It’s All True!

October 12, 2007

What comes to mind when you hear the word “Documentary?” History Channel? Nature? Some British guy holding a microphone telling about science stuff? Let’s face it, the one word most americans (and students at this school) think of when it comes to documentary is “boring.”

They’ve gotten a bad rap over the years, and yes a lot of them can be boring, especially if you’re including the instructional video you have to watch at your first training meeting at McDonalds, or the videorecording of the Math class on channel 9. But there’s also some pretty fantastic, engaging, mind-blowing stuff out there. If you really think that all documentaries are boring, then something is wrong. With you. Or you just haven’t seen any of the good ones.

So these past few days I’ve been doing my utmost to convert new disciples to the beauty of non-fiction filmmaking and watching.

If you haven’t done so already, here’s the worksheet for downloading: documentaries handout The answers are as follows:

What is a documentary? The easy answer is a film concerned with facts and truth and actuality. It contains all sorts of stuff that you probably watch all the time. The ten o’clock news. The home movies of you blowing out the candle on your first birthday cake. Your cousin’s wedding video. The food network. America’s Most Humiliating Home Vidoes. Any sports broadcast. Any of those “reality” shows. That commercial of Alan Thicke telling us about the great deal where you can get a free 3 night stay at that resort in Orlando. Non-fiction film is a huge part of our media consumption. A lot of it is forgetable, but there are some real gems out there. According to scholar Erik Barnouw, one “crucial aspect of the documentary film is its ability to open our eyes to worlds available to us but, for one reason or another, not percieved.”

For example, check out this clip from Microcosmos. This film, by the director of March of the Penguins, is all about the daily life of insects. But rather than the typical nature documentary with some british guy telling us all about the lives and loves and deepest goals of each of the animals, this one has has only one paragraph of narration, which states “But to observe this world, we must fall silent now and listen to its murmurs.” And then there’s no more narration, just really cool footage of insects doing stuff.

Documentaries have a huge range of purposes. Some are informational or educational, the kind you’d watch in your science or history class, or on the discovery network. Some are instructional that actually teach you how to do something, like “this old house” or cooking shows or an excercise video. Some promote awareness of social issues like “Happy Valley” a doc about meth addiction in Utah. Some are tribute to a person or institution, like what they show at the Oscars when Ingmar Berman wins an honorary award, or a video to show at someone’s 50th anniversary or funeral. Some try to convince us of a particular argument, like “Super Size Me” about how bad fast food is for you. Some try to promote change, like Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” Some are to preserve memories, like home movies or a concert video. And some are just entertaining and interesting, like “Riding Giants” about big wave surfing.

There are also three main styles of documentary making. The most common is the “omniscient documentary.” This is when you have an unseen, yet all-knowing narrator (often with a low voice and a british accent) who tells us the way things are and we are inclined to believe him (sometimes its a “her”, but rarely). There are interviews with scholars or others in authority. These interviews are professionally done, with nice lighting and cameras on a tripod and everything in its ideal setting. The person asking the questions is edited out to sound like people are just talking on their own. There are often “reinactments” of historical events, with people dressed up in costumes.

Later came a movement known as “direct cinema” or “observational documentary.” This style has no narrator and no interviews. It’s just someone holding a camera filming things that happen as they happen. A good example would be a live concert video. Or that clip from “Microcosmos.” These filmmakers believed that it was most truthful to be as unobtrusive as possible and just catch things on tape as they happen.

Followers of the “Cinema Verite” movement thought the direct cinema stuff was a bunch of crap. If you show up with a camera, people are going to act differently anyway. Plus, depending on your subject, sometimes the filmmaker needs to make things happen. Cinema Verite tends to be confrontational or at least interactive. The filmmaker is often part of the film. She’s on camera talking to people.

Here’s some clips from some docs. You decide what their goal is, and what style of filmmaking they fit into (they might be a combination!)

Nanook of the North

An Inconvenient Truth

Fahrenheit 9/11

A Short Film About Movies

Jazz

Meeting People is Easy (a film about Radiohead)

Here’s the worksheet again for download: documentaries¬†handout

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