The Documentary Filmmaking Tradition – Non-Fiction Film

            It is widely believed that the idea of making documentaries began with the Lumiere brothers in the nineteenth century. The brothers referred to the films as actualities since they showed the daily life of people such as workers leaving the factory. The films were short, single-shot and unedited and the brothers did not use any actors (Rohl 6). During 1930s, documentary films were defined as “creative treatments of actuality” (Barsam 90). This was a broad and perhaps controversial definition since the term creative indicated an element of fiction and the term actuality denoted real live events. Over time, this definition has changed and in trying to define it, three assumptions are made. The first assumption is that documentaries are about reality and actual things that happened they are about real people who do not play or perform any roles and they tell stories about what happens in the real world (Nichols 7-10). Nichols asserts that documentaries are not a reproduction of reality but they are a representation of the world (Nichols 13).

In the 1930s and 40s, studio films were more prevalent. The documentaries presented a new and fresh version of films since they showed people in their natural surroundings living their normal lives. The films were shot on location using the available light. The cameras used were small and of a lighter weight than the ones used in the studios (Stubbs 1). Technological changes brought about changes in the film industry and filmmakers changed the way they viewed and took documentaries. The concept of direct cinema and cinema verite (film truth) emerged during this period (Ellis and McLane 208). Sounds were made using musical instruments such as pianos, organs and pit orchestras and this was only possible when the films were being shown. Voice-over commentaries were used since no sound could be captured in its natural setting (Ellis and McLane 209). The film, Weddings and Babies, was the first to be captured with a portable camera using a synchronous sound attachment, and Morris Engle produced it in 1958(Ellis and McLane 210).

As time went on, more cameras were developed which were easy to carry and use. Filmmakers could use natural sounds and the pictures were taken in color. The era of television and the digital age has made it more difficult to define documentaries. Television was especially instrumental in changing the way people viewed documentaries. The range widened to include docu-dramas, chat shows, surveillance and undercover videos, factual magazines that used fictional techniques and drama based on facts. Techniques such as reconstruction, mockumentary, satirization of documentaries and reality television have all contributed to the changes in perception of documentaries (Chapman 12). The debate about truthfulness of documentaries is never ending. Many people in the industry cannot agree with this fact since it is not clear whose story is being shown in the documentary. Filmmakers will sometimes change the setting, the context or direct the actors in a certain way and this leads to the lack of truthfulness in the film.

Different audiences view documentaries in different ways. The audience, filmmakers and institutions help to define different types of documentaries at different times (Nichols 16). Although documentaries are different, they have four common tendencies, which have also been regarded as modalities of desire. Documentaries can record, reveal or preserve. They can persuade or promote, analyze or interrogate, and they can express (Rohl 8). Chapman identified several functions of a documentary and these include illustrative and symbolic, which were commonly used in the 1930s, and evidential, which was used after the Second World War. Other functions identified are iconic and indexical (Chapman 12). Documentary films are today used to capture different areas of life such as sports. They are also used for education purposes, and it is common to see wildlife and climate related documentaries.

Television formats dictate the kind of documentaries presented and it is usual to see documentaries on sexuality and other forms of entertainment (Chapman 13). Technology and digital age has made it impossible for one to define boundaries. As Evans points out, all that one needs to make a film is a “camcorder, computer, limitless imagination and the desire to tell it your way” (Evans 2). It is this perception that has enabled some people to disregard other people’s welfare for the sake of their interests. Some documentaries contravene other people’s privacy by showing their private life. Some in the industry argue that so long as the participants have given their consent, then the issue of privacy is not a big deal. The method of obtaining that consent is however questionable and it depends of the producer. Some will use coercion while others may intimidate the participants. Some participants may give their consent out of ignorance and they will have to face the consequences later (Rosenthal and Corner 195).

Unethical behavior has become more prevalent especially in television where filmmakers are driven by competition for audiences and ratings, and career rivalry (Chapman 156). It is important to maintain ethical behavior when making documentaries. This affects the audience, the producers and the participants. People have a right to decide how much information they are willing to tell, whom they will reveal it to and when to disclose different aspects of their lives (Rosenthal and Corner 198). Contrary to past beliefs, cameras do lie and this has been made possible by digital technology. It is only ethical that filmmakers reveal to the audience where alterations in documentaries have been made. This is usually not seen as necessary in fictional films but it is very important in non-fiction films since the audience will view the content as a representation of the truth.

Works Cited

Barsam, Richard. Nonfiction Film: A Critical History. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992. Print

Bruzzi, Stella. New Documentary. Boone, KY: Taylor & Francis, 2006. Print

Chapman, Jane. Issues in Contemporary Documentary. United Kingdom: Polity, 2009. Print

Ellis, Jack and Betsy McLane. A New History of Documentary Film. Harrisburg, PA: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005. Print

Evans, Russell. Practical dv Filmmaking: A Step-by-step Guide for Beginners. United Kingdom: Focal Press, 2002. Print

Gaines, Jane and Renov Michael. Collecting Visible Evidence. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota Press, 1999. Print

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010. Print

Rohl, Alexander. Forms and Functions in Documentary Filmmaking: American Direct Cinema. Germany: GRIN Verlag, 2009. Print

Rosenthal, Alan and Corner John. New Challenges for Documentary. United Kingdom: Manchester University Press, 2005. Print

Stubbs, Liz. Documentary Filmmakers Speak. New York, NY: Allworth Communications, Inc., 2002. Print

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