Six Types Of Documentary

Here’s my single favorite thing about blogging: being able to educate oneself in public. Going through this process—trying to move forward, stumbling, groping, occasionally finding—in full view of the world does not always stroke one’s ego. Each week you find yourself writing not about what you know but about what you perhaps hope to learn from the process of watching, reading, and struggling to think through and articulate. And Lord knows we don’t do it for material gain or reknown or the reason many of us learned our first chords on the guitar (why, to meet girls, of course!). Still, the opportunity to educate oneself in public is a luxury, and I’m thankful for it….

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A confession: Although I’ve watched—and enjoyed—documentary films for years, I’ve done almost no systematic reading about them as a form. But recently I found myself devouring two intelligent and lucid books by Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary (2001) and Representing Reality (1991). They make me want to revisit all the great docs I’ve seen so I can see them with a new set of eyes. And catch up with scores of canonical docs I’ve never seen.

Nichols proposes six types—or modes—of documentary. His classification scheme has been rattling around, throwing off sparks in my head, all week. Let me briefly describe it to you. I’m often paraphrasing Nichols below, and borrowing many of his example films.

1. Poetic documentaries, which first appeared in the 1920’s, were a sort of reaction against both the content and the rapidly crystallizing grammar of the early fiction film. The poetic mode moved away from continuity editing and instead organized images of the material world by means of associations and patterns, both in terms of time and space. Well-rounded characters—’life-like people’—were absent; instead, people appeared in these films as entities, just like any other, that are found in the material world. The films were fragmentary, impressionistic, lyrical. Their disruption of the coherence of time and space—a coherence favored by the fiction films of the day—can also be seen as an element of the modernist counter-model of cinematic narrative. The ‘real world’—Nichols calls it the “historical world”—was broken up into fragments and aesthetically reconstituted using film form.

Examples: Joris Ivens’ Rain (1928), whose subject is a passing summer shower over Amsterdam; Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s Play of Light: Black, White, Grey (1930), in which he films one of his own kinetic sculptures, emphasizing not the sculpture itself but the play of light around it; Oskar Fischinger’s abstract animated films; Francis Thompson’s N.Y., N.Y. (1957), a city symphony film; Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1982).

2. Expository documentaries speak directly to the viewer, often in the form of an authoritative commentary employing voiceover or titles, proposing a strong argument and point of view. These films are rhetorical, and try to persuade the viewer. (They may use a rich and sonorous male voice.) The (voice-of-God) commentary often sounds ‘objective’ and omniscient. Images are often not paramount; they exist to advance the argument. The rhetoric insistently presses upon us to read the images in a certain fashion. Historical documentaries in this mode deliver an unproblematic and ‘objective’ account and interpretation of past events.

Examples: TV shows and films like A&E Biography; America’s Most Wanted; many science and nature documentaries; Ken Burns’ The Civil War (1990); Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New (1980); John Berger’s Ways Of Seeing (1974). Also, Frank Capra’s wartime Why We Fight series; Pare Lorentz’s The Plow That Broke The Plains (1936).

3. Observational documentaries attempt to simply and spontaneously observe lived life with a minimum of intervention. Filmmakers who worked in this sub-genre often saw the poetic mode as too abstract and the expository mode as too didactic. The first observational docs date back to the 1960’s; the technological developments which made them possible include mobile lighweight cameras and portable sound recording equipment for synchronized sound. Often, this mode of film eschewed voice-over commentary, post-synchronized dialogue and music, or re-enactments. The films aimed for immediacy, intimacy, and revelation of individual human character in ordinary life situations.

Examples: Frederick Wiseman’s films, e.g. High School (1968); Gilles Groulx and Michel Brault’s Les Racquetteurs (1958); Albert & David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin’s Gimme Shelter (1970); D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1967), about Dylan’s tour of England; and parts (not all) of Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle Of A Summer (1960), which interviews several Parisians about their lives. An ironic example of this mode is Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph Of The Will (1934), which ostensibly records the pageantry and ritual at the Nazi party’s 1934 Nuremberg rally, although it is well-known that these events were often staged for the purpose of the camera and would not have occurred without it. This would be anathema to most of the filmmakers associated with this mode, like Wiseman, Pennebaker, Richard Leacock and Robert Drew, who believed that the filmmaker should be a “fly-on-the-wall” who observes but tries to not influence or alter the events being filmed.

4. Participatory documentaries believe that it is impossible for the act of filmmaking to not influence or alter the events being filmed. What these films do is emulate the approach of the anthropologist: participant-observation. Not only is the filmmaker part of the film, we also get a sense of how situations in the film are affected or altered by her presence. Nichols: “The filmmaker steps out from behind the cloak of voice-over commentary, steps away from poetic meditation, steps down from a fly-on-the-wall perch, and becomes a social actor (almost) like any other. (Almost like any other because the filmmaker retains the camera, and with it, a certain degree of potential power and control over events.)” The encounter between filmmaker and subject becomes a critical element of the film. Rouch and Morin named the approach cinéma vérité, translating Dziga Vertov’s kinopravda into French; the “truth” refers to the truth of the encounter rather than some absolute truth.

Examples: Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (1929); Rouch and Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer (1960); Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March (1985); Nick Broomfield’s films. I suspect Michael Moore’s films would also belong here, although they have a strong ‘expository’ bent as well.

5. Reflexive documentaries don’t see themselves as a transparent window on the world; instead they draw attention to their own constructedness, and the fact that they are representations. How does the world get represented by documentary films? This question is central to this sub-genre of films. They prompt us to “question the authenticity of documentary in general.” It is the most self-conscious of all the modes, and is highly skeptical of ‘realism.’ It may use Brechtian alienation strategies to jar us, in order to ‘defamiliarize’ what we are seeing and how we are seeing it.

Examples: (Again) Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (1929); Buñuel’s Land Without Bread; Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989); Jim McBride & L.M. Kit Carson’s David Holzman’s Diary (1968); David & Judith MacDougall’s Wedding Camels (1980).

6. Performative documentaries stress subjective experience and emotional response to the world. They are strongly personal, unconventional, perhaps poetic and/or experimental, and might include hypothetical enactments of events designed to make us experience what it might be like for us to possess a certain specific perspective on the world that is not our own, e.g. that of black, gay men in Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied (1989) or Jenny Livingston’s Paris Is Burning (1991). This sub-genre might also lend itself to certain groups (e.g. women, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, etc) to ‘speak about themselves.’ Often, a battery of techniques, many borrowed from fiction or avant-garde films, are used. Performative docs often link up personal accounts or experiences with larger political or historical realities.

Examples: Alain Resnais’ Night And Fog (1955), with a commentary by Holocaust survivior Jean Cayrol, is not a historical account of the Holocaust but instead a subjective account of it; it’s a film about memory. Also, Peter Forgacs’ Free Fall (1988) and Danube Exodus (1999); and Robert Gardner’s Forest of Bliss (1985), a film about India that I’ve long heard about and look forward to seeing.

Of course, these categories are—as Nichols might readily admit—not meant to be definitive. Instead, they can serve valuably as a catalyst for us to reflect on the documentary film genre and the various alternative approaches within it. I suspect it’s common for a particular film to be a hybrid of two or more modes, with one of them perhaps being ‘dominant.’

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LINKS. Juicy film reading today: the new issue of Screening The Past is up, and in addition to many other pieces, it features Adrian Martin on Claire Denis and William Routt on Fritz Lang. Also: How blogging relates to “real life”—see Steve Shaviro, Kim Dot Dammit, and Jodi at I Cite; Kristin Thompson on animated films; The Siren on Buñuel’s Viridiana; via Brad: Robert Christgau’s Consumer Guide returns, thanks to MSN; Walter at Quiet Bubble on a grand year for women in comics; Peet Gelderblom and his readers speculate about the future of cinema; and last but never least, Darren on Jim Jennings’ Silk Ties.

pic: Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012).

Comments (61):

  1. Tuwa

    December 12, 2006 at 6:55 am

    I think Riefenstahl’s Olympiad 2 would probably be both observational and reflexive, especially once we get to the high divers falling and unfalling through the air … really, that’s one of my favorite scenes in all of cinema, where she takes them and flits them about like some exotic bird all featherless and lithe.

    Tokyo Olympiad would probably fall in the same two categories, and oddly enough both were criticized for it at the time, for being more about the director’s vision than a “straight” document (but they’re so much more interesting than a purely observational, clinical document, aren’t they?)

    And thank you for not saying Moore’s films were not documentaries. Probably you didn’t claim that since you’ve actually read about documentary history, and that sort of claim shows a staggering ignorance of documentary history rivalled only by its presumptuousness and political expedience. (Which is not to say his films are unproblematic–far from it–but that’s a talk for another time, or perhaps none at all.)

    What are some of your favorite documentaries and/or documentary genres, anyway?

  2. girish

    December 12, 2006 at 12:11 pm

    Hi there Tuwa. I thought of you when I wrote this post because I remembered a lengthy discussion that you had about docs with Brian in the comments once.

    Re: Olympia and Tokyo Olympiad, they are likely observational, as you pointed out, since they document an event without taking part in it, and have no voiceover commentary (if I remember right).

    Here’s a thought: I wonder however if they are less ‘reflexive’ than ‘poetic’. The sense I get from reading about reflexive docs is that they purposefully make you doubt what is truth and what is fiction, raising questions of representation, and putting the filmmaker’s presence and control upfront and center in the film as a ‘problematic’ issue….

    Re: favorite docs, Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera is one that drops my jaw to the floor each time I see it. Others: the Ichikawa doc you mentioned; Resnais’s docs including Night and Fog, Toute la memoire du monde, Les statues meurent aussi; and the films of Chris Marker. But the fact is, Tuwa, that I’ve seen very few docs, esp. in comparison to fiction films. There are scores of “essential” docs I’ve never seen…

    What about you? Which ones do you like/recommend?

  3. Anonymous

    December 12, 2006 at 1:42 pm

    That’s really useful, Girish. The few times I’ve tried to write about documentaries, I’ve tended to become mired in the sticky formal and ethical questions and never seem to get around to discussing the film itself. It would be nice to just say, for example, “Night and Fog is a performative documentary” and then use the qualities of that category as a jumping off point.

    Adrian Martin on Claire Denis — I think I just found my lunch-time reading. (It’s printing as I type.)

  4. Tuwa

    December 12, 2006 at 2:11 pm

    Huh. I do remember that discussion, now that you mention it; I tried looking for it and failed to find it. I hope I’m not like the bore by the punch bowl with his pet topic.

    Good point distinguishing reflexive from poetic. I’d taken the poetic films to be ones like Berlin: Symphony of a City and probably Koyaanisqatsi and Baraka. There are definitely some lyrical passages in both Olympia 2 and Tokyo Olympiad but I’d thought they might be “reflexive” by Nichols’ system since they deviate so boldly from the rest of the film (the divers again: up, down, spinning around, unsplashing into the water, etc. and in Ichikawa’s, there’s the scene with I think one of the horse events which he cuts extremely short as if to wink at the audience and say “both you and I know that horse events are boring to watch.”) It’s quite possible I’ve misunderstood what Nichols meant, though: you have the book and I don’t. 🙂

    Girish, I share your enthusiasm for Man with the Movie Camera. It’s really remarkable work, especially considering its age.

    I’m quite fond of four different documentaries about the criminal justice system: The Thin Blue Line, Paradise Lost: the Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Brother’s Keeper and Murder on a Sunday Morning (oddly/appropriately enough, the original French title on this one is different and looks to me like An Ideal Culprit). Any of those four could have been titled “An Ideal Culprit,” though I think they’re all artful and emotionally involving.

    I find Koyaanisqatsi and Crumb both strangely hypnotic–not pleasant, necessarily, but endlessly compelling.

    But those above might be a matter of taste. I know people who found The Thin Blue Line boring and Crumb rather offputting, especially in its frank discussion of Crumb’s sexual habits.

    Much lighter fare: I have an ungodly love for Stop Making Sense.

  5. Tuwa

    December 12, 2006 at 2:12 pm

    Oh, and I’m jealous: I haven’t seen any Chris Marker films. Any in particular that you recommend?

  6. Anonymous

    December 12, 2006 at 3:06 pm

    Hmm, I realize that Nichols’ categorizations are somewhat malleable, but poetic as a classifications seems too abstract and catch-all for anything that’s not classical in form or syntax. I guess I still see this realm as being classifiable under the rubric of essay film or experimental, or a subsection of Nichols’ other classifications. I guess I’m hard pressed to call Rose Lowder, Helga Fanderl, Chris Welsby, or James Benning’s films poetic documentaries.

  7. girish

    December 12, 2006 at 3:37 pm

    Darren, I also printed off the Adrian Martin article for reading today as I proctor my student exams in a couple of hours.

    Tuwa, I haven’t seen 2 of the 4 criminal justice docs you mention. Some Chris Marker docs, highly recommended: Sans Soleil, Grin Without A Cat, The Last Bolshevik, Rememberance Of Things To Come. But there are many by him I haven’t seen…

    Acquarello, I’m very new to this taxonomy, and still making sense of it. From what I can tell, I’m not sure all non-poetic modes are classical in form/syntax. Some of the modes (like reflexive, e.g Trinh, whom you’ve written so much about; performative, etc) can be very modernist and un-classical in their form. I think poetic docs might be those in which formal associations/patterns and poetic impressions of the world are the primary (‘dominant’) organizing principle of the film (even if the same film uses other modes as well).

    Alas, I’ve seen nothing by the filmmakers you mention (Lowder, Benning, Welsby) even if I’ve been hearing/reading about them for a while.

    Great point about essay/exp. films….

  8. Tuwa

    December 12, 2006 at 5:32 pm

    Thanks for the recommendations, Girish. I hope I get to see them soon.

  9. Anonymous

    December 12, 2006 at 7:06 pm

    Girish, I think I’m going to have to roll this post around in my head for a while before I have anything interesting to say, but I wanted at least to say thanks for posting something so dense and provocative. You mentioned Bill Nichols to me once before, so when I saw his name on the schedule of a recent film conference in SF, I penciled it into my calendar. I didn’t attend (sigh), but you’ve re-ignited my interest in this sort of thing.

    As always, I think my favorite films are often those that don’t easily fall into one of the categories. Documentaries in particular seem to adhere to their conventions so strongly — at least in the mainstream — that it’s hard to find, for example, expository documentaries that are also poetic, for lack of a better term. Or the way I like to think of it: documentaries that use the full range of cinematic technique. Framing, editing, mise en scene. They often seem primitive, as if those essentials of the medium haven’t been in use for a century now. And “expository” documentaries probably dwarf the others in number.

    Also, what to do with films that rely so heavily on real people, locations, and situations for their nominally fictional stories? I’m thinking of Kiarostami’s Life And Nothing More…, or the recent film from Singapore Be With Me which has elements that are completely fictional and others that are not. Or reenactment films like (Kiarostami again) Close-Up or more recently The Road to Guantanamo — the latter is cropping up in the “documentary” categories of various awards, but how does such an extensive reenactment (probably 95% of the film) differ from a docudrama that’s “based on a true story”?

    My head is spinning.

    Tuwa, you may be interested in the recent documentary The Trials of Darryl Hunt, another one for the miscarriage-of-justice marathon.

  10. Anonymous

    December 12, 2006 at 8:02 pm

    Great overview of Nichols, who is certainly one of the more authoritative writers out there on documentary. Michael Renov picks up on some of these themes in The Subject of Documentary, which is a more theoretical take on the treatment of subjectivity in documentary (I wrote a review of the book that *should* eventually be published). Worth checking out when you’re not grading papers, etc.

    Not sure I have much else to add here, but I’ll second Girish’s recommendations of Sans Soleil and Grin Without a Cat and add Le Jolie Mai and the non-documentary, La Jetee.

  11. Anonymous

    December 12, 2006 at 8:07 pm

    Great timing, Girish! I’ve been working on a documentaries post of my own that uses the occasion of a local film fest at which I saw a number of political docs as an excuse to reflect on the ways my attitudes towards the form have changed in the past few years.

    As is my wont, I’ve been trying to create categories of my own, and this post will come in awful handy…

    Anyone have any thoughts on the extent to which films like Triumph of the Will, Nanook of the North, and Roger & Me are retroactively become Reflexive docs by dint of what we now know about them? It’s precisely because they weren’t intended to “draw attention to their own constructedness, and the fact that they are representations” that I think they are the films that most effectively “prompt us to ‘question the authenticity of documentary in general.'”

    Also: Does anyone here know/admire/despise the work of Avi Mograbi? I saw his Avenge But One Of My Two Eyes the other day, and it just floored me. Where did this “Michael Moore of Israel” label come from and why? They don’t even fit into the same categories in this taxonomy…

    Oh, and to state the perfectly obvious in the interest of possibly starting a discussion: there’s nothing in this post that precludes the inclusion of a film like The Battle of Algiers in any number of these categories.

  12. Anonymous

    December 12, 2006 at 8:27 pm

    I think Moore always intended for Roger and Me to be seen as reflexive, although we’ve become more conscious of its constructedness belatedly, due to the fact-checking efforts of conservative (and occasioanlly liberal-left) critics of the film. There’s a great essay on the reflexiveness (or non-reflexiveness) of Roger and Me by Matthew Bernstein called “Documentophobia and Mixed Modes: MM’s Roger and Me,” in Barry Keith Grant’s Documenting the Documentary.

  13. Anonymous

    December 13, 2006 at 12:52 am

    With the previous mentions of Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad and Chris Marker, it seemed tailor made not to recommend Marker’s The Koumiko Mystery. Like the Ichikawa film, it was also taken during the Tokyo Olympics. But the similarity ends there. Marker’s film is more about identity and perceptions of identity, a theme that surfaces because of Marker’s initial gravitation to Koumiko as being quintessentially Japanese. In fact, she isn’t (or doesn’t she is) because she’s actually a Manchurian repatriate and feels as estranged from Japanese culture as Marker himself does. It’s another fascinating film about otherness.

    Regarding Avi Mograbi, other than Moore and Mograbi potentially shopping in the same Big & Tall shop, I don’t see much similarity in their approach either. While they both push buttons, Mograbi doesn’t really set up situations to provoke, but rather, comes in to challenge a situation. Mograbi’s confrontational approach is from an acknowledged position of privilege rather than playing middlebrow naïvete “shocked” at the injustices of the world. As an Israeli, he knows he can stand up against the occupation soldiers to try to help the innocent Palestinians caught in the crossfire in however small way he can. Moore seems to see the absurdity of the condition and confronts it with even more absurd acts that don’t really do anything to directly help the people who are suffering. In that sense, I think Mograbi is more like an imbedded activist with a camera who joins other protesters in trying to change history. I see his role as more of active resistance than indirect, armchair social critic. He tries to improve the daily lives of the people he’s documenting, he doesn’t just make statements.

  14. girish

    December 13, 2006 at 1:29 am

    Sorry it’s taken me a while to respond; Blogger’s been going mental on me this evening…

    Thanks for all the comment goodies, everyone! Great ideas…

    Acquarello — So glad you could weigh in on Marker and Mograbi; One thing I’m sure of: you’ve seen more docs (or films, period) than any of us…!

    Rob — I hadn’t thought of how doc/fiction hybrids like Kiarostami might fit in here, but that’s a big point to ponder….

    btw, Nichols teaches at SF State, so I’m sure you will get opportunities to hear him in person in the future….

    For those interested, of the two books, I’d recommend the more recent one first: it’s called Introduction to Documentary (ignore the lone review of the book at Amazon–it’s way off). It’s a slim 200 pages and packs in a boatload of cool ideas.

    Chuck — Interesting you should mention Michael Renov. On this recent doc bender, I picked up his Theorizing Documentary and also The Subject of Documentary, which you mentioned. They look great; now I just have to find the time to read ’em! To add to that, I read veryyy slooowly….

    Andy — I look forward to your doc post! I haven’t seen anything by Mograbi.

    You’ve opened a great can of worms with Battle Of Algiers! What to make of it, or Michel Brault’s Les Ordres, which were staged, sometimes/often using actual historical personages and locations. So far, they’ve been classified closer towards the fiction end of the doc-fiction spectrum, no? Are there other examples of such “docufictions”?

    Also, a word about the ‘poetic’ mode: of the six modes it seems to me to share the longest (if fuzziest) border with avant-garde/experimental cinema. Of course, it’s not an either/or choice, a film could be equally called documentary and avant-garde….

  15. girish

    December 13, 2006 at 1:42 am

    Also wanted to add that although Nichols uses both the terms “types of documentary” (in the title of the chapter) and “modes of representation” (in the chapter itself) to mean essentially the same thing, I prefer the latter. It makes clear that a film may comfortably choose to use more than one mode in the course of its telling. “Type of documentary” seems to suggest that a film generally hews to one of the six categories (which, as Rob pointed out with ‘expository’ docs, is not uncommon in practice). But cinephile-favored docs are very likely to do some mode-mixing, I would guess….

  16. Anonymous

    December 13, 2006 at 8:51 pm

    Girish, in your mind do Hans-Christian Schmid’s Requiem or Paul Greengrass’ United 93 and Bloody Sunday qualify as “docufictional” films?

  17. Anonymous

    December 13, 2006 at 9:39 pm

    Documentaries! I love documentaries, but so many tend towards the journalistic, rather than the cinematic, especially today with cheap DV equipment. Very few – that are seen and distributed, anyway – seem to push the envelope, Iraq in Fragments being a wonderful exception.

    I was about to say it seems to me these “types” could really just be considered techniques or styles, that could mixed in any given film, but it looks like you’ve already clarified that with the “modes of representation” point.

    I think all of these modes has their place, and there are probably great films that have been produced with each type. But to my mind, its best when the modes I mixed.

    I think when they are too strongly in one mode only, it can put limitations on the film. For instance, two docs about revolutionary violence in the 70s represent two different poles. On the side, you have Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s The Weather Underground, which is a very narrative work that falsey constructs the Sixties (as represented by the WU) as little more than defeated idealism; it leaves in all the sexy bits about the WU (the riots, the orgies, the strong emotions) but leaves out a great many messy political questions (on the commentary track, Sam Green even mentions they left out political issues on purpose!).

    On the other end, you have Johan Grimonprez’s Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y about 1970s plane hijackigns, that is a very daring non-narrative work, splicing up and montaging a whole host of materials to raise issues about violence, its representation in media, and many many other things. The film is so artsy in its editting, though, it eventually becomes very didactic.

    I can’t think of many docs that reach a happy medium; maybe Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House is Black is one example. I think Marker is also pretty good at balancing the expository voice of narration with poetic imagery in Sans Soleil (which is unfortuantely the documentary I’ve seen of his.)

  18. girish

    December 13, 2006 at 10:26 pm

    Thank you, Andy and Andrew…

    Andy, sorry but I was flinging that term (“docufiction”) about casually, without knowing its precise meaning. I haven’t been able to find it in a text so far, and have only seen it in (relatively recent) criticism. All the films you and I mentioned are basically fictional recreations based (however scrupulously) on historical events.

    I wonder if “docufiction” has some more precise meaning other than “doc/fiction hybrid, loosely defined”….

    Andrew ~ I’m glad you used the example of The Weather Underground. It’s one of the American docs of recent years that I find very memorable but the critiques you raised never even occurred to me! (I have a mostly non-existent knowledge of US history, and almost 100% of the film was new to me…) I’d love to see it again with your critique in mind.

    And thank you for the tip on Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y; I just added it to my Netflix queue….

    Gave all my exams yesterday and today and now I’m going to pull a late-nighter or two to get them all graded. Shall soon post a few more notes I took while reading the Nichols book.

  19. Noel Vera

    December 14, 2006 at 3:55 am

    On Burns’ The Civil War being expository–in a way, yes, there’s a voice talking to you, but it’s telling you what it feels and what it thinks; far as I remember (it’s been years) all the voiceovers are taken from letters and diaries of the actual participants, with a smattering of talking head historians. Aside from the historians (who tell you what they think), I don’t see most of it as being strictly expository.

    And I think the more common term is ‘docudrama.’ Either a fictional telling of a real story using verite techniques, or a documentary with dramatic re-enactments. The Thin Blue Line comes to mind, and to name a favorite Filipino example, Tikoy Aguiluz’s Bagong Bayani (The Last Wish, 1995)

    And here’s a question: where does poetic or relfexive documentary end and experimental or avant garde film begin?

    Oh, and thanks for the link.

  20. girish

    December 14, 2006 at 12:05 pm

  21. Anonymous

    December 14, 2006 at 4:35 pm

    I love the way you collect links in your comments section. It’s like a bonus for people following the discussion. ^_^

  22. girish

    December 14, 2006 at 6:44 pm

    Tuwa, I never thought of it like that but hey sure that works…. 🙂

  23. girish

    December 14, 2006 at 10:20 pm

    Wow, Zach, that is craaazy!
    For once, I’m speechless….

  24. Anonymous

    December 14, 2006 at 11:51 pm

    For once, I’m speechless….

    Got to you already, did they?

  25. Anonymous

    December 15, 2006 at 1:46 am

    Great post, G. I think Burns’ The Civil War fits your definition of expository doc. While most of the near constant voices talking to you are from various writings of actual participants the bulk of the story is told through the voice-of-God commentary of David McCullough. Not only that but Burns chooses specific bits and pieces of the quoted writings to persuade the viewer to accept one particular point of view of the Civil War. Historians call the thesis he promotes the Lost Cause. Other historians use many if not all of the same voices of the past to support other or opposite points of view about the history of the Civil War. With David McCullough’s voice-of-God leading a chorus of carefully selected quotes, Burn’s Lost Cause documentary fits Girish’s definition of speaking directly to the viewer, proposing a strong argument and point of view to persuade the viewer.

  26. Noel Vera

    December 15, 2006 at 4:26 am

    I did mention McCullough playing talking head. But I think Burns did affect the appearance of not dictating to us through the use of all those diary entries and missives and speeches and whatnot. He gives the illusion, if you like, of many voices speaking.

  27. girish

    December 15, 2006 at 11:16 am

  28. Brian Darr

    December 16, 2006 at 2:53 am

    Girish, great post! I’ve been wanting to comment here for a while now and just now have gotten myself a slice of time that might do justice to what I want to say.

    I haven’t been terribly systematic in my approach to documentary either, and I haven’t read those two books yet. A scant two years ago I remember telling someone I wasn’t really interested in the form. Boy, that has come back to bite me hard! I find myself growing ever more fascinated by the subject of documentary filmmaking.

    1. It’s fascinating that Nichols categorizes Fischinger’s animations as documentaries, even poetic ones. They’re non-fiction because they’re non-narrative, and there’s certainly a tonal connection between them and a film like Rain, but I’ve never thought of them (or the McLaren, harry Smith, Brakhage, etc. films that seemingly the definition opens up to once Fischinger’s in there) as “documentaries” per se. What do they document?

    2. There seems to me to be a certain subset of the expository documentaries that in fact do not propose a strong argument or try to persuade the viewer. On the contrary, they take the form of a Ken Burns film but seem to bend over backwards to avoid advancing notions a potential viewer might find themselves in opposition to, preferring to regurgitate uncontroversial ideas. I tend to see these kinds of films most often in museums or historical parks, or other places where a captive general audience is looking for an activity to fill their time. I suppose I shouldn’t be too harsh on them; I guess they have their function.

    3. In contrast, many of the observational documentaries seem to have as much of, or more of a specific agenda as the Lorentz and Capra films from category #2 do. But I guess you already covered that with the mention of the Riefenstahal film.

    4. I have a hunch that most or all documentarians working in form #3 would agree with the premise your first sentence about participatory documentaries holds, but that they still find it worthwhile to limit the traces of participation even if it’s not possible to eliminate them. But for filmmakers like Herzog (whose docs, especially his recent ones, seem part of the participatory tradition, though Grizzly Man may be equally reflexive and/or performative too), this balancing act is often seen as dishonest filmmaking. I see a strong connection between categories 3 and 4, actually.

    5. Do mockumentaries count here? I’ve only seen the first two examples on the supplied list so far, but the Bunuel is often called the “first mockumentary”, and my mind has still never really settled itself regarding how much of it is truth and how much fiction. Anyway, I think Christopher Guest sometimes can get us to “question the authenticity of documentary in general” as well as Vertov and Welles have. Interestingly, when watching For Your Consideration, in which the “mock-doc” form is ostensibly done away with, I sometimes felt like I was watching a mock-Maysles documentary. Is that just because I associate these actors so strongly with documentary now?

    6. Is this the category where all those youtube confessionals best fit? It’s the category where I’ve seen the fewest of the listed examples (only the Resnais).

  29. girish

    December 16, 2006 at 5:32 pm

    Brian, you have raised enough wonderful points to warrant a whole new post!! Thank you…

    Also, thanks for calling me on Fischinger. I just realized that I misread Nichols on that! He used Fischinger in the same sense as you implied, as a non-documentary example–my apologies for the mistake!

    Let me post the entire passage:

    “The documentary dimension to the poetic mode of representation stems largely from the degree to which modernist films rely on the historical world [my emphasis here–g.] for their source material. Some avant-garde films such as Oscar Fischinger’s Composition in Blue (1935) use abstract patterns of form or color or animated figures and have minimal relation to a documentary tradition of representing the historical world rather than a historical world of the artist’s imagining. Poetic documentaries, though, draw on the historical world for their raw material but transform their material in distinctive ways. Francis Thompson’s N.Y., N.Y. (1957), for example, uses shots of New York City that provide evidence of how New York looked in the mid-1950s but gives greater priority to how these shots can be selected and arranged to produce a poetic impression of the city as a mass of volume, color, and movement. Thompson’s film continues the tradition of the city symphony film and affirms the poetic potential of documentary to see the historical world anew.”

    Thank again, Brian, and you’ve got my mental engine humming with your questions….

  30. HarryTuttle

    December 16, 2006 at 5:32 pm

    I’m a late commenter too.

    “Here’s my single favorite thing about blogging: being able to educate oneself in public. Going through this process—trying to move forward, stumbling, groping, occasionally finding—in full view of the world does not always stroke one’s ego. Each week you find yourself writing not about what you know but about what you perhaps hope to learn from the process of watching, reading, and struggling to think through and articulate.”

    This is my philosophy too Girish! And that’s the only approach online writing should develop. If you already know and want to lecture others then publish a book. But the very act of versatile writing implies interactive work-in-progress. Otherwise I don’t see the point to use the internet instead of the traditional print media (other than a backward compromise to being paper-published). Online criticism isn’t a second guess, a wannabe-press, it’s something else, a new medium with a its own function and practice.

    Re: Nichols modes.
    I agree with acquarello that this taxonomy is too blurry to be helpful. These is a urge to fit every possible film under the documentary genre by stretching the nature of documentaries. If pressed harder I bet he would eventually include fiction films and justify it somehow… First we have to define what is and isn’t a documentary.
    For instance, some of these categories are defined by the resulting form (Poetic, Observational, Participatory) and others by the filmmaker’s intention / documentaristic approach (Expository, Reflexive, Performative). So they don’t survey the spectrum with the same purpose and thus define overlapping areas.
    I wish I was more familiar with the examples to better understand the illustration. Using exceptions, one of a kind pieces to define a general mode doesn’t help to make them didactic.

    I like this in the Poetic mode : “Well-rounded characters—’life-like people’—were absent; instead, people appeared in these films as entities, just like any other, that are found in the material world.” It is something particularly striking when a documentary footage slips in the interlude montage of a fiction film. The “natural” behavior of a crowd is instantly noticeable from the arranged (self-conscious) choreography of extras. I’ve noticed this recently in Kim Ki-young’s Love of Blood Relation (fiction spy movie) mixing the footage of real North Korean refugees arriving at the Seoul airport with the fictitious narration. And Tarkovsky also notes this in Marker’s “Une journée d’Andrei Arsenevitch” where he comments how the distress and joy of his wife at the arrival of his son she hasn’t seen for 6 years is an emotion the greatest actress will never be able to mimic.

  31. Anonymous

    December 16, 2006 at 6:35 pm

    “If you already know and want to lecture others then publish a book. But the very act of versatile writing implies interactive work-in-progress. Otherwise I don’t see the point to use the internet instead of the traditional print media (other than a backward compromise to being paper-published).”

    Are editors and publishers so liberal in accepting articles and book manuscripts? If you know of any, please leave their names and e-mail addresses here.

  32. girish

    December 16, 2006 at 6:54 pm

    “It is something particularly striking when a documentary footage slips in the interlude montage of a fiction film.”

    True, Harry. This reminds me that it is also striking when documentary-like footage (looks and feels like doc but is staged) is slipped into a fiction film where it ‘jostles’ a bit eccentrically but poetically against the fiction. I’m thinking of two wonderful sequences that might well belong in a fishing documentary that pop up respectively in Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night and Rossellini’s Stromboli….

    “These is a urge to fit every possible film under the documentary genre…”

    IMO: The above classification of documentary modes is useful only when this urge is resisted…

    Artworks do not allow themselves to be thrust, unproblematically and cleanly, into one category or another without protest….

    Nevertheless, there are characteristics of approach that some docs have in common (to a lesser or greater degeree) and I think a classification scheme can help us reflect about these similarities/differences of approach. The point is not to make films fit into one category or another but to use the classification scheme as a catalyst to reflect about a entire genre/form and the varying approaches within it. Only then does its utility emerge, IMO.

    I have to say: I respect the fact that this typology of modes has been developed after decades of work by one of the world’s leading documentary scholars. I’m less inclined to dismiss it casually for this reason….Of course, that shouldn’t preclude skepticism, I agree….

  33. HarryTuttle

    December 16, 2006 at 11:03 pm

    Who is the shy anonymous who wants however public print fame?
    My point wasn’t to let everyone believe they can be published. It’s not because it’s easy to publish yourself on the internet that the symbiosis between form and content should be disregarded. But that’s just IMHO.

  34. HarryTuttle

    December 17, 2006 at 12:40 am

    The tuna fishing scene in Stromboli might be staged, but fishermen are asked to do what is their daily life, and this crowd scene isn’t properly directed, people are busy doing their work, not acting for the camera. And we can sense the very same “natural” behavior. A Behavior that is oblivious of the camera, not responding to a timing defined by the film crew (like when extras are asked to pass by across the set to pretend there is a flow of people, takes after takes), but an inner timing defined by their own individual activity dissociated from others. And this marks a difference on screen between a conscious randomness (enacted) and true unpredictable randomness. Anyone could tell just by the look at a footage.

    I do love systems of typology of course, and this one is very interesting. But maybe I don’t make the same use of them. I expect a taxonomy to be consensual and exclusive. Too many exceptions invalid the model. Well I should read the book before rejecting these modes, I obviously don’t understand how they operate. I’m not a documentary expert either. Like you say it’s just a skeptical take to develop the discussion, if you don’t mind.

    The Poetic mode is just documentary footage with an abstracted montage. Does editing define the documentary type?
    What fundamental distinction is there between Poetic and Reflexive?

    The Observational mode only defines documentaries in opposition to fiction, which is in principle, every documentary.

    The Performative mode is a combination of Expository and Participatory, maybe only differentiated by their (partisan?) content. So does content itself define the documentary type?

    These modes seem open to subjective interpretation. I have the feeling everyone wouldn’t file titles under the same mode if we run a list of documentaries. It proves the taxonomy doesn’t actually define clear families among documentaries. It’s more like a list of techniques used by documentarists, that are not exclusive and can be used in combination.

  35. Noel Vera

    December 17, 2006 at 2:45 am

    “And that’s the only approach online writing should develop.”

    I don’t know Harry. I do think yours and girish’s reasons are excellent ones, but what of someone trying to promote or expound on a relatively unknown subject–Philippine cinema, perhaps? I end up writing about films few people have seen or know about, and what few can, aren’t always able or willing to discuss them online. In my case, I just post what I can, in the hopes someone can appreciate them or maybe learn from them. I’m willing to discuss, but so far no takers.

  36. The Siren

    December 17, 2006 at 1:10 pm

    Well put, Noel. That’s a tidy summary of my own approach. OT, but I am enjoying catching up with your blog, as I try to get back into the cinematic swing of things post-baby.

  37. Anonymous

    December 17, 2006 at 2:50 pm

    “And that’s the only approach online writing should develop.”

    Sieg Heil!

  38. Anonymous

    December 17, 2006 at 4:02 pm

    Speaking of experimental documentaries, it turns out Thierry Knauff’s latest projects haven’t been ethnographies, but rather, something like performance pieces using Joseph Noiret’s work and his daughter, Michèle Noiret’s choreography. The previous one was Solo in 2004, and he now has a new one called Bare-Handed that’s screening at the Dance on Camera program next month.

  39. girish

    December 17, 2006 at 4:35 pm

    Thank you, everyone!

    I think online writing should develop a multiplicity of approaches. We all have distinct and different personalities and (watching/writing) desires and voices. We are always, every day, teaching and learning from each other. Diversity only makes this process more interesting.

    Acquarello, that is fascinating news about Thierry Knauff. Wild Blue is one of those haunting “lost” films that I’ll never forget but doubt if I’ll ever get to see again….

  40. HarryTuttle

    December 17, 2006 at 6:58 pm

    I’m just saying that to kill a moskito with a sledgehammer is not necessarily the most appropriate way. But my own blog doesn’t live up to my philosophy, because I don’t use video, audio, pictures and all sorts of interactive features that are proper to the nature of the web…

    Noel, my blog deals with a more federating theme, film criticism, but I don’t have more takers.
    Readers are already reluctant to read reviews before they watch teh film, so the incentive for Filipino films they have next to zero chance to ever see is much smaller. Maybe you should precisely develop the multimedia of the internet to promote “invisible” cinema, and put online video clips.
    But I don’t see no contradiction between what you do and what Girish and I said.
    The internet gives you a potential international audience (which is better than paper publishing limited by areas of distribution), but it doesn’t make marginal cinema become mainstream…
    Keep on defending your cause, you’ll be rewarded. If you’re the only one, you have a de facto monopoly of expertise, so it’s a great responsability.

    re: Documentary.
    I found another typology of non-fiction films (‘actuality’ footage) by Richard Barsam :
    -factual film
    -ethnographic film
    -films of exloration
    -propaganda film
    -cinéma vérité
    -direct cinema
    These categories are defined by the intentions of images (the role given to reality in the filmic construction) which is less controversial.

  41. girish

    December 17, 2006 at 7:51 pm

    “For instance, some of these categories are defined by the resulting form (Poetic, Observational, Participatory) and others by the filmmaker’s intention / documentaristic approach (Expository, Reflexive, Performative). So they don’t survey the spectrum with the same purpose and thus define overlapping areas.”

    Harry, I’m not sure this is true.

    I think they are all defined both by form and intention.

    The makers of the early poetic docs of the 20’s weren’t naive: they were well aware that they were constructing their films based on an alternative form of organization to the fiction films of the day and their narrative-driven, continuity editing style. They intended for their films to be organized based upon poetic associations and patterns. The resulting form was by no means an acccident.

    Makers of observational docs (e.g. the pioneering direct cinema filmmakers who came out of the National Film Board of Canada like Michel Brault, Gilles Groulx and Pierrre Perrault) were consciously reacting against the didacticism and rhetorical purpose of expository docs when they decided to eliminate voiceover narration in their films. (There are interviews with them in which they talk at length about this in Canadian Peter Wintonick’s documentary Cinema Verite: The Defining Moment.)

    And the creators of participatory docs believed that simply by eliminating voiceover narration in observational docs did not result in eliminating the ‘intervention’ and influence of the filmmaker and camera on the events being filmed. But observational docs somehow pretended that they did. Participatory docs made what they considered to be the ethically responsible choice of drawing attention to the intervention (participation) of the filmmaker in the events being filmed.

    So, historically speaking, intention was important in the case of all three.

  42. girish

    December 17, 2006 at 7:53 pm

    And on my recent documentary binge, I also picked up Barsam’s book, and I look forward to delving into it. Thanks for posting his typology, Harry.

  43. girish

    December 17, 2006 at 8:16 pm

    “There seems to me to be a certain subset of the expository documentaries that in fact do not propose a strong argument or try to persuade the viewer. On the contrary, they take the form of a Ken Burns film but seem to bend over backwards to avoid advancing notions a potential viewer might find themselves in opposition to, preferring to regurgitate uncontroversial ideas. I tend to see these kinds of films most often in museums or historical parks…”

    Brian, very true!
    I think this passage from Nichols also echoes and supports your observation:

    “Expository documentary is an ideal mode for conveying information or mobilizing support within a framework that pre-exists the film. In this case, a film will add to our stockpile of knowledge but not challenge or subvert the categories by which such knowledge gets organized. Common sense makes a perfect basis for this type of representation about the world since common sense, like rhetoric, is less subject to logic than belief.”

    The regurgitaion of “uncontroversial ideas” that you mention seems to echo the “common sense” in the passage above…

    Thanks for bringing up Herzog. I think Lessons of Darkness has got to be one of the most amazing docs I’ve ever seen! Let me guiltily confess that I haven’t seen Grizzly Man yet, nor your other favorite The White Diamond, nor Dieter or Kaspar Hauser….I’m way behind on my Herzog.

  44. Brian Darr

    December 17, 2006 at 10:59 pm

    I haven’t seen Lessons of Darkness or Enigma of Kaspar Hauser myself, actually. Even though I own them on DVD, I’ve been waiting for a chance to see them on the big screen. One is coming up for the former in late January here in Frisco. Currently, I’m scheduled to be in Utah until the day after the screening, but I did get a refundable plane ticket and depending on how things go there I might just come back a bit early and try to make the show.

    On further reflection, I feel like the White Diamond is a reflexive doc as well, but maybe that’s just me.

  45. HarryTuttle

    December 18, 2006 at 2:03 am

    I agree with you there Girish, because you talk about the films themselves. I only disputed the confusing partition of these categories, not the films. Anyway I prefer the term “modes of representations”, like you, which presents the categories from a different approach than what I originaly assumed.

    The Poetic mode is defined, in opposition to the other modes, by it’s “formal intention” (I’m not saying it’s an accident, just that the reality in the images is secondary to form).

    I think we should ask how “actuality footage” is used in films. Is the image just a pictural object used for its aesthetic value, and transcended through juxtaposition with other images, a collage of found-footage? Thus creating poetry with montage manipulation rather than images themselves. (Would Poetic mode include the surrealist films like Leger’s Ballet Mécanique, or Ivens Etudes de mouvements, Vigo’s A propos de Nice, Resnais’ Le Chant du Styrène?)
    Or is it an actual slice of life that speaks for itself? Thus the content and message of the film remains contained in the diegesis of the images themselves. The reality is intact from cut to cut in the sequence. The action is in the moment recorded.
    That’s a fundamental difference. Some record events on film like Rouch’s Les Maîtres Fous or Herzog’s Land of Silence and Darkness. And some arrange footage in order to illustrate a message, but the images themselves are replaceable/reproductible; there is no inherent value in the incidental recording itself. Like The Corporation.
    There is a gap between the practice/ethic of these 2 types of “documentary”.

  46. Noel Vera

    December 18, 2006 at 7:51 am

    Harry, I’d carry on even if I had only one reader (tho I can count on three, I think–andy, girish, and just recently Siren (Hiyah! And thanks for the interest!). But I appreciate the encouragement.

    As for video clips–that and a partridge on a pear tree! I’d need the time and money and probably a high speed line (I’m living on dialup), but that’s a good idea–one of these days I’ve got to carry it out.

  47. girish

    December 18, 2006 at 2:02 pm

    Thank you, Brian, Harry & Noel…

    Well, the semester is ended and today can be happily devoted to nothing but blogging. Shall try to have a post up later today…

  48. Anonymous

    December 18, 2006 at 7:55 pm

    Brian -I agree with your comments about the regurgitation of uncontroversial ideas in history films seen in museums or historical parks and it sparks one of my pet peeves as a growing historian. Such films typically leave an educated, thoughtful mind with something meaningful to say out of the picture. I’m confident we can do more meaningful work and still make it enjoyable to the public.

    Girish – Thank you for the link. Where would we put the 1890s-era “actualities?” One of the earliest films I discussed at my blog was Shooting Captured Insurgents (1898) a documentary about Spanish soldiers putting bound Cuban prisioners before a firing squad. The whole thing was staged but purported to recreate an actual event. I’d say expository, but there is no persuasive voice (silent era), or intertitles since it was a single shot, just the image. Maybe there was a lecturer in the vaudeville/nickelodeon exhibition though. Any thoughts about where such early films would fall into these categories?

  49. Brian Darr

    December 22, 2006 at 11:03 pm

    Thom, as a “growing historian”, what do you think of the work of James Loewen? I imagine he’d have some harsh words for many of the historical documentaries shown at sites in our country’s national and state parks systems…

    On another note, I also just finished reading Altman on Altman, and I was reminded of how his penultimate film Tanner on Tanner is such a wonderful investigation into the nature of documentary filmmaking, that I thought I’d leave the tip for anyone who happens across this thread in the future.

  50. Anonymous

    December 25, 2006 at 4:09 am

    Maybe he’s working on Lies My Documentary Told Me, Brian? 😉

  51. Brian Darr

    December 31, 2006 at 4:03 am

    If he isn’t, somebody should!

  52. Anonymous

    April 3, 2007 at 7:06 am

    hello all!!….i was wondering if anyone could assist me with this essay question that must be completed for my final. i just started it and was wondering if anyone might have some helpful imput that i may not have considered yet. —–1) Discuss the emotional tone of Lessons of Darkness. Describe the ways that the mise-en-scene and the soundtrack contribute to these feelings. Using Nichol’s terminology, how would you describe this documentary? thanks to all that can contribute.

  53. Anonymous

    August 29, 2007 at 11:59 pm

    ANON said,
    THE definitive book in my estimation on the subject is Michael Tobias’ THE SEARCH FOR REALITY -The Art of Documentary Filmmaking. And if you really want to see a range of work that is staggering (Burns and Moore aren’t even close) check out that guy’s body of work -something like 100 major documentaries, including the ten-hour legendary VOICE OF THE PLANET, INDIA 24 HOURS, BLACK TIDE, AHIMSA -Non-Violence, CLOUDWAKER, NO VACANCY, MAD COWBOY…those are the ones I’ve seen. Mind blowing.

  54. Anonymous

    August 15, 2008 at 5:53 pm

    great, thanks!

  55. Anonymous

    August 1, 2009 at 11:13 am

    i love your articles. But i cant read your blog because of the dark background and highly bright white fonts. I have a nasty headache. Sorry about that, but i really want to keep reading yoru articles.

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  57. Mustafa Kia

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