On Visual Style in Documentary Film

Using the preposition “on” in titles is something of a promise to deliver. I tend to use it¬†ironically as an indicator that all I’m really going to do it mention something and, perhaps, ask a few questions that I don’t get around to answering because I’m still wondering about them. I use this “on” as a way to start a line of thinking that might go on for weeks.

The following video fascinates me. The director Terrence Malick is a creator of fiction films. I am a creator of non-fiction films. And the thing I find fascinating about this obsession the video speaks of is how much the visual style conforms to what it is I’m trying to do as a documentary filmmaker.

I don’t want to claim more skill than I have. But the scenes in this video are familiar to me — not as a Malick fan, which I am, but as a person who points a camera at something like reality and hopes the “characters” in front of the lens are doing something like the searching the video speaks of.

I have more ideas about this, especially regarding what I call “authenticity moves” (more on this soon) involving such things as hand-held camera technique and camera choice in certain circumstances. In the video here, pay careful attention to how the camera moves and how the movement allows you to see certain things in certain ways. It’s something like the Kuleshov Effect. I have lots of questions about these certain things and certain ways. This nexus is important to the rhetoric of documentary film. Check out the moment with the mother and child at 2:55 for a super simple example (one of, well, the whole video is one big example).

Note the lens choice. Very wide. That calls for intimacy between cinematographer and subject. It means something different when the subjects are operating in the realm of real life as opposed to within a fiction.

Intimacy is where it’s at.

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