Documentary Mode Activity 2

There is one particular area within documentary filmmaking that I am regularly coming to grips with, and that is the way in which, very often, a camera’s presence alone inherently alters the mood and perceived persona of the subjects and those involved in the documentary. It is a fascinating complex that filmmakers, and documentarians in particular have had to face from the very beginning. As an individual, and one who yearns for authenticity in every possible facet of life, and as one who also is intrigued by the capacities possessed of documentary filmmaking, this dynamic is something I find incredibly enthralling, mystifying even. And it was for that very reason, my intrigue of a camera’s power, that I felt drawn to having a go at participatory documentary filmmaking. As I created my participatory documentary, I quickly was able to discover that a camera’s presence and a filmmaker’s engagement have an effect. Whether they be welcomed or received with obvious reluctance, the impact that a filmmaker and camera’s presence have on the subject in participatory documentary films is profound.

Participatory documentaries entail just that—a participation and interaction between the filmmaker and the subjects. In class, we explored how the filmmaker themselves become a social actor of sorts as they engage with their subjects. This was seen in Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March, and even in Zana Briski’s Born into Brothels. Within both films, the filmmakers’ active engagement and explicit presence add an element to the narrative achieved and captured in no other way. Nichols describes participatory documentary filmmaking as a mode that “emphasizes the interaction between filmmaker and subject. Filming takes place by means of interviews or other forms of even more direct involvement, such as conversations or provocations.” (Nichols 1-28) Regularly, questions posed by the filmmaker to the subject evolve into interviews. And what is captured on camera are candid, unrehearsed responses. However, it is important to note that everything captured does not fall easily into ultimate truth, as complicated as that word alone is to describe. Instead, participatory documentaries capture the truth of a filmed encounter. It reveals the “truth” of a filmed encounter, one that would not exist without the presence of the camera. (137-148) It is a mode that is significant in impact and intriguing to observe.

In navigating the multiple qualities of what a participatory documentary is, I set out to make one of my own. And my experience therein was remarkably telling. I chose to film a small trip I had planned with my sisters and brother-in-law as we visited the newly opened Target store here in Provo. What transpired and what I was able to capture on camera was reminiscent of a YouTube, vlog-like film as I visually and orally reviewed the experience, intermittently asked my family questions, and engaged in various conversations. I was amazed to discover a number of things. First, I noticed an astonishing, instant effect that my filming had on how people behaved. My brother-in-law, in particular, acted completely different from how he normally would have. He is generally very vivacious and makes frequent, engaged commentary about his every thought. However, on this occasion, as I filmed the experience, I noticed he retreated significantly. It was fascinating for me to see how quickly the mood changes when a camera is present. I also learned that engaging with someone in a genuine manner becomes considerably more difficult when the camera is quiet literally positioned between us. It inserts itself into the exchange and both the subject and filmmaker are hyper-aware of its existence. In this experience, as I held the role of filmmaker, I found I felt extremely conspicuous and perhaps even intrusive. Whatever it was, I wasn’t too comfortable in this filmmaking mode of participatory documentaries. I found that the role I inhabited, and the presence of my camera shifted the experience for everyone involved and greatly effected how we presented ourselves.

Participatory documentaries possess a number of characteristics that set them apart from other modes. Commonly seen within this style is a heavy emphasis on the interaction that occurs between filmmaker and the subjects. Questions evolve into interviews as interactions and the truths of filmed encounters are captured on screen. As I was able to create a participatory documentary, I quickly discovered that the presence of a camera and filmmaker greatly influences the subjects’ performances and often the overall comfort-level and feeling of the experience. It was fascinating to witness firsthand how much of an impact it truly does have. Whether it be through the filmmaker’s engagement or the camera’s presence, participatory documentaries often highlight how much of an effect such influences can have.

Works Cited

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington Ind: Indiana University Press, 2001. Print.

Reflexive Documentary (Pop Quiz)

(Documentary created with Yael Aragon and Emma Spears)

1. One reflexive element that my team incorporated into our project was the way we showed that there are problems and issues with representation. Rather than representing our subjects fully, we turned the camera toward Emma and represented her as the subject of the documentary.

2. We sought to bring our audiences to a heightened sense of consciousness by the way we went against their expectations of how documentaries normally look. Rather than depicting our subjects, we had Emma film herself during the interviews, pushing the audience to become aware of the fact that Emma was the filmmaker, that she wasn’t conforming with the normal way of conducting interviews. 

3. With regard to how we represented the people, we chose to analyze the most truthful mode of representation. We used multiple cameras to show the full scope of what was happening as Emma filmed herself, I filmed Emma, and Yael filmed both of us. Rather than showing our subjects in the most truthful way possible, we chose to do the exact opposite by showing ourselves as the filmmakers in the most truthful way possible. 

4. Another reflexive element that we played with was by the way we tackled the issues that are posed by realism. We chose to highlight different aspects of the filmmaking process, the parts that are just as real and yet hardly ever reflected on, as we unpacked unrealism. We showed that there is more to an interview than the expected norms of only talking heads and b-roll footage; the filmmakers are just as present.

5. Finally, we chose to play with the formal perspective as a way of making our documentary reflexive in nature. We brought a twist to the norms of how many people perceive a documentary to appear; we depicted ourselves in front of the camera, we rarely if ever showed our subjects, and we had Emma film herself rather than the subjects throughout the entire course of the interview. None of these were conventional methods for how a documentary should look or be depicted and we wanted to highlight that.

An Analysis of Participatory and Reflexive Modes

Among the various documentary modes theorized by Bill Nichols, participatory and reflexive documentaries provide interesting comparisons when analyzed together. Participatory documentaries, as Nichols expresses in his book Introduction to Documentary, generally consist of interactions between filmmakers and the subject where live encounters guide the narrative. The filmmaker and camera’s presence significantly alter the atmosphere; therefore, participatory documentaries reach not always the absolute truth, but the truth of a filmed encounter due to this presence. Reflexive documentaries, on the other hand, are an assessment of what is being presented. Nichols explains that this mode brings self-consciousness and self-questioning to the forefront of the film. It is within reflexive documentaries that viewers are made aware of the very fact that they are watching a film. Reflexive documentaries assess howthe film is made, reminding us of how we often take documentary norms, such as interviews, as truth. Ultimately, participatory and reflexive documentary modes share many characteristics in common, and yet they likewise differ in a number of ways, making each mode significant in purpose.

By way of comparison, participatory and reflexive documentaries share a number of characteristics in common. Perhaps the most substantial similarity is that both modes highlight the filmmaker’s presence and involvement in a film and how that subsequently influences and alters what happens therein. While this dynamic is evident in many documentary modes, it is particularly emphasized in participatory and reflexive documentaries. Nichols states that interactions found within these types of films would not exist were it not for the camera (Nichols, 137-148). Take Sherman’s March, a participatory documentary as one example. Within this documentary, Ross McElwee guides the narrative with heavy reliance on captured interactions with individuals he cares about or is enthralled by. Multiple times throughout the film, when Ross sought to engage with his subjects, they seemed to act conscious of the camera, no doubt altering what they said and how they behaved. This is seen when Ross talks to his sister on one occasion when she isn’t inherently comfortable sharing on-camera the details of a surgery she had. Another example of where the filmmaker and camera play a role in dictating what occurs in the documentary is in Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. Throughout the film, the audience is made conscious of Vertov’s involvement in the film and film form when he is seen traversing around the city with a camera and tripod. Another moment is when the scene pulls out to reveal an editing room, where the very film being observed is being cut, altered, and edited. Without the camera, and without Vertov’s heavy involvement in the editing and in appearing in the scenes, the documentary wouldn’t be what it is. Whether the film is participatory or reflexive, they often highlight how the filmmaker is involved in the experience and process, and the way they can alter what occurs.

While participatory and reflexive documentaries share a number of things in common, they also vary in multiple ways. One such example deals with the time frame and period wherein the filmmaker’s involvement occurs. With participatory documentaries, a significant element of this involvement occurs in the very act of recording and interacting with their subjects. From initiating questions to participating in conversations, participatory mode documentaries capture live the involvement in a somewhat uncalculated, unanticipated way. This can be seen in Born into Brothelswhen Zana Briski initiates conversations and participates in the scenes alongside the subjects of the film, whether that be a visa official or the friendly children living in the red-light district. This live capturing of involvement on the part of the filmmaker sets participatory documentaries apart from reflexive documentaries. In reflexive films, the filmmaker’s involvement and interaction is a degree removed. Rather than appearing onscreen or instigating questions and conversations, the filmmakers in reflexive documentaries profess their involvement in the way they treat their work. Whether that be through editing, or film form choices made by the filmmaker, their treatment is manifest in different ways. In Surname Viet Given Name Nam, Trinh T. Minh-ha’s involvement takes a more behind-the-scenes approach as she chooses to stage interviews, alter the appearance of text on screen, or employ a voice-over element to the film. While it is displayed in a different way, Trinh T. Minh-ha remains involved in the film in a more removed way. This is just one way by which participatory and reflexive documentaries vary in style and delivery.

Reflexive and participatory documentaries share many similarities and yet likewise differ in a number of ways. Participatory documentaries place particular emphasis on the live interaction between filmmaker and subject, where the presence of the camera can influence what occurs and how subjects behave. Reflexive documentaries comment on the film-form aspect, as the filmmaker influences what occurs in a more removed, less-interactive-based way. While both modes vary in similarities and differences, they each contribute significantly to documentary film in the ways they deal with their subjects and content.

Photo sources:

  • http://artpictures.club/shans.html
  • https://keeping-it-reel.com/2016/02/16/classics-man-with-a-movie-camera-1929/
  • http://nightflight.com/ross-mcelwees-shermans-march-a-meditation-on-the-possibility-of-romantic-love-in-the-south-today/
  • https://ludditerobot.com/other/film/dislocation-exploded-binaries-surname-viet-given-name-nam/

 

Works Cited

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington Ind: Indiana University Press, 2001. Print.