Friday, February 8, 2013

YEAR 11 - DOCUMENTARY - REPRESENTING ‘REALTIY’ – the world of the documentary

Film, whether based on fiction or fact, is an unique storytelling medium that can perpetuate and shape the attitudes and beliefs of their audiences. The full ideological power of film is more fully available when the genre doesn’t ask the audience to suspend belief, but rather asks the audience for their attention as they endeavour to reveal a factual recount of actual people and events. This perceived realism is the power of documentary film.

It is up to the audience to decode the conventions upon which some of Australia’s best storytellers draw in order to manufacture a sense of objectivity—to seemingly remove their voices from the text—in the service of constructing a specific version of realty that advocates a particular ‘truth’. A documentary is the ultimate realist genre as a vehicle for cultural reproduction and change.

When you view a documentary, you need to interrogate it by considering the following:

·         SUBJECT MATTER – Does the film address issues that you feel are significant ?
·         PERSPECTIVE – Does the film provide a unique insight or offer a non-dominant point of view (POV) regarding its   subject matter?
·         AESTHETIC FEATURES – Is the overall look and feel of the film culturally significant?
·         DOCUMENTARY CONVENTIONS – Does the film make innovative use of the codes of documentary?


Documentaries are non-fiction film texts that aim to document or record subject matter based on factual or actual people and events. Regardless of the style, genre or mode of documentary under analysis, first you need to ask:

1.      What types of evidence are being used, and how reliable are they? (For example: eye witness reports, use of statistics, sourcing.)

2.       To what extent are the conventions of documentary film being employed to document, interpret, modify, manipulate or fictionalize the subject matter, and for what purpose? (For example: inclusion or exclusion of subject matter.)

Why are we cynical regarding documentary films? We always need to remember that every mode of representation, whether romance novels or the news, involves a certain degree of intervention in reality—even if it’s as simple as what to include or exclude from the frame or the fact that the presence of a camera affects how people behave.

Essentially, you might ask yourself whether the filmmaker is revealing or distorting the ‘truth’ of the image through their use of techniques such as staging action, cinematography, adding music or commentary, or structuring the narrative during editing. How does this distortion challenge or support the dominant invited reading of the subject?

It’s also important to remember that depending on the subject, documentaries might employ everything from stunt work or animations to creatively represent aspects of the ‘real’ –think about ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’. The sheer diversity of styles and genres emerging from the documentary tradition is possible because documentary itself has always encompassed a wide range of topics.


Despite their diversity, it is possible to divide documentaries into six main sub genres based on the different strategies and types of evidence they use to represent and make claims about reality. These categories are not water-tight and it is possible for one film to incorporate several modes.

1.       The Poetic Mode interprets reality creatively and experimentally. Based on the assumption that it’s not possible to document reality objectively, the filmmaker aims to honestly express an aspect of subject perception.

2.       The Expository Documentary assumes a position of authority, telling the audience about the meaning and importance of footage, with the assumption that there is one objective true account of the subject matter and it is the job of the documentary to communicate or expose the facts. Voiceover commentary is central to expository documentaries – eg David Attenborough.

3.       In the Observational Mode, the filmmaker records events like a surveillance camera, without apparent intervention or interpretation of the material for viewers. Traditional observation documentary have no voiceover, no added music or sound effects, no titles, no re-enactments, no behavioural repeats for the camera and no interviews – eg Jesus Camp.

4.       Participatory Documentaries rest on the belief that the filmmaker is best able to create an authentic representation of events if they are personally involved and have intimate knowledge of the subject; it is a filmmaker’s attempt to recount their own experience with the world, engaging in social issues via interviews and footage of historical events – eg Michael Moore’s documentaries such as Supersize Me.

5.       Reflexive Documentaries call the process of presentation and the techniques of realism into question by self-consciously showing the audience that they are watching a representation of the truth. Dramatizations are common in this mode as are self-reflexive techniques, such as direct addresses to the camera – eg Forbidden Lie$.

6.       Performative Documentaries address the audience emotionally and expressively, seeking to communicate different experiences of reality from a subjective position, freely utilizing expressive techniques such as cinematography and music – eg Touching the Void.

Now you understand the constructed nature of the ‘truth’ in all documentaries, you are in a better position to assess the representation constructed in your chosen text and the various ways in which conventions unique to the screen medium have contributed to the documentary’s invited readings. In order to develop a persuasive argument regarding the nature and the intentions of your chosen documentary, you should answer the following questions”:

What ‘truth’ regarding Australian culture is this film trying to convey?
Whose attitudes and values does this version of reality endorse? Whose does it offend?
What documentary conventions have been used in the construction of this ‘truth’?

With thanks to Kelvin Grove State High School handout - Australian Film Festival.

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