makers of the film try to givethe audience the impression that they are intelligent and trustworthy.
2. Subject-centered arguments – The film will also employ arguments about its subject matter. It will use examples that support its points.
3. Viewer-centered arguments – The film may make an argument that appeals to the emotions of the viewer. We are all familiar with politicians who pose with flag, family, and pets. Appeals to patriotism, romantic sentimentality, and other emotions are common in rhetorical films.