Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Modes of the Documentary

Modes of the Documentary
By Mark Davenport

As time grew on and the documentary evolved out of its original rigid definition of an ‘unedited’ stream of footage (thanks to Nanook of the North), different styles of the art-form have taken flight over time.
Bill Nichols has theories five major modes of documentary, of which are still today in creating categories and sub-genres for works.


The poetic mode of documentary is the most abstract in many senses, often coming dangerously close to becoming experimental films and often incredibly avant-garde. Typically these films are without narration or an overall narrative, often desiring the audience member to take it upon themselves to create their own narrative or meaning from the piece (as is human nature).
Baraka is classic example of a masterpiece of a poetic film, with breathtaking visuals (the first film to ever receive an 8K scan, once described as the best looking DVD ever printed by Roger Ebert) and a spine-tingling soundtrack to boot.
However I would be hard pressed to tell you what actually is the story or point of the film, I can tell you things I saw, but how they’re meant to link together (if at all they’re meant to link together) is very much up to the digression of the viewer.
A less flashy, but no less notable example of a poetic film can be found in Junktopia, a film which shows art being made out of ‘junk’, however with the way it’s filmed and the musical choices give it a post-apocalyptic (dare I say WaterWorld?) world, lacking any humans but showing our material impact upon the Earth. While many dislike this film, I was quite taken with it.


Perhaps the most classically thought of mode of documentary, Expository documentaries revolve around the idea of telling the story of an event, person or fact-seeking. Such as the type of documentaries you’d find on the History Channel about the Second World War. They often have a presenter of some sort, although this presenter isn’t necessarily involved in the story itself, more as an avenue to get across information. They focus more on the actuality of the events, however the means of which they present this information isn’t just restricted to interviews or archival (although they do use these), they also can use recreations. These recreations can be as simple as an actor playing a general pointing at a map with a stick or one person walking down the street passing a secret document to another. However the entire film could be made up of recreations as well, however these recreations aren’t one continuous thing for the film (otherwise it would end up more in the realm of biopic), instead they can be interlaced with interviews from the people who were there or experts of the event.


Observational documentaries can sometimes be hard to define, elements of it can be found in both Expository and Participatory modes, the general idea however is that the documentary ‘observes’ the event without getting directly involved in it.
For example in a Participatory documentary about a racist man going to a rally, the presenter would be walking alongside the subject, talking with them constantly and would be filmed themselves standing alongside in the rally with them (such as what Reggie Yates did when he joined the race rallies in Russia). However, in Observational the presenter isn’t generally seen or heard, in this sense the camera acts as a first person perspective for the audience, so in an abstract sense they can feel like as if they’re standing in the race rally themselves, looking at the subject in question.
The only time you’d hear the presenter was if it was vital for the question to be heard or seen if say the police came and the fourth wall would be broken. In this way Observational, while highly edited can have a more ‘fast and loose’ vibe to it.


The Participatory documentary has become one of the most popular forms of documentary of recent times, in some cases the audience is more interested in watching because of the presenter than the actual interest in the subject itself, this very much lines up with the way a lot of internet content on YouTube works these days, they’re personality driven, instead of pure content.
The classic examples can be found in the ever delightful Louis Theroux, where the man finds himself among Neo-Nazis, Sex Offenders, Dangerous Animal Owners, Porn Stars, Gambling Addicts and almost anything else you could possibly think of.
Louis Theroux is of course not alone, other examples can be found in Ross Kemp and Reggie Yates. Part of the appeal is not just the core personalities, but the idea of ‘privileged access’ or the pure audacity of the presenter. These presenters find themselves in the company of people the audience are deeply interested in, but wouldn’t ever dream of meeting. They can often get invited into places out of bounds, in a sense they’re thrill seekers of an intellectual kind. This can extend to programs like River Monsters, the most popular show on as Planet. Those who might not normally care about fishing (like myself), are deeply invested in the program.


The Self-Reflexive form of documentary is one which can have the most twists and turns, in this the documentary is typically about the filmmaker themselves. In the purest sense, they would film and edit the work themselves. A somewhat crude, disturbing, yet intriguing example is Tarnation. A young boy of 12 starts to film his life and amazingly still kept filming his life for years and has the footage years later. Of course in his case, it helps that his story is one full of despair and tragedy. Abused childhood, raised by kooky grandparents, a broken mother, a disappeared father, being gay at a time when it wasn’t as easy and experimenting with his own sexuality at a very young age. Having such a unique story to tell allows the film to be a standalone piece, despite being up of random footage with text on the screen to tell the story.

The documentary is an interesting form of filmmaking, it unfairly gets a bad rap often as being boring and lame, something shown on terrible VHS tapes at school, however just a slight bit of care and digging will grand the audience an insight they might have never had before. Documentaries are not only entertaining, but can be very informative.
I have often said I have learnt more from the internet than I did at school and that also rings true for the documentary.
While not a documentary really, on QI last night I learnt that Killer Whales are in fact Dolphins with the name misquoted from Killer of Whales. I didn’t know that, now I do. That is Quite Interesting.

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