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Very Short Introductions: Documentary Film

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By Kirsty OUP-UK

With Oscar season in full swing it seems fitting that this month’s Very Short Introduction column comes from Patricia Aufderheide, author of Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction. Patricia is a professor in the School of Communication at American University, Washington DC, and in the past has served as a Sundance Film Festival juror and as a board member of the Independent Television Service. Regular OUPblog readers will also have read Patricia’s previous posts for OUPblog here, here and here.

OUP: What’s your choice for the Academy Award for documentary film?

PATRICIA AUFDERHEIDE: The Academy Awards for documentary have been announced, and they’re boldly political–in fact, three (No End in Sight, Operation Homecoming and Taxi to the Dark Side) deal with the Iraq war. Michael Moore’s Sicko indicts the U.S. so-called health system. War/Dance deals with the impact on children and families of the war in Uganda. I was sorry that Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro’s Body of War didn’t make it from shortlist to nomination, because it’s a powerful, grassroots story about the transformation of a wounded Iraq vet into an anti-war activist and about the cost in damaged lives of war. I also missed on the nominations list Weijun Chen’s Please Vote for Me, a poignant story about democracy and gamesmanship in Chinese grade school, and Steven Okazaki’s White Light/Black Rain, about the Hiroshima/Nagasaki catastrophe. It was a great year for documentaries, with too much powerful, good stuff to choose from.

OUP: What’s a documentary film, exactly?

AUFDERHEIDE: A documentary film is one in which the filmmaker has made a good faith effort to tell you something significant about some aspect of reality, using the elements of that very reality to show and tell you about it. It’s not a film that avoids manipulating reality, as many filmgoers think they would like (especially the ones who complain about bias or Michael Moore), because it’s impossible not to manipulate reality while portraying it. Documentaries are portraits, not windows, of reality.

OUP: But isn’t there such a thing as too much manipulation? Look at the controversy about A Year with the Queen, when the Queen was shown leaving the room in a huff, when in fact the scene was out of sequence.

AUFDERHEIDE: Yes, of course, and that’s where good faith comes in. The BBC example is easy. Like Michael Moore’s temporal rearrangement of Reagan’s visit to Flint in Roger and Me, the out-of-sequence shot in A Year with the Queen changed the meaning of the event. It created an imaginary event out of real-life material. That’s both cheating and lying, and a betrayal of the documentarian’s pact with the viewer.

Clearly it’s not cheating and lying to do a re-enactment that is obviously a re-enactment within a documentary. Viewers can easily tell the difference. It’s not cheating and lying to insert animation that explains a scientist’s point. Viewers understand that’s an illustration.

The hard part is in the most artful choices of the documentarian: Who are the main characters? Whose viewpoints will be featured? What lighting will be used—alarmist and stark, shadowy and suspicious, warm and welcoming? Where will the filmmaker cut into and out of the extensive remarks of the expert, the mother, the banker? These are choices that conscientious documentarians wrestle with, and there is no manual that takes away the need for constant self-examination.

OUP: Still, some documentaries seem openly biased, and isn’t part of the “pact with the viewer” the promise to be fair to all sides? And what is an example of a film where the filmmake violates this pact?

AUFDERHEIDE: No, documentaries for the most part do not partake of the journalistic code that arose in the era of the powerful mainstream newspapers. They do not promise an objective version of balance. Rather, they promise the integrity of a maker’s vision of what is important to understand about reality. So a maker may even be a firebrand and an activist—John Pilger, Robert Greenwald, Michael Moore, or in the past, the legendary Dutch left-wing filmmaker Joris Ivens or the Cuban revolutionary documentarian Santiago Alvarez. The viewer’s question is whether the premises and the argument are clear, whether the evidence is used fairly, whether the filmmaker is in good faith with the viewer or is tendentious.

One of the first successful documentaries, Nanook of the North (1925), was such a film. Robert Flaherty, an American who made a film about Canadian Inuit, invented names for his characters; assigned roles to them (for instance, the child was not the actual child of the man who was given the name of ‘Nanook’ in the film); and had them recreate activities that they no longer practiced, such as harpooning walrus. With these devices, he made a box-office hit out of several years of living with the Inuit.

Despite these egregious violations of the pact with the viewer, Nanook is still enjoyed and respected by viewers who find themselves captivated by the story of man vs. nature in the forbidding North.

Flaherty’s romantic vision and his exploitation of the fascination of the urban-dweller with the imagined primitive, explain some of the film’s appeal. But the film also evokes well Flaherty’s longstanding friendships with the people who served willingly as his characters, and who helped him make his film. (The man he called ‘Nanook’ in the film regularly helped him disassemble and assemble his camera.) Nanook, often regarded—in part because of its compelling storytelling and in part because of its financial success–as the founding film of documentary cinema, carries within it the contradictions and ethical dilemmas of documentary today. It has spurred many descendants, including the popular documentary film, The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003).

OUP: Once people have read your Very Short Introduction, which five books would you point them to next?

AUFDERHEIDE: That’s hard, because there are so many different paths to travel once you’ve entered this world. I wrote the book vividly aware of the many kinds of curiosity that can be fed with this genre, and the rich body of scholarship. But the starting place is always Erik Barnouw’s classic, Documentary, the book that most of us who teach grew up on and depend on. Brian Winston’s sharp-tongued Claiming the Real is passionate as well as informative, and reframes the Griersonian tradition provocatively. It’s always fun to delve back into primary documents, and Annette Michelson’s Kino Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov lets you go back to the heady early days of Soviet revolutionary documentary. Michael Chanan has just published a new book that I’ve only started but am very interested in: The Politics of Documentary. And to wind up, I have to include films in the list! There are two excellent films about different aspects of documentary: Peter Wintonick’s Cinéma vérité: Defining the moment, about the most influential aesthetic movement in the modern history of documentary, and Les McLaren and Annie Stiven’s Taking Pictures, which is an ethnographic portrait of Australian ethnographic filmmaking about Papua New Guinea. Both grapple with fundamental ethical as well as aesthetic questions.

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