Final Project – “A Day in the Life”

   Documentary film finds form in a wide variety of modes, whose classification we have educator and author Bill Nichols to thank. Within such modes, non-fiction cinema flourishes, stretching and composing itself in diverse appearances. As I have had the privilege of discovering these various modes throughout the semester, I’ve been drawn to a number of them in particular. Consequently, when faced with the opportunity to create a final documentary that fits these modes, I first determined what my film would depict: a modern cell-phone narrated perspective of a day in my life. I was pleasantly surprised to discover throughout the course of making the film that there were severaldocumentary modes interwoven within. I had a very fascinating experience making the film. The documentary very appropriately documents the course of events experienced in my day, with everything from moments of waking up, writing papers, studying, walking, interacting, eating, and more. I was able to draw from the works of filmmakers and authors of this decade as well decades previous. My film, A Day in the Life is ultimately a conglomerate of various documentary modes, each of which contribute to a significant element of the narrative I desired to share, namely of a typical day in my life.

   The first of Nichols’ modes that fit my film was that of the reflexive documentary. Nichols fittingly describes the reflexive film as one in which the filmmaker proposes an engagement with the subject. Quite boldly, the film invites the audience to process what is being presented. Pointing out our widespread assumptions, reflexive films remind us to not always receive a documentary film “too unthinkingly,” as Nichols puts it. Such films bring our attention to conventions we normally attribute to documentaries, ultimately emphasizing the constructed-nature of the work as a whole. We can turn to history for such reflexive documentary films. A prominent one is that of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. This film, apart from being stunning in its overall delivery, stands as one of the most fitting of such a mode. Historian Erik Barnouw explains that Man with a Movie Camerais repeatedly reminding us that we are watching a film. And whether his motive is to demonstrate the importance of a documentarian as a reporter, or whether Vertov is proposing that documentary cannot be trusted, Vertov’s voice is poignant and jarring to an un-expecting audience (Barnouw 51-71). One such moment of reflexivity takes place while the audience is watching a scene unfold as normal until the frames slow, the camera detracts, only to unveil an editor’s room, Vertov’s wife hard at work, editing, cutting, and rearranging the various rolls of film. Another film that fits the reflexive documentary category is Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Surname Viet Given Name Namin which staged interviews and stylized reenactments are intermingled within the work. Taking all of this history and commentary, I inserted my own forms of reflexivity within my film. To begin with, a number of the angles and shots were premeditated and this fact becomes clear from the very first scene. During the moment of the alarm-clock ringing, I feature three different angles while I still appear to be in bed, only standing moments later to turn on the light. The audience is reminded instantly of the fact that I had to have set up phone camera to get these shots. The same can be said of the shots of Lindsey curling her hair and what appears to be the first time of my entering the kitchen to turn on the light. To obtain both shots, the camera had to be positioned and recording prior to getting the moments I wanted to capture. Furthermore, the phone can be seen in the reflection of the mirror. There were many other moments that reminded the audience they were watching a film. One was when I trip up the staircase and then proceed to comment, addressing the audience about how the camera had distracted me. Another was when I informed the audience I would be taking a nap or when I talked about my camera battery dying. Likewise, when I bumped into Lindsey while walking into 291, this signaled to the audience that the encounter was being filmed. The overall rapidly paced editing reminds audiences that they are watching a film that has been modified. Another moment near the end of the film that signals the reflexive nature of the process of filming is when I engage in a non-verbal exchange with my roommate about my placing the camera to film us, and she smiles and nods, giving her consent. Finally, the last scene depicting my FaceTime-conversation with my parents contains a moment where my mom asks about finals. I purposefully ended on this moment to remind audiences that this project is more than just a film, but a final in and of itself. Ultimately, the documentary proved to be remarkably reflexive in a number of ways, repeatedly bringing awareness to the fact that it was a film.

The following documentary mode present within my film was that of the autobiographical narrative. Nichols lends his expertise in describing this mode as a personal account of someone’s experience or perspective (Nichols 104-121). It is often a documentary mode in which the filmmaker’s involvement is primarily in the way they choose to tell the narrative. One such example of a film from a few decades ago that embodies the qualities of an autobiographical documentary is Deborah Hoffmann’s Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter. Within Hoffman’s film, she chooses to depict the narrative from her own perspective, giving a personal take on the situation of her mother’s dementia. Alan Berliner’s Nobody’s Business likewise serves as a good example in which the filmmaker’s perspective guides the way in which the narrative is told as he takes control of recounting the details of his father’s life. Furthermore, Nanfu Wang’s I Am Another You is yet another example of a film in which Wang’s perspective of the subject matter is what ultimately what helps to shape and lead the story along. It was within this documentary mode that I found many pieces of my film fitting nicely. To begin, the overall nature of my film is clearly depicted from my storytelling perspective as I choose which details are most important and worth capturing. I don’t narrate everything about the film, but my voice does play through what I decide to include. In moments where I talk about the camera battery dying, I provide insight into my thoughts and concerns of the moment, rather than continuing forward as though nothing occurred. My inclusion of scenic shots of nature likewise serves as manifestations of what I choose to look at while walking around. Several times throughout the film include moments of or make mention about finals and how they are fast approaching. I chose to do this because it was a prominent thought, concern, and topic on my mind. It became clear that this was a preoccupation of mine when it was the first thing my parents asked Lindsey and me. And including that in the film as well as ending the film on such commentary was crucial to a general trend I found in my day. I found that my documentary had threads of certain themes and narratives that were manifestations of my mindset, which is very fitting for an autobiographical documentary.

The observational mode of documentary film was yet another style I found prominently throughout my film. Bill Nichols regarded it as a mode in which there is a significant sacrifice of direct interactions with subjects to formal patterns and perspectives. Much of what is observed is lived experiences that occur spontaneously. There is little exchange between filmmaker and subject. Ethical questions arise regarding filming subjects who don’t consent to being on camera. Nichols suggests that much of what we see in this mode might not even be there were it not for the camera’s presence. The mobility of the camera is also a large part of what lends to a documentary being observational (Nichols 132-137). Erik Barnouw explains that with the decline in tripod use, cameras were able to capture content that was dramatically compelling as they reflected the influence of society on the individual (Barnouw 235-248). The Mayseles brothers’ film Grey Gardensis a wonderful example of an observational depiction of life in which audiences watch what unfolds before the camera. Leviathanis likewise filled with observational presentations, mirroring just how the filmmaker experienced it. Sweetgrassis another film of composed shots also listed among observational documentaries. In my film, I could easily observe the observational mode characteristics at play as the presence of the camera influenced the unfolding of events. There were a number of moments when the subjects of my film noticed the camera and ultimately acted differently due to its presence. Other moments I captured lived encounters and spontaneous moments of discovery, such as opening the gift from the department or the door prank played on my roommate. A few times in the film I filmed people without informing them of the camera, which reflects Nichols’ comments regarding the ethics of observational documentary. In these instances—including my FaceTime conversation with my parents, my two roommates at the fridge, and my other roommate talking to Lindsey—I was able to obtain as authentic of conversations as I could. I had a fascinating experience navigating the observational, dethatched nature of the film while still engaging in what was occurring before me.

The final mode that fits my documentary is that of the participatory film. Nichols explains that this documentary mode emerged from the development of sync sound and camera mobility during the 1960s. Filmmakers were then able to interact with their subjects as questions evolved into interviews. The filmmaker’s presence has an overall weight on the film. The filmmaker likewise often becomes a social actor themselves as they experience and document interactions occurring in the moment. However, due to the obvious presence of the camera, such interactions only ever reach a level of “film truth,” that would not exist without the camera (Nichols 137-148). Information in participatory documentaries is often learned through interactions between the filmmaker and subject as events unfold. Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s Marchis a prime example for such a film as the filmmaker’s camera soon becomes his tool through which engagements and interactions emerge. As I created my documentary, I quickly discovered just how tangible this change in environment was with the presence of a camera. Even as the filmmaker, I felt initially reserved about sharing very much on camera. Many of the interactions that occurred in the film were quieter and more subdued than the normally would be, such as at breakfast and walking to campus. Other moments mirrored “film truths,” including some commentary that was shared throughout the film, such as the one about the vegetables in my lunch and Lindsey’s remark about it being the last day of classes. Other moments that felt largely altered due to the camera’s presence was when my roommates all enthusiastically gave us “goodbyes” as we walked to the library. It was fascinating for me to observe just how composed and distant my subjects and I felt by the fact that we were being filmed. However it felt very in-line with how participatory documentary often is.

Documentary film has a powerful ability to fit into a number of categories, styles, and modes. A number of such modes outlined by author Bill Nichols’ have been my guiding tool through which I have been able to articulate the details of my film. Such modes included the reflexive documentary, the autobiographical documentary, the observational documentary, and the participatory documentary. As I had the opportunity to make a documentary depicting what my day was like, I found that a number of the modes were present in my film. With the help of the words of Bill Nichols and Erik Barnouw, as well as the variety of works from filmmakers of the past and present such as Vertov, Wang, McElwee and others, I have been able to express just how remarkable documentary film can be in telling a narrative as particular as a day in my life.

Documentary Mode 3

The documentary mode of an autobiographical film often explores the intricacies of the filmmaker’s experience and perspective. This mode in particular doesn’t find itself restrained by a set of common aesthetics, styles, structures, or methods. Instead, it can be found in other modes such as the performative, participatory, even observational documentary. Archival footage is likewise used a times. The autobiographical film is very telling about who the filmmaker is, as they become just as much a subject of the film as those depicted.  These films serve as an account of the individual’s life. Autobiographical films, whether explicitly depicted or not, are nearly all very telling of who the filmmaker is; many are about the filmmaker and the subject; they can also depict the filmmaker’s personal perspective in very insightful ways.

            Autobiographical films are not only about the individual subjects portrayed. Very often, this documentary mode explores the relationship the subject shares with the filmmaker. One such example comes from Deborah Hoffmann’s Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter. It is a powerful film where Deborah plays a key role in the narrative. As Nichols describes, Deborah’s “presence takes on a highly personal and sometimes poignant quality…[as she] struggles to cope with her mother’s descent into dementia…” (Nichols 142). She explores her personal feelings with regard to what her mother is facing and as a result, the film becomes a powerful reflection of the experience through Deborah’s eyes. Similarly, Allen Berliner’s film Nobody’s Business, about his father is notably dependent on Allen’s persistence to make the film. The film is an exploration of their relationship together and their paralleled stubborn natures. Many autobiographical narratives rely on the filmmaker’s presence and perspective, especially in relation to the other subjects involved. 

            Likewise, another common characteristic of autobiographical narratives is the influence and manifestation of the filmmaker’s perspective and experience on the film. Nichols describes it aptly when he explains that autobiographical films illustrate a “personal account of someone’s experience, maturation, or outlook on life” (Nichols 107). One prime example of such a portrayal is in Nanfu Wang’s I Am Another You. BYU recently experienced the unique privilege of having Nanfu Wang on campus, where she addressed the Media Arts program on a number of occasions. In relation to her documentary film I Am Another You, Nanfu explained that it wasn’t long into the film that she realized her key role in the film and how her personal perspective drove the narrative. It was her fascination with freedom that led her to depicting Dylan and his exploration of living such a carefree, transient life. The filmmaker’s perspective is explored in autobiographical films, and this often leads to powerfully thoughtful narratives. 

             My autobiographical documentary, Inseparable, is a profoundly meaningful film to me about my relationship with my twin sister Lindsey. As is seen in autobiographical documentaries, my voice and perspective as both a filmmaker and subject are poignant and clear as my spoken word guides the narrative. I play just as vital of a role in the film as Lindsey does. Likewise, the film, filled with archival footage, is very much what Nichols describes of being a personal account of my experience with Lindsey and our maturation together (Nichols 107). The film ends with a few shots of just Lindsey, each a clear depiction of my perspective of how I see and know her. These are prominent in their purpose and meaning as I reflect on my relationship with her and how much she means to me. Even the final shot of the film, of Lindsey turning around and my running up to her all depict in a very significant way my feelings regarding the topic, our relationship, and our approaching separation in life. The film, being autobiographical, is as a whole very noteworthy in its exploration of my experience being a twin alongside Lindsey, the feelings we have, and our sentiments regarding the future. 

            Autobiographical films regularly explore the filmmaker’s perspective in relation to their topic and the individual subjects within the film. They are powerful manifestations of who the filmmaker is and how they think. With the aid of archival footage, autobiographical documentaries depict the filmmaker’s experience. Whether autobiographical films state so or not, they are often very telling of who the filmmaker is, what their relationship is with the subject, and what their various perspectives are in life.

Works Cited

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

To Reveal, Challenge, and Change

            While documentary filmmaking has caused ripples and made strides in a broad array of arenas of emphasis, the filmmaking style has found an understandably welcome place among topics concerning politics and the nation state. Bill Nichols describes documentary in this realm as becoming a tangible, recognizable expression that links audiences to the values and beliefs that belong to a certain community or people. Such films can form a variety of motives, whether it be contesting a nation state, explaining the world to its audience, promoting understanding for a problem or cause, inciting improvement, or so much more (Nichols 159-193). Ultimately, documentary film within the context of political and nation state concerns achieves remarkable progress toward increasing awareness, asking important questions of society, and promoting change.

            Perhaps more than any other genre or style of cinema, documentary films find themselves invested with the ability to raise awareness in many different forms. Nichols, in his inspiring book Introduction to Documentary, notes that documentaries assist in giving viewers insight into a world they are likely unfamiliar with. Documentaries are celebrated for raising awareness about various causes, conditions, people, problems, and infinitely more. Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber’s documentary Peace Officer (2015) is a powerful example, with its commentary on the militarization of police in Utah. The film is driven mainly by the narrative of a man whose personal ties to the police community give the additional weight to his concern therein. Peace Officers till approaches the discussion by presenting and drawing from all sides of the debate equally, leaving audiences to asses their own positions. Jesse Moss’ The Overnighters (2014) is another example that exposes a complex issue, depicting the challenging reality of many struggling individuals often ignored in society. Documentary film raises awareness and exposes concerns worthy of interest.

            Documentary films likewise play a crucial role in an approach of introspection for audiences. Such films explore a wide array of topics, often exploring those who are oppressed and the voices of marginalized groups. They direct our attention to issues, inviting us to understand the world being presented. And above all else, they leave us with the question of what our involvement is within. This forward questioning of documentaries plays a powerful role in a willing audience member’s experience (Nichols 159-193). Edward Murrow’s Harvest of Shame(1960) asks audiences about their privilege and place in a society where some enjoy wealth and advantage while others experience poverty and want. The film, released on Thanksgiving Day, is a powerful inquiry for United States society, both on a general and individual level. Documentary films question audiences, asking them pointedly what will eachof us do? How will each of us contribute?

            Such questions are pivotal precursors to documentary’s role in promoting change. When Nanfu Wang campus, she expressed her desire to make films that would inspire change. This is am aspiration shared by many documentarians. Nichols called it the cinema of empowerment, where radical and necessary change is intensely sought after. Many of the films present a problem and subsequently offer a solution. Insightfully, Nichols stated further:

We need explanations to get things done. If we know what causes [an issue] we can then take measures to address [it]. We need understanding, with its qualities of empathy and insight, to grasp the implications and consequences of what we do. Actions rely on values, and values are subject to question. Lives are at stake. Understanding, like critical perspective, leavens explanations, policies, solutions. Social actors are not pawns but people (Nichols 159-193).

Peace Officerleaves audiences better informed and ultimately moved toward wanting to change a system where lives are at stake. The Overnighters prompts viewers to change the way they see those struggling with homelessness. These films and many more inspire us to become present, aware, actively involved citizens in public discourse and politics as we work toward improving our world one issue at a time.

            Documentaries, within politics and the nation-state, have come to play a significant role in the empowering, influential medium of film. Though the genre, filmmakers can raise awareness, question a society member’s role, and promote important change. Such documentaries are remarkable in their impact as they seek to reveal issues that warrant change.  

Harvest of Shame (1960)
Peace Officer (2015)
The Overnighters (2014)

Photo sources:

http://www.docnyc.net/film/the-overnighters/
https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/peace-officer-film-review-786098
https://www.npr.org/2014/05/31/317364146/in-confronting-poverty-harvest-of-shame-reaped-praise-and-criticism

Works Cited

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