Robert situation’. (Hall,1991) Bill Nichols defines documentaries as, ‘Documentaries

Drew: ‘I’m determined to be as
unobtrusive as possible. And I’m determined not to distort the situation’.


Nichols defines documentaries as, ‘Documentaries
are about reality; they’re about something that actually happened… Documentary
film speaks about situations and events involving real people who present
themselves within a framework. This frame conveys a plausible perspective on
the lives, situations, and events portrayed. The distinct point of view of the
filmmaker shapes the film into a way of understanding the historical world
directly rather than through a fictional allegory’. (Nichols, 2001)

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‘Every documentary has its own distinct
voice’ (Nichols,
2001), like a fingerprint with distinct indentations and unique characters. Documentary
is proposed to depict some characteristic of reality, primarily for
instruction, education or maintaining some form of history.


Nichols recognised
six modes of documentary in his book ‘Introduction to documentary’ (2001) found
in documentary film that function as sub-categories of the film genre; poetic,
expository, participatory, observational, reflexive and performative. The six
modes establish a loose basis of rules which filmmakers can work within, set up
arrangements that a film may implement and deliver through expectations viewers
anticipate having fulfilled. However, a film recognised within a mode, does not
have to solely contain of this mode. Instead, a reflexive documentary might contain
fragments of observational or participatory film. The modes merely give the
film a respectable sense of structure, but do not dictate to every facet of it.


Each mode ascends
through a sense of discontent amongst filmmakers with a prior mode, meaning
that the six modes do carry a sense of documentary past. An example of this is
when the accessibility of mobile 16mm cameras and magnetic tape recorders in
the 1960’s, observational mode arose. Meaning that the poetic documentary rapidly
became too abstract and expository became too didactic when it became possible
to film events with minimal intrusion.


this essay, I will be discussing the observational mode. To fully understand
this essay, it is foremost vital to outline what the observational mode is and
how it is used. As detailed earlier, after developments in Canada, Europe and
the United States in the 1960’s, smaller, lighter cameras and tape recorders
became progressively obtainable and permitted for easier access as they could
be handled by someone solely. Dialogue became harmonised with image without the
need of bulky equipment or cables allowing for free movement around event
scenes. The independence the technology gives the filmmaker allows for
observational footage being naturally filmed with no staging, composition or arrangement.
The filmmaker can purely observe reality with a camera without interfering on
its focus, arguably the smaller and lighter pieces of equipment powered the
basis of the mode. This carried through to the editing process consequential in
a documentary film with no voice over, no added music or sound effects, no re-enactments
and no interviews.


intimate portrayal of two women living an insular existence, Grey Gardens
(1975) explores a relationship of mother and daughter. Big Edie and Little
Edie, the mother and daughter duo, pick fights with one another, make up, sing,
eat together, recollect about the past and philosophise about life. The duo appears
to live in an eternal state, where what time of day or year is utterly unrelated
to them.


Albert and
David Maysles know as the Maysles brothers frequently used the observational
documentary mode throughout ‘Grey Gardens’
by taking their cameras within the walls of their home and lives. The brothers formed
an authentic, provocative non-fiction feature film seizing the relationship
between mother and daughter. The films aesthetic embraces its insufficiencies
as a mould of realism. The documentary follows the observational mode methods using
a handheld camera movement and the use of diegetic sound, the story reveals unscripted
and without narration.


exposition of Grey Gardens was done using
a montage of news offcuts showing the exposure the film was receiving. The use
of montage is effective as it places an emphasis on the actuality of the story.
The Maysles brothers don’t bother to hide their occurrence in the film, whilst
headlines are being revealed, the brother’s voices are heard in the background.
This could be argued an important factor of the film as it shows the filmmakers
are supportive of the characters. The filmmakers are also seen as sights
through the reflection of mirrors when the characters directly address the
filmmakers. Through showing images of the brothers with their equipment, the viewer
acknowledges that although the film shows the real lives of the characters, it
is presented as an industrial product.


‘These ‘flaws’ in themselves seem
to guarantee authenticity and thus became desirable.’ (MacDonald, 1996, p.250). Grey Gardens is filmed as a fly on the
wall film, conforming to the conventions of observational film. The handheld
camera allows the filmmakers to move easily and capture the action successfully
in a reckless method, though at times the film lacks focus and amateur. The fly
on the wall technique is advanced by the use of sound due to the absence of
scripts or cues and the competition for attention. ‘The beauty of a Maysles image most often arises through its
startling immediacy, capturing and seizing the spontaneity of a moment…. rather
than freezing the image into one of overly aestheticized beauty.’ Joe
McElhaney – Albert Maysles University of Illinois Press 2009. McElhaney points
out that the filmmakers being there to capture the action unfold is part of the
attraction of this documentary.


documentary can be seen as an approach which neglects fictional basics. This
would suggest that all we see on screen is the ‘truth’, However, it is through
the editorial choices that the ‘truth’ captured by the camera is given a
meaningful narrative.  Editing methods
used through the documentary subsidise to the disordered feel of the film, the
shots are short and jump between shots quickly and frequently. This suits the means
of the story as it features highly fragmented and challenging narrative
structures through to lack of concept of time.


with image, synchronous sound is played which is fully diegetic. In
observational documentary, the filmmaker should not produce an artificial appeal
to the audience through the use of edited sound. Both women that feature in Grey Gardens aspire to be entertainers,
meaning music is a crucial part of the documentary film. Singing along to music
records, arguments and talking over one another are some of the way sound is
produced naturally throughout the film. Grey
Gardens does not use a narrator, as this is additional common aspect of
observational documentary, the believe is that the subject matter is
interesting enough and does not require explanation.


‘High School’ (1968), Frederick Wisemans’ second
film after the controversial ‘Titicut
Follies’ (1967) is also a film that uses observational mode throughout.
Wiseman began his career during the period of observational documentary in the
1960’s. However, his style is evidently unlike to other filmmakers such as Albert
and David Maysles. Wiseman outlines his footage for High School through the heavy use of editing, providing an artistic
form and structure for the film that is distinctively different from the
chronological approach. Most observational filmmakers tend to focus on fascinating
persons as seen in Grey Gardens mother
and daughter duo, whilst Wisemans films including High School shot in Northeast high school in Philadelphia, study
social and executive sensitivities instead.


High School, photographed by Richard
Leiterman, a significant Canadian cinematographer, has a loose structure
sticking to a conformist ‘day in the life of’ method. The documentary opens
filming riding in a car, seemingly on the way to school in the morning. The
first classroom shots contain daily announcements and the ‘thought for the day’
and about midway through the film there is a sequence of teachers having lunch.
At the same time, the school’s approach to education is presented as being like
an industrial process. Wiseman has said that when he first saw the school, he
was struck by how much it bared a resemblance to a factory. High School views the American public-school
experience as a factory-like process, with the pupils becoming the socialised
and consistent products it produces.


editing rapidly reveals the films sarcastic view of public education, with the
contents of the first lesson, a Spanish lesson, seeming ironic in the context
of its presentations with the teachers approach to have the entire class drone
in unison. Wiseman cuts from the Spanish lesson to the percussion lesson, with
the mimic’s teachers conducting hand, emphasised by the framing of the shot.
Most of the scenes emphasise lack of personalisation and conceptual instruction.
In the girl’s gym class, the camera emphases not on their faces but on their
bodies, clothed in identical uniforms, making them indistinguishable from one


High School comprises 37 distinct segments,
each one showing an episode of high-school life. Some segments, such as chorus
rehearsal, are quite brief; others involve extensive dialogue. Formally, the
film presents a challenging combination of structural sorts. overall, the form
is categorical. The main category is high-school life, and the subcategories contain
of typical activities: classes, student teacher confrontations, and sports
activities. The way in which categorical, narrative, and associational
strategies combine becomes clearer if we look at how Wiseman has selected and
arranged his material. The film is not a full cross-section of high-school
life. It omits many important aspects. We never see the home life of students
and faculty, and, strikingly, we never witness any conversations between
students, either in class or outside ii. Wiseman has concentrated on one aspect
of high school life: how the power of the authorities demands obedience from
pupils and parents.

The use of
the observational mode by Wiseman reflects his view on his affiliation with his
themes.  Wiseman is never presented in
the documentary, and states that it is not his profession ‘to intervene in
their lives…I want to show the reality without changing it’ (Ferguson, 1994).
This lack of involvement generates a dependence on graphic and audio symbols. This
documentary is purposely manipulated in order to convey a message that is commonly


School, the
subjects later resented their portrayal by Wiseman.  They gave him
complete access to view their lives or their lives at work and were
disappointed with Wiseman’s selective edits and the ensuing public
criticism.  This raises an important point about informed consent. 
If a filmmaker follows the direct cinema method of being a fly-on-the-wall,
privy to most details and/or interactions of a subject’s life, then I would
argue that the subject is unable to fully grasp how little and how much a
camera is capable of capturing, nor what kind of effect the camera will have
upon their subsequent actions. 


As discussed,
both films use the observational mode in very different ways, where the Maysles
brothers use fascinating characters as their subject matter, Wiseman focuses on
governmental and social issues yet they both captured reality and life in a
realistic and compelling way.


 Observational footage is an important part of
film as it primarily allows the viewer to have the most unbiased view of a
subject matter. Although the filmmaker is at liberty to choose which pieces of
film are put in to a documentary, without the narrator there is no biased
opinions or views on the viewer. The viewer is therefore entitled to interpret
the film as they wish and form their own opinions on the subject matter. However,
the Observational mode can only be so effective. Many people watch a
documentary in order to be educated, yet with nobody telling the viewer what
they are watching, is it possible for one to learn? How much can a person learn
or understand from just looking and nobody to explain what is happening in the
situation. Although the observational mode is supposed to be the most
unobtrusive mode with least interaction and just cameras, one may argue that
the subject matter knowing there are cameras filming them will affect their
behaviours therefore not creating a realistic and true insight to the