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:

Works Cited

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

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:



Works Cited

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

Documentary Mode Activity 1

I will be forever fascinated by light and shadow. Within them I find a remarkable exchange of meaning, a dichotomy where one often does not exist without the other. The genesis of the idea of my documentary came from a moment of inspiration when at one time I was discussing this interest with my sister and I realized that the presence of both can become a metaphor of sorts for life. I realized that just as the blend of light and shadows on the leaves of a tree can create a beautiful and enriching scene, a mixture of the highs and lows of life can enhance our growth, increase our strength, and change us into better individuals capable of facing challenges.

Thomas S. Monson illustrates the idea perfectly when in an address at a BYU Women’s Conference he expressed,

“Our mortal life … was never meant to be easy or consistently pleasant. Our Heavenly Father … knows that we learn and grow and become refined through hard challenges, heartbreaking sorrows, and difficult choices. Each one of us experiences dark days when our loved ones pass away, painful times when our health is lost, feelings of being forsaken when those we love seem to have abandoned us. These and other trials present us with the real test of our ability to endure.”

It was with this perspective in mind that I sought to create a poetic mode documentary about how light, shadow, and growth often work in tandem. It is a sentiment I’ve thought a lot about with experiences I’ve endured in my own life and observed in the lives of others.

The project is deeply inspired by documentary giant Joris Ivens’ film Rain. Within Ivens’ mesmerizing film, he assembles a narrative arc by chronicling a rain shower. Just as the documentarian shifts his focus throughout the different periods of the occasion, I took a similar approach when capturing and assembling the sights of shadows, light, and plants in the world around me. I too assembled a narrative arc in creating a metaphor in that just as light can penetrate even the darkest of shadows to facilitate profound growth within nature, we can likewise embrace the tragedies of life, because it is most often through our trials that we grow into stronger, compassionate, and more authentic individuals.

Poetic documentary films regularly stress ambiguity through a series of fragments. They often emphasize the filmmaker’s voice in giving an area of the world a formal aesthetic. Poetic documentaries enable audiences to see and experience the world in a particular, calculated way. In my documentary, the concept and meaning is generally ambiguous and unclear. Instead, the fragmented images act as a vehicle through which my voice, perspective, and vision as a filmmaker is conveyed. As a filmmaker, I was involved with the film form itself, as is often the case with poetic documentary films. I altered the lighting and saturation in multiple areas in an effort to communicate a particular mood. Initially, the film begins with shadows, signifying life running smoothly as normal. Then, small growth begins with the presence of plant life. It isn’t long before trial and shadow strike, consuming and perhaps even stalling progression. And then light is introduced and a remarkable change takes place. This is when the greatest growth occurs, when the plant and individual have each faced the highs and lows, and have come out resilient and stronger than ever before. Ultimately, I believe the documentary successfully conveys a perspective I have regarding the world with enough ambiguity andmetaphor that it has transformed the idea into something quite profound. Above all else, I am grateful for the chance I had to articulate this idea, for the experiences I’ve had, and for every trial and triumph I endure in life.

Works Cited

Thomas S. Monson Address –

Perspective of the Persuasive

Documentary filmmaking has evolved in a number of significant ways. One such way is through the development of the various modes that the genre can embody. From rhythmically poetic documentaries to detached observational documentaries and more, the filmmaking style takes many forms. There is one particular mode, however, that remarkably navigates the complexities of both appearing objective and yet still subtly proposing a persuasive argument or perspective. This mode is the expository mode. Ultimately, it is the style’s very impression of being objective that gives the expository mode its persuasive success.

Documentaries that fall within the classification of the expository mode are known for possessing calculated clarity. As a result, many expository mode documentaries give the impression of an objective perspective supported by compelling evidence. As Bill Nichols highlights in his book, Introduction to Documentary, it is the expository mode that “emphasizes the impression of objectivity and a well-supported perspective…it has the capacity to judge actions in the historical world without being caught up in them. (123)” By way of narrator, whose authoritative, informed, voice-of-God-like commentary guides the content, expository documentaries are able to lay out their positions clearly. The filmmakers themselves regularly voice the dialogue and are able to succinctly articulate the arguments.

The examples of how a film gives the impression of being objective through its coherent narration are many. In Zana Briski’s Born into Brothels, for example, it is through her dialogue and narration that the audience gains a sense of how familiar she is with the situation of the children living in Calcutta. Briski, who lived for a number of years with the children teaching them photography, repeatedly refers to them as her students. She knows their families, is invested in their wellbeing, and even expresses concern for their futures. All of this places her as an informed, authoritative figure who likewise happens to be narrating within the film and guiding its commentary. Another—albeit somewhat removed—narrator that guides the argument of an expository documentary is the never-seen, omniscient voice in The Corporation. This voice illustrates an authoritative, steady, collected presence throughout the film, which ultimately gives it the impression of being objective. Whether the narration is seen or not, it is through its eloquent and intelligent commentary that expository films appear objective.

Due to the fact expository documentary films lead with their narration, the visuals of the films are left with the task of conveying the meaning of the dialogue. The Corporation is a prime example of how imagery mirrors what is being expressed. Within this film, as the narrator discusses how pervasive “the corporation” has become in our society today, a rapid succession of logos flash before the screen. When an interviewee mentions the comparison of the corporation to being a jigsaw puzzle, an animated depiction of a jigsaw puzzle appears. The visuals within expository films do not guide the narrative. Instead, they supply the illustrative evidence that makes the filmmaker’s perspective appear objective and valid.

The expository mode of documentary filmmaking successfully gives the impression of being objective in its educated commentary as its arguments are delivered through authoritative, well-versed narrators. With imagery that strictly supports what is being said, the expository mode has evolved to become remarkably effective in its persuasion. By giving the impression that it remains objective, this documentary mode garners a sense of credibility, which is ultimately how it is so successful in its argumentation.

Photo Source:


Works Cited

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

Rooted Amidst Ruins and Rage

War, with its endless atrocities and chilling aftermath, has a way of revealing the very worst that people can do. Some of the most horrifying genocides that have been carried out throughout history, as well as in modern-day, have left us numb with sorrow and confusion as we try to comprehend the whys behind such heartless acts of hatred. Documentary filmmaking has proved a helpful tool in the process of navigating the complexities surrounding war and human nature. Some documentary films take a position while others remain strictly observational. Ultimately, however, documentary film has helped us as we approach war, both past and present, and its impact on individuals.

This week, we had the opportunity to watch two war documentaries Night and Fog and The Act of Killing. Both films explored the unfathomable realities of genocides that have marked their place in history. The films portray the impact of war in the past as well as today with commentary regarding how it has impacted the lives of those involved and humanity as a whole. As Erik Barnouw expresses in his book “Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film,” Night and Fog provided “a searing indictment” with its chilling juxtapositions of modern-day concentration camps with archival footage of the realities that happened there. This comparison gives “the film a greater impact than any other such film” has ever been able to depict (Barnouw 180). The stark juxtaposition is coupled with thoughtful narration that clearly states the filmmaker’s abhorrence with what has happened. The Act of Killing, on the other hand, takes a different approach in its exploration. Candidly exposing a number of individuals responsible for the heinous communist genocides in Indonesia in a seemingly un-filtered way, the film remarkably refrains from taking a clear position regarding the atrocities. As a result, it leaves the viewers feeling disgust and discomfort as they are left alone to grapple with what they’ve seen.

Both documentaries also explore how the genocides flourished in their day and the aftermath in the world today. With Night and Fog, the imagery for today was less harrowing because so much of what was depicted of today was mainly abandoned building structures. The Act of Killing, however, captured an ever-present sense of hostility among the Indonesian individuals responsible.

This comparison and commentary regarding war of the past and present has had an impact on me. As a religious human being who believes in the good of mankind, in an afterlife, in the eventual fulfillment of justice and mercy for all, and most significantly in a Savior who will carry out both, I have, in the very least, had an interesting experience as I’ve grappled with where I stand regarding these films. After some thinking, I’ve determined that my response is rather simple. I acknowledge the sorrow and pain I feel, and yet I choose to let it not immobilize me.

To see and read of such horrendous mentalities, actions, events, destruction, and war was an awful experience. I understand that hatred, apathy, anger, and revenge are prevalent in the world. We have lived in a world that has been this way since the very beginning. I won’t deny that. And yet I believe that there is an equal amount of good in the world. And I choose to put all of my focus there, embracing, elevating, and encouraging the beauty that comes from love. I believe that justice will be served where it is due. I sorrow for those who have been treated unjustly, for the numberless souls who have been victim to such horrifying, inhumane realities. And yet, as a spiritual viewer, my approach to these topics encompasses realities beyond this mortal life, beyond the horrors of today and the sorrows of the past. I look to a future where I know all will be well one day.

I am reminded of a lyric from musician Florence Welch in her song, “100 Years”. In this moving song, she sings, “I believe in love, and the darker it gets, the more I do. Try and fill us with your hate and we will shine a light.” This is the reaction I choose to adopt when approaching the darkness prevalent in the world. In my heart, I believe that in the end, God will carryout His will. He will assess the fate of every individual who has ever lived. He will determine it all. And so I leave it in His hands. I don’t need to carry a burden associated with the darkness of the world. As I navigate life with its ruins and rage, I choose to be rooted in this comfort and in love and hope. And that truly brings me immeasurable peace.


Photo Source:


Works Cited

Barnouw, Erik. Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Print.

Redefining What We Call Real

Documentary filmmaking has maintained its remarkable and celebrated presence for decades. From the earliest of films, artists were fascinated with the new medium through which they could capture a visual representation of life around them. Pioneering filmmakers such as the Lumière brothers, Dziga Vertov, and Robert Flaherty quickly recognized the potential and power of the camera in its ability to record the unfolding of events. Over the years, many filmmakers have used documentary as a way of expressing their voices and perspectives, spreading awareness for a cause, and obtaining an authentic, unscripted depiction of the world. As the art form has evolved however, debates have surfaced regarding what qualifies a film as a documentary as well as the ethics of a filmmaker’s involvement and manipulation therein. Others have questioned whether these films are ever even completely candid. As a result, these issues and more have caused audiences to question the very definition we often ascribe documentary films and as such, our relationships with these films are complicated.

Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North has been heralded as the first feature length documentary film, and for many years audiences were amazed at the fascinating depiction he captured of indigenous Inuit Nanook and his family as they lived in Canada. On the surface, the film was monumental in its release and appears to qualify as one of the first documentary films ever created. However the truth behind much of the film introduces complicated factors that have caused many to question whether it is a documentary or fiction film. From fabricated igloo’s to achieve a well-lit interior scene, to the fact that many of Nanook’s family were cast for the film, to the reality that Nanook’s name wasn’t even his real name, much of the film was fabricated. This comes as a shock to many because we expect documentary films to be authentic and honest. And yet the truth of the matter is that many documentary films are never entirely genuine. Filmmakers introduce elements of subjectivity in the ways they tell their stories. Scenes are manipulated. Environments and individual personalities instantly change when cameras are present. Facts can be distorted. And audiences are regularly cheated.

However, none of this is to say that documentary filmmaking is an unethical endeavor. It simply requires that our definition of documentary filmmaking cannot hold onto the belief that every film in the genre will depict a pure, authentic, objective reality. Many films are altered, edited, and adjusted for various purposes, often skewing reality, even if, for example, by small measures of chronology. Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera reminds us of this aspect of filmmaking when within the film itself it pulls out to reveal an editor cutting strips of footage we see moments later. (See photo below)  It is a startling, unconventional moment that makes the audience fully aware of the fact that they are watching a work that has been edited and altered.

What, then, can our definition of documentary filmmaking be if we recognize that there will always be an element of manipulation within the work? Author Bill Nichols provides a particularly accurate definition, stating, “Documentary film speaks about situations and events involving real people (social actors) who present themselves within a framework” (Nichols 10). John Grierson postulates that documentary films are creative treatments of reality (Nichols 5). Ultimately, as documentary film viewers, it is vital we recognize that artists will alter and adjust their work. Such is the nature of a medium that facilitates subjective expression, even in documentary filmmaking.

For decades, audiences have felt comfortable with the idea that all documentary films are depictions of pure reality. The genre of documentary filmmaking and the name itself seem to suggest this very thing. However, it is from the very first feature film within this genre, Nanook of the North, that we quickly realize this may not always be the case. Documentary films, rather than being completely real in their depictions of everyday life, are often adjusted, edited, crafted and created in such a way that it removes itself from being 100% genuine. Not surprisingly, this has caused us to reassess what qualifies a film as being a documentary. The debate is alive, even today. And still, regardless of whether we deem a film to be entirely authentic or not, as audience members, we will forever admire the genre for the way it allows for advocacy, exploration, and expression. Just as the early documentary filmmakers who helped birth this compelling genre, we too believe such aims are something worth pursuing.

Photo source:


Works Cited

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary, Third Edition, Indiana University Press, 2017.