The Zen of Filmmaking: A Balance of Heart & Mind

by Xuan Vu © 2006

Chapter II: The Documentary: Past and Present

:: Setting the Stage: Art vs. Function in the 1930s

:: The TV Revolution: The Issue of Audience
:: The Purpose of Truth

What makes a film a documentary? Is it in the material presented? Is it in the presentation itself? Is it documentation, representation, or truth? What makes a documentary successful? The answers to these underlying questions remain ambiguous even today, over a century after the birth of the documentary. The one thing that can be certain is that documentaries are works of art that belong to the nonfiction realm, distinguishing themselves from fiction films. Aside from this defining characteristic, that its content seemingly claims to lie within reality or factual information, documentaries have no limit on the forms they can take, sometimes utilizing elements and techniques from the fiction world. Robert Flaherty, most widely known as the “father of the documentary”(1), employed several elements of fiction in his films. Other filmmakers, notably John Grierson and his General Post Office (GPO) cohorts, disagree with such a method, clearly demarcating the line between fiction and nonfiction by emphasizing the factual content over artistic form.

Over half a century later, the difference in these two approaches can still be seen in films that are on the same topic yet seem to be worlds apart in their general tone and effect. A major factor of consideration in a filmmaker’s decision to choose one form over the other is the target audience, which is usually determined by either the filmmaker or the employer. Another factor lies in the filmmaker’s own ethical considerations for presenting the material and the subjects. Variations in the approaches that filmmakers take stem from their need to either convey “truth” or to keep the integrity of the film, the topic, or the subjects. In the end, however, documentaries will always be a product of a compromise between the filmmaker’s personal vision and his/her considerations of external influences, namely the target audience, the employer, or the subjects.

Setting the Stage: Art vs. Function in the 1930s

In the documentary tradition, there have been two kinds of films: the unique, creative work of art that maintains integrity but is not widely seen, and the more popular piece on common subjects that is seen by mass audiences. The difference between these two lies within both the film’s form and its purpose. The purpose of a film usually is the defining factor as to the form that the film takes. For example, if a filmmaker’s main concern is in presenting information and informing his/her audience, the film might take the format of a didactic, educational lecture. If a filmmaker’s aim is to portray a story, interesting characters, or a poetic or artistic interpretation of a subject, the film may take an entertaining or dramatic format. Depending on the purpose, a filmmaker may adopt either a controlled, scripted style, or a more loosely organized, unrehearsed approach. The point of contention, then, seems to be on what to emphasize more: the aesthetic form or the factual content.
Robert Flaherty chose to place more emphasis on the form. In his Man of Aran (1934)(2), a feature-length documentary on the lifestyle of Aran islanders in their struggle to survive the tumultuous, thrashing waves and basking sharks circling their island, Flaherty employs narrative devices and cinematic techniques, such as textual narration, music, montage and long action sequences, in order to capture a fading culture.(3)

In giving particular attention to the film’s visual qualities and artistic representation of his subjects’ lifestyle, Flaherty disregards the role of spoken language in conveying information. The film begins with Flaherty’s signature use of black-on-white intertitles to establish the setting, and throughout the film the necessary facts are provided in the form of explanatory textual narration, with no use of voiceover commentary. In fact, the only words that are heard come from the subjects, whose dialog was synced in postproduction. This use of non-sync sound, according to Richard Barsam, undercuts “the immediacy and intimacy of the photography that create a realistic context for our interest.”(4) For example, in the scene at the beginning of the film when the family is struggling to save their nets from the powerful surges slapping onto the rocks of their shore, one can hear their murmuring voices as they run from the waves, but the voices seem so obviously removed from the setting that it calls attention to the fact that the “soundtrack of dialogue and music…was an afterthought, not an integral part of the production.”(5) The majority of the film’s sound comes from the classical musical score itself, which is used to convey emotion. The story of the Man of Aran, then, essentially comes from the power of the images, and not from the subjects’ accounts.

It is interesting to note that Man of Aran was a project that John Grierson had recommended to Flaherty,(6) considering the approach that Flaherty took in the filmmaking process seems so counter to the style of the GPO Unit films, which center on the content and ignore the aesthetic. Unlike Flaherty’s “close-up portrait” of a family in Man of Aran, “the characteristic Grierson documentary dealt with impersonal social processes.”(7) In Housing Problems (Edgar Anstey and Arthur Elton, 1935),(8) a public relations film for social reconstruction of the living conditions of slum inhabitants in England, the directors foreshadowed the television news documentary with its heavy reliance on direct testimony from the slum-dwellers themselves, while supplying factual, explanatory information in the form of carefully scripted voiceover commentary. According to Barsam, this film “marks the first use of journalistic reporting in the British documentary” as well as the interview device.(9) Instead of conveying the desperate situation of the people through narration, the filmmakers went straight to the source: One man tells us of how his two children died due to the poor living conditions. Another woman talks about her trouble with rats in her old apartment. These are formal standing interviews given for the purpose of finding out information in the subjects’ own words.

In Housing Problems, the picture comes secondary to the words, illustrating to the viewer what the narrator says and serving, in a sense, as b-roll. In the first few shots when the narration establishes the context, the camera pans over rooftops in a wide shot of the slum area. Soon after, there is a tilt up the walls of a building, illustrating the “sheer neglect” that the slum-dwellers have experienced. Later on there is a sequence showing the layout of a model of the new buildings, which the government was constructing to replace the old slums. The shots follow in accordance with the narrator’s explanation and description of the model. Therefore, in contrast to Flaherty, the GPO filmmakers’ main concern was to convey factual information about a social situation rather than portray a lifestyle of a particular group of individuals.

Housing Problems was not without its problems. As Barsam points out, “while the unpleasantness of slum life is real and there for us to see…the British should have let us see the dirt rather than hear about the slum dwellers’ misery.”(10) The weakness of this film is in its dependence on the subjects’ words without providing the proper visuals for the viewer to determine for him/herself the poverty-stricken conditions that the subjects were enduring. Whereas Flaherty’s shortcoming was in his lack of emphasis on sound, Anstey and Elton’s flaw was in their lack of emphasis on picture. Produced in the 1930s, their films represent the problem of balance between the audio and visual, or the content and form, that filmmakers still struggle with today.

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The TV Revolution: The Issue of Audience

A major factor for the difference in emphasis in the two films was the audience that the filmmakers were targeting: Flaherty’s film was widely received by an international audience whereas Edgar and Anstey’s film was meant to encourage British public reform. The advent of television in 1935, added to the division between films that were meant for mass audiences and those for more exclusive venues.(11) With the arrival of TV, use of the all-newsreel theaters that had been established since 1929 started to decline. These theaters had been popular for their use of newsreels because they were the only kind of nonfiction that could reach mass audiences. After World War II, the inner city ghettos were cleared, and with them went the local neighborhood movie theaters. Demographics also shifted as more people were moving into the suburbs and were buying their own appliances. Their TVs provided them with the news and entertainment they needed.

Since nonfiction on television was organized by the news divisions or the journalist side of the industry, TV documentaries quickly took on an information- and word-based formula, in the tradition of Griersonian films. Though clearly having an interest in TV as an education and news medium, such filmmakers employed by network stations found themselves limited in their styles and approaches to filmmaking. Many films during the period of the TV revolution followed a particular “tried-and-true” formula. Later on, with the introduction of reality TV, documentaries also adopted an entertainment-based approach. These films, having the advantage of guaranteed funding and distribution, distinguished themselves from the types of films found in theaters and drive-ins, schools and colleges, churches, clubs and youth groups, and audiences with a narrower scope. Such films usually were independently produced or made for particular organizations or causes and were not readily funded or distributed.

Two films that deal with the subject of domestic abuse of women demonstrate the disparity in the form and approach that a filmmaker may choose to use based on the target audience. Defending Our Lives (Margaret Lazarus and Renner Wunderlich, 1994)(12) is an educational documentary that centers on oral accounts about abuse experiences from members of “Battered Women Fighting Back.” Supplementing their powerfully emotional interviews are black and white photos of the women with bruises and cuts on their faces and bodies, showing the extent of the abuse. According to Cambridge Documentary Films, the film’s production company, Defending Our Lives is meant for “people working on any aspect of this issue, including general education, legal reform, police training, battered women advocacy, counseling, prosecution and defense, human rights activism and community education.”(13) In taking such a limited audience into consideration, the filmmakers approached the documentary with the intention to raise awareness for this social problem. In effect, they created a film that spoke to the concerns that the audience in their respective affiliations might have. They provided their audience with the appropriate information and set a powerful tone for the severity of the issue.

A film that takes a different approach to the subject of domestic abuse is The Framing of Eight.(14) This documentary appeared on broadcast television, and therefore was meant for a general audience. The filmmakers employed conventional TV documentary and reality TV elements to convey the subjects’ stories. In the beginning shots, the viewer is carried along a reenacted police call for a reported domestic fight. A removed third-person narrative voice provides the context for the scene. Shots from inside the car pulling up to the house to the perspective of the policemen rushing towards the door of the house to stop the boyfriend from escaping give the audience an immediate sense of being in the midst of the action. This scene is followed by interview footage of some victims of domestic abuse, who share their feelings and experiences. In keeping what might appeal to a mass audience in mind, the filmmakers employed several techniques, including narration, interview, music, and staged scenes, to bring the subject to life and engage the viewer. In their effort to satisfy a wide audience, the filmmakers created a film that is engaging at best, but does not convey the seriousness of the problem as does Defending Our Lives.

An example of a television documentary that is effective in conveying the plight of its subjects is Streetwise (Martin Bell, Mary Ellen Mark, Cheryl McCall, 1994).(15) This film follows nine homeless American teenagers from Seattle. The beautiful opening wide shot of a young boy standing atop a bridge immediately signals to the viewer the professional quality of this production. Over the shot of the boy on the bridge is his intimate voiceover, telling the audience about his feelings and allowing the audience to closely relate to him. The use of a tripod throughout the film for the on-the-street scenes, though not necessarily matching with the subjects’ carefree attitude and the filmmakers’ own seemingly light-hearted approach, is effective in allowing the filmmaking process to disappear so that the viewer can focus their attention solely on the subjects. In addition, the subjects’ intimate voiceovers provide the film with the appropriate level of gravity.

Seventeen (Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines, 1982),(16) a film on a similar subject, fails to convey this degree of significance. Seventeen was originally made for the final episode of a six-part television series, but PBS declined its broadcast “out of concerns that the subjects had been exploited.”(17) The documentary follows a group of high-school students through their senior year. The filmmakers take a participant-observer approach in their shooting style, employing a hand-held camera technique, which causes an almost nauseating home-video effect in the viewer. There is complete disregard for the quality of sound, resulting in an aurally dreadful cacophony of dialog and background noise. One scene takes place at a carnival, in which the camera is fixated on two girls, who are experiencing some drama with their boyfriends. The camera is within such close proximity of the girls that the viewer almost feels a bit suffocated at points and begs for a wide shot that never comes. The girls’ voices are coming in and out of the position of the microphone so that the sound is not consistent and only results in the viewer’s sense of confusion for what is going on. The filmmakers’ attempt to capture an honest representation of the students’ experiences in this film are undermined by their lack of attention to the aesthetic.

Clearly there have been films that are effective in conveying the filmmakers’ central message in both independent and broadcast industries. There have also been films in both outlets that do not successfully portray the subject in the way that the filmmakers intended. The reasons for such disparity may lie in the expectations that the networks, employers or benefit organizations impose upon the film. The difference may also be a result of the filmmaker’s own sense of ethics.

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The Purpose of Truth

The issue of ethics comes up in the filmmaker’s attempt to relate to the image portrayed of the subjects. The filmmaker is faced with the question: “Should I convey the truth of the matter? Or should I respect my subject’s wishes and be careful of the way I portray them?” Those in the cinéma vérité and direct cinema tradition, which burgeoned in the 1960s, have tried to combine both approaches. In this movement, the documentary shifted away from the scripted technique of Grierson to what was known as “real life actuality.” In the 1950s and 1960s, staged or reenacted scenes were considered taboo for television networks. If they were used, it would have been made clear that they were reenactments. At the same time, those concerned with the aesthetic took to utilizing techniques from fiction filmmaking in order to provide the sense that a film is just a document of a truth, not the overall “Truth.”

Such filmmakers took their cue from Flaherty. In a famous quote for which Flaherty is known, he sums up his view on the art of filmmaking: “Sometimes one must distort reality in order to reveal the truth.”(18) In its shooting and editing techniques, Man of Aran borrows a number of elements from the art of fiction films, specifically his staging of scenes, such as the shark hunts. The suspenseful nature of the shark hunts comes through in the long takes in which the hunt plays out almost in real time, with the shark encircling the men’s boat again and again and the men struggling to pull it in with their line. These contrived scenes, which were based on a lifestyle that the islanders had long relinquished to the modern way of life imposed upon them, were the source of much of the criticism he received from Grierson and other filmmakers.

This method of provoking or setting the stage for the subjects and then observing how the situation plays out was taken up by cinéma vérité artists, such as Frederick Wiseman, in High School (1968),(19) which was broadcast on the P.O.V. program on PBS. Towards the middle of the film, there are several long continuous takes during a scene in which the principal scolds a student. Wiseman chooses to keep many of the zooms and shaky pans between the two in order to keep the sense of real-time. Shortly after is a scene with a hall monitor who seems to be performing for the camera by hounding the loitering students. There are several walking shots from the point-of-view of the hall monitor, and then the viewer hears the sound of music coming from behind a door. The hall monitor peeks through the window, and the next shot is from inside a gym where girls are practicing in gym class. The shot is of the rear end of one of the girls, in effect, implicating the old man of voyeurism.

Such a manipulation of images is a clear distortion of truth that may have no bearing on reality and may be considered a disregard for the subject’s reputation. This scene points to the larger issue of whether or not one can “distort reality” or violate a subject’s privacy for the sake of reaching an underlying truth. A prime example of such a violation comes from Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer (Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill, 2003).(20) In this film, Broomfield employs self-reflexive narration as well as inclusion of his own presence in the film (in the spirit of cinéma vérité filmmaker, Jean Rouch(21)) to show his relationship with his subject, Aileen Wuornos. In a scene in a jail booth towards the end of the film, Broomfield pretends to turn the camera off in an effort to allow Wuornos to let her defenses down so that he could get at the truth of whether or not she had murdered her victims out of self-defense. The viewer gathers from this scene that Wuornos has been lying about killing the men out of cold blood so that she could end her miserable life in prison. Broomfield’s attempt to reveal the truth in this way could have caused Wuornos’ case to be dismissed, consequently keeping her in prison. Such an overt breach of the subject’s wishes calls into question this method of getting at the truth.

An example of a film that employs another method of cinéma vérité that is less intrusive is The Belovs (Viktor Kossakovsky, 1992)(22). Shot in black and white, this film presents a portrait of a peasant family living on a farm in Russia. The filmmakers employ the direct cinema technique of keeping the camera as invisible as possible and not trying to impact the subject in any way. Through this observational method emerges an honest and intimate look into the lives of a brother and sister who have a rather disturbing relationship. In respectful observation of their everyday activities, the filmmakers show the clear contrast between the playful, laidback nature of the woman and the serious, deep nature of the brother. In one scene, there is a long take of a wide shot of the woman trying to save a hedgehog from her dog, talking to and scolding the dog while continually dropping the hedgehog on the ground. Another scene takes place inside the house where the man is talking about the philosophical implications of some social issue. In scenes between the man and woman in the house, there is very open and honest interaction, to the point where, in one scene with a wide shot of the kitchen table, they are sitting there fighting, with the brother yelling threats of wanting to kill her. The filmmaker was able to capture “the truth” of this family’s life without imposing any stimulus or provocation upon the subjects. Such an effect came about through the respectful nature of the filmmaker towards the subjects and in his honest portrayal of them in the film.

The documentary has had a long history of different filmmakers, techniques, and approaches. Flaherty and Grierson were one of the first filmmakers to set the stage for the variety of films that endure to this day. The degree to which a documentary is successful, according to some critics of their films, is in the balance of the art form and the content. The emphasis on one over the other depends upon the purpose of the film as well as the target audience and the expectations of those for whom the filmmaker is working. There is also a difference between cinéma vérité and direct cinema films,(23) which may stem from the filmmaker’s own sense of ethics. Whatever the filmmaker’s intentions or stylistic approach, the success of any documentary is largely a product of the filmmaker’s relationship with his/her audience, subjects and/or employer.

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(1) Such a status has been a subject of debate among filmmakers and critics throughout the documentary tradition. Suffice it to say that Flaherty was one of the first in the tradition whose legacy has had a long-standing influence on filmmakers since his time.
(2) Man of Aran. Robert Flaherty. Home Vision Entertainment, 1934.
(3) Flaherty’s Romantic approach in this film, as in his others films, such as Nanook of the North (1922), has stirred much controversy over the issue of conveying truth in a nonfiction piece. This issue will be explored in more detail later.
(4) Barsam, Richard M. Nonfiction Film: A Critical History. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992. 141.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Ibid. 93.
(7) Barnouw, Erik. Documentary: A History of the Nonfiction Film. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993. 99.
(8) Housing Problems. Edgar Anstey and Arthur Elton. British Commercial Gas Association, 1935.
(9) Barnouw. 107, 301.
(10) Barsam. 107.
(11) For the remainder of this paragraph and the next, I rely on information given in class lectures by Jeremy Murray-Brown, Professor of Television at Boston University. Murray-Brown, Jeremy. Lectures. College of Communications at Boston University. Boston. 27 Sept. and 11 Nov. 2005.
(12) Defending Our Lives. Margaret Lazarus and Renner Wunderlich. Cambridge Documentary Films, 1994.
(13) “Defending Our Lives.” Cambridge Documentary Films, Inc. 1 Dec 2005 <>.
(14) This film was screened in Professor Murray-Brown’s “The Documentary” class (FT560 course). The information for the director, distribution company, and release date were not given in class, and I was unable to find them online.
(15) Streetwise. Martin Bell, Mary Ellen Mark, Cheryl McCall. Bear Creek Television, 1984.
(16) Seventeen. Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines. Peter Davis, 1982.
(17) “Middletown (1982).” Internet Movie Database. 20 Mar. 2006 <>.
(18) This is a paraphrased quote, as I have heard this line in many instances in my studies of Flaherty but do not recall exactly where it can be found.
(19) High School. Frederick Wiseman. P.O.V. 1968.
(20) Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer. Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill. HBO Cinemax Documentary Films, 2003.
(21) The legacy and work of Jean Rouch will be discussed in Chapters V and VI.
(22) The Belovs. Viktor Kossakovsky. Icarus Films, 1992.
(23) This topic will be explored in more depth in Chapter VI.

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