May 10, 2022

What’s Not (in fact) a Documentary Film

What is a documentary? Part 2

Let’s deal with a little unreality first. Check out the about page for Reality Films. You may detect some irony 🙂

Also, check out their film Discovering Bigfoot, listed as a documentary on Tubi. I just finished watching it — an excruciating 1:50:33 of gibbering nonsense that has the look, feel, and sound of a documentary.

The first installment of this series introduced the idea that (something called) reality is at the core documentary filmmaking. And I suggested this as a reasonable beginning point:

Let’s start this whole examination (over multiple parts) with this dichotomy: Sometimes what’s in front of the camera being captured by the photographer is a scene that would/could/might be occurring whether or not the documentary crew is there to capture it. Sometimes what’s in front of the camera being captured by the photographer is a scene that would/could/might not be occurring because it was created for the film crew to capture.

This bifurcation is useful for talking about a film such as Discovering Bigfoot. It’s intended as a way to begin making sense of some of the differences between fiction and non-fiction filmmaking. Given that the film shows us utterly nothing convincing (and science has yet to discover so much as a bit of scat or hair), it’s easy to claim that what’s in front of the camera being captured by the photographer are scenes that would/could/might not be occurring because they were created for the film crew to capture.

In other words: fiction.

No Christopher Guest mockumentary is listed anywhere as a documentary. Easy to see why, I think.

But Discovering Bigfoot is listed as a documentary.

That’s not a good thing. At the core of documentary film should be reality. As far as we know there is no such thing as a bigfoot.

Now, a documentary about a guy who chases bigfoot (I think this has been done), or about bigfoot as cultural mythology (I think this has been done) could be cool. But stating its existence as fact is out of bounds.

From the core being reality, we must now consider facts.

May 2, 2022

At the Core is Reality

What is a documentary? Part 1

First, don’t click on this short film.

SAMRAKA from acline on Vimeo.

Yes, it’s a joke. I was learning Adobe Premiere. I was learning it the way everyone learns software these days: Launch it and start pushing buttons while keeping an eye on a YouTube tutorial. In this case, I was dragging stock footage into a timeline to check all the basic functions. Then I got the idea to have a little fun with the whole idea of non-verbal, non-narrative documentary along the lines of Samsara and Baraka by director Ron Fricke. A couple of hours later, Samraka was born.

You’ll note that there are “chapters” with themes. I’ll leave it for you to figure out — if you made the mistake ignoring my advice above 🙂

So I was trying to communicate — something, even if just going for a laugh. I was using footage that, for the most part, was connected to reality (yes, some scenes are typical stock set-ups with actors). But the footage is not connected thematically except for the structure that I gave it by placing it in an editing timeline in a certain order while thinking (to some extent) about how each clip might be understood in connection with the two on either side.

What does “connected to reality” mean? (Or what even is reality?)

Let’s start this whole examination (over multiple parts) with this dichotomy: Sometimes what’s in front of the camera being captured by the photographer is a scene that would/could/might be occurring whether or not the documentary crew is there to capture it. Sometimes what’s in front of the camera being captured by the photographer is a scene that would/could/might not be occurring because it was created for the film crew to capture.

Hmmmm… so does that mean press conferences and other government-run photo-ops are fiction?

I’m not offering that dichotomy because I think it clarifies anything. Instead, it’s my first attempt to make some kind of sense out of something I’m calling reality that happens independent of my witnessing it while pointing a camera at it.

There are many, massive problems (and opportunities) here. I’ll mention one opportunity and one problem before closing out this chapter. I tell my documentary and journalism students these:

  1. Humans apply a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events. In other words, we tell stories to make sense of the world. We make meaning. It’s our superpower.
  2. Introducing a camera always changes what’s happening in front of it.

At the core of what a documentary filmmaker does is something that might be happening independent of their interest in the something (reality?) and their eventual structuring of that something into a story. The subject has a certain agency that the actor does not. The scene has a certain messy connection to the subject that the film set does not.

The intentions of the documentary filmmaker and fiction filmmaker, however, are almost certainly closely related if not the same. See #1 above.

April 27, 2022

What is, and what qualifies as, documentary film?

Documentary film has been around as long as the technology has existed to make filmed pictures move. Reality was the first thing filmmakers made films of. For example, head over to YouTube and search for the Lumière brothers. Fascinating stuff. Then and now.

For another example, check out the first motion picture ever made — a couple of minutes of a horse galloping. We actually learned much about how horses gallop from this project.

I’m leading up to something I want to examine: What is a documentary and what qualifies as a documentary? Not the same questions, really. The first asks for a definition (even if complex). And the second asks us how we justify placing a particular work within some definition of documentary.

I’m planning to attempt answers to both.

“Attempt” indicates that I’m not going to try to sell you on something so much as to allow to read along as I think about it.

Starting soon…

March 19, 2022

On Saying “Take it Easy” to a Jamaican

Earlier today I said “take it easy” to a Jamaican. I often say this instead of simply “goodbye” or “see you later.”

She just smiled at me like I have much to learn. I guess I do.

In any case, I’m wrapping up this filming trip soon. Spring break will be over, and I’ll be back in class with my documentary students discussing Finders Keepers next week.

Until then, take it easy.

Artist and his grand daughters in Belmont.

Outside the full moon party in Treasure Beach.

March 14, 2022

A Story About Water

Students and faculty from Missouri State University are in the middle of a 2-week research trip to Jamaica doing water-quality testing and a study of how water flows through the karst topography on the southwest coast. It’s important work because many people living in the Bluefields area rely on streams and springs for their daily water.

I’m along for the ride with one of my students who is interested in making a career of documentary filmmaking. We’re documenting the trip, the research, and working up a couple pf personality profiles about locals who are important members of the community.

This scene happens, oh, every evening on Belmont Point.

Members of the research team enjoying the above scene.

Students taking care of social media.

Locals playing checkers at a rural tavern.

 

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