Week 1 Reading log
Rabiger – The director’s role
"True documentary reflects the richness and ambiguity of life" pp.7
In this first chapter, Rabiger discusses what documentary is, how to be objective and fair whilst making a documentary, the so-called, ‘Directors journey’ and the ‘contract with the audience’.
He begins by defining the actual term ‘Documentary‘, saying how the term is debated still by documentarians over issues of:
- What any given actuality is
- How to record a subject without interference
- How to convey something that is “more spirit than materiality”
Rabiger talks about what a documentary can be based around, the past and the present can be documented as there is evidence to support the films, but he also talks about how the future can in some ways be documented too. This concept confused me initially until I read on to his given example; War game (1965). This film uses the World War two bombings in Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, “to hypothesise a major nuclear attack on London.” pp.4 I found this compelling. A documentary can focus on known facts of present and past, but can also serve as a ‘warning’ of sorts to project the possibilities of the future; to extrapolate from the knowledge we have now as a method to hypothesise the future.
The quote which summed up the first Chapter of Rabiger’s book, ‘Directing the Documentary‘, was, “documentary always seems concerned with uncovering further dimensions to actuality and at the same time implying social criticism.” pp.4 Rabiger is trying to relate the purpose of a documentary film here, not just about telling facts to its viewer, but to also raise moral and ethical dimensions on human life. Rabiger amends Emile Zola and Grierson’s statement, “a documentary is a corner of actuality seen through a human temperament.” pp.5 These two quotes I believe introduce documentary film perfectly.
Rabiger describes the narrative elements of a successful documentary film, very much as a regular film, with; “a good story … engaging characters, narrative tension, and an integrated point of view.” pp.5 At the end of the day, although a documentary film must be informative and should “seek to persuade” pp. 5, it is a film. Being a film the work needs to engage its target audience, keep that audience engaged throughout to work and tell a satisfying story overall, as well as make a point and inform. (Quite difficult!)
The media as a whole must be unbias. Newspapers, reporters, factual films, the news etc. must present a balanced argument and can not be seen to give an opinion, but does this apply to a documentary film? Rabiger puts it simply, “the documentarian’s responsibility is to be fair.” pp.8 Not to cover both sides and not to cross-check is the making of a bad documentary. This is because things are not usually as they first seem, it makes your work easier to defend and gives those against your film less ammunition to attack you with factually. You must also anticipate your audiences first time viewing your content so you are able to show the film as truthful, as it should be. A large section of being fair is to attempt to remain objective. Rabiger asks how this is possible, “What, for instance, is an objective camera position…? How do you ‘objectively’ decide when to turn the camera on and off?” pp.9. These editorial decisions make a documentary:
- What to shoot
- How to shoot it
- What to use in the film
- How most effectively to use it
Rabiger says, “every decision involves ethical choices” pp.9. I agree with this statement as editing is always a lie. The best a documentary can do is to attempt to relate the gist of a subjects argument, to make sure their point comes across even if sections of there speech is cut out. (Much the same way I am relating Rabiger’s points but not plagiarising his entire work.)
Documentary directors I always assumed was the person driving the work, the person with the knowledge or drive to find out more about the topic, but Rabiger defines the job in a few bullet points, as the person:
- Engage with the audience
- Does what is necessary to record essential footage and meaningful sections
- Pieces the footage to make a story that is cinematically and dramatically satisfying
- Investigates people, topics or aspects of life that are significant
Finally, Rabiger talks about a ‘contract’ you should have with an audience as a documentary filmmaker. You must respect the audience’s intelligence. This came on to a section in his book that I couldn’t quite grasp, the idea of a “binary communicator” who provides equal coverage of both sides.” I suppose Rabiger is suggesting a neutral base character within the film to act as in intermediary between information and simplicity for an audience, (to dumb information down for a common audience). A film should not patronise or manipulate its subject or its audience. Audience anticipation is the ‘contract‘ you sign with your audience, as a documentary filmmaker.
McLane and Ellis – Some ways to think about Documentary
McLane and Ellis begin by separating documentary film from that of fiction film. They introduce documentary film in this way to define it, going on to say how “documentary filmmakers limit themselves to extracting and arranging from what already exists rather than making up content.” pp.2 McLane and Ellis disagree with Rabiger in a small aspect of documentary narrative, however, where Rabiger says documentaries are films too and narrative structure and characters must be established to engage an audience, McLane and Ellis argue the contrary, that this is a purely fiction film convention. I side with Rabiger in this argument, as I believe to keep an audience engaged, a narrative must be established and what McLane and Ellis are talking about is not a documentary but a factual film.
After this, McLane and Ellis go on to talk about production method and technique. In this, they talk of ‘nonactors’ who they describe as “real people’ who ‘play themselves” pp.2. I found this to be contradictory to what they argue only the paragraph before of documentaries not having narratives, as they describe here conventional characters in a documentary narrative!
A key part of this reading I found to be the methods for filming they described. In accordance with their nature as honest and informative, focusing on information, documentaries film with: on location light, no sets, no actors and little to no post-production film manipulation. (Any work effects, be it physical or after effects, is done only out of necessity.) McLane and Ellis explain the very roots of even the word ‘documentary‘, always about “what is factual and authentic” pp. 3. In the section Intellectual contexts, McLane and Ellis go on to describe documentary as “intended to achieve something in addition to entertaining audiences and making money” pp.4. They confirm statements made by Rabinger of the purpose of documentary film, to be informative, but more than that, to imply “social criticism” pp.4.
A lot of what McLane and Ellis talk of is irrelevant information to me. They discuss all origins of documentary, such as the etymology of the word to newsreels before films as an initial form of informative documentary in mainstream culture. They too, as I have discussed Rabinger does, bring up that the term documentary is argued over, “depending on how one defines documentary…” They are far more ambiguous in their description of this however. They do bring up the idea of a fluid definition of documentary film, but they don’t personally define the term and only raise questions of the limits of the genre. Rabinger, for my own knowledge and understanding of the origins of documentary film as well as defining the term, was much more accessible a read, Rabinger also gives his opinion after laying out the facts.
I found the Rabinger, Directing the documentary (1987) Ch.1, to be a more informative and accessible source of understanding the basics of documentary video, whereas a more comprehensive knowledge of the history of Documentary video would be gained from McLane and Ellis’, A New History of Documentary Film (2005). In establishing an interest in Documentary film, I would recommend Rabinger’s first chapter. (As this course refferes to a different chapter of this book every week, I assume the entire book is good for learning about Documentary film!)