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