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Briefly discuss observational and participatory documentary modes of representation

A documentary is a broad term that describes a non-fiction movie that in some way documents or captures reality.  It is a genre of movie making that uses video and film scenes, photographs and sound of real people and real events which when edited together creates a story, viewpoint, message or experience. Sheila Curran Bernard wrote that, “Documentaries bring viewers into new worlds and experiences through the presentation of information about real people, places, and events, generally, but not always, portrayed through the use of actual images and artefacts. But factuality alone does not define documentary films; it’s what the filmmaker does with those factual elements, weaving them into an overall narrative that strives to be as compelling as it is truthful and is often greater than the sum of its parts.”(Documentary Storytelling, 2007)

Documentary is a wonderful way of showing people an aspect of reality and actuality. Often used to inform and to share knowledge with their audience, documentaries do not appear to have any boundaries therefore as humans continue to discover, create and explore documentary filmmaking will continue to evolve. There are many different forms of documentary and the varying techniques employed can create exceedingly different experiences for the audience.  Documentaries make up a specific part of the film industry, within them there are many sub-genres and differing styles.

American documentary theorist, Bill Nichols distinguished between documentary styles and developed s modesin his book ‘Introduction to Documentary’. Nichols identified certain traits visible in documentaries that were utilised by the documentary maker either consciously or simply because that is their way of telling their truth and sharing their knowledge. Nichols explains that all documentaries make use of one or more of the six modes. Understanding the various modes of documentary can come in useful for a filmmaker creating their own documentary.

A film identified with a given mode need not be so entirely.  A reflexive documentary can contain sizable portions of observational or participatory footage; an expository documentary can include poetic or performative segments. The characteristics of a given mode function as a dominantin a given film as it gives structure to the overall film, but they do not dictate or determine every aspect of the documentary. Each mode of documentary representation arises in part through a growing sense of dissatisfaction among filmmakers with a previous mode.

The observational mode, also known as cinema verité, direct cinema or fly-on-the-wall documentary is a more specific type of visual representation. Observational documentaries were essentially born out of a movement in the 1960s and 1970s by a group of filmmakers who referred to themselves as actuality filmmakers. Due to the advance in technology during this time, sound and camera equipment became easier to use and manoeuvre and as such filmmakers were able to carry mobile 16mm cameras and magnetic tape recorders. This allowed filmmakers more freedom and the ability to observe events without being intrusive to their subjects. The concept of direct cinema is that the best way to see truth is to view it without any involvement or influence. That is why observational documentary mode can be referred to as a fly on the wall approach. This often means that the footage is raw and shaky or jumpy. Nothing is staged, and the filmmaker captures life in its natural form. There are of course arguments asking how natural someone can be when a camera is present, despite how non-intrusive it is. This, however, does not necessarily detract from the mode itself.

The film, Salesman (1969), is a classic made by the Maysles brothers who are considered pioneers of direct cinema. The Maysles personally invented a handheld portable sound recording device, so they could shoot films on the fly (SBS). Other examples Knuckle (2011), Rough Aunties (2008), War Photographer (2001), Children Underground (2001), Brother’s Keeper (1992), The Monastery: Mr Vig and the Nun (2006), Sister Helen (2002), Hoop Dreams (1994)and Armadillo (2010).

Bill Nichols describes participatory documentary as “the encounter between filmmaker and a subject is recorded and the filmmaker actively engages with the situation they are documenting.” (Introduction to Documentary, 2001). The participatory mode has become a popular form of documentary telling in the last 30 years or more with names such as Michael Moore, Nick Broomfield and Louis Theroux championing this technique. Often this is also investigative filmmaking where a question is asked or a controversial topic is explored and the filmmaker is showing the audience the filmmaking process of their subject. The filmmaker can become an integral part of the film. This was most recently seen in the documentaries, Hardcore Henry and Icarus, both are participatory and performative documentaries. Participatory documentaries can be done by the filmmaker or director following their subject around and asking questions, a technique often employed by Louis Theroux. The filmmaker does not influence the subject but will attempt to subjectively engage with their subject despite their personal beliefs.

Examples of participatory documentaries includes Louis Theroux: The City Addicted to Crystal Meth (2009) directed and featuring Louis Theroux and Bowling for Columbine (2002) directed and featuring Michael Moore.  Participatory documentaries, while having elements of observational and expository, include the filmmaker within the narrative. This could be as minor as the filmmaker’s voice being heard behind the camera, prodding subjects with questions or cues — all the way to the filmmaker directly influencing the major actions of the narrative.

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