RobertDrew: ‘I’m determined to be asunobtrusive as possible. And I’m determined not to distort the situation’.(Hall,1991) BillNichols defines documentaries as, ‘Documentariesare about reality; they’re about something that actually happened… Documentaryfilm speaks about situations and events involving real people who presentthemselves within a framework. This frame conveys a plausible perspective onthe lives, situations, and events portrayed. The distinct point of view of thefilmmaker shapes the film into a way of understanding the historical worlddirectly rather than through a fictional allegory’.
(Nichols, 2001) ‘Every documentary has its own distinctvoice’ (Nichols,2001), like a fingerprint with distinct indentations and unique characters. Documentaryis proposed to depict some characteristic of reality, primarily forinstruction, education or maintaining some form of history. Nichols recognisedsix modes of documentary in his book ‘Introduction to documentary’ (2001) foundin documentary film that function as sub-categories of the film genre; poetic,expository, participatory, observational, reflexive and performative. The sixmodes establish a loose basis of rules which filmmakers can work within, set uparrangements that a film may implement and deliver through expectations viewersanticipate having fulfilled.
However, a film recognised within a mode, does nothave to solely contain of this mode. Instead, a reflexive documentary might containfragments of observational or participatory film. The modes merely give thefilm a respectable sense of structure, but do not dictate to every facet of it. Each mode ascendsthrough a sense of discontent amongst filmmakers with a prior mode, meaningthat the six modes do carry a sense of documentary past.
An example of this iswhen the accessibility of mobile 16mm cameras and magnetic tape recorders inthe 1960’s, observational mode arose. Meaning that the poetic documentary rapidlybecame too abstract and expository became too didactic when it became possibleto film events with minimal intrusion. Throughoutthis essay, I will be discussing the observational mode. To fully understandthis essay, it is foremost vital to outline what the observational mode is andhow it is used. As detailed earlier, after developments in Canada, Europe andthe United States in the 1960’s, smaller, lighter cameras and tape recordersbecame progressively obtainable and permitted for easier access as they couldbe handled by someone solely. Dialogue became harmonised with image without theneed of bulky equipment or cables allowing for free movement around eventscenes. The independence the technology gives the filmmaker allows forobservational footage being naturally filmed with no staging, composition or arrangement.
The filmmaker can purely observe reality with a camera without interfering onits focus, arguably the smaller and lighter pieces of equipment powered thebasis of the mode. This carried through to the editing process consequential ina documentary film with no voice over, no added music or sound effects, no re-enactmentsand no interviews. Anintimate portrayal of two women living an insular existence, Grey Gardens(1975) explores a relationship of mother and daughter. Big Edie and LittleEdie, 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 appearsto live in an eternal state, where what time of day or year is utterly unrelatedto them.
Albert andDavid Maysles know as the Maysles brothers frequently used the observationaldocumentary mode throughout ‘Grey Gardens’by taking their cameras within the walls of their home and lives. The brothers formedan authentic, provocative non-fiction feature film seizing the relationshipbetween mother and daughter. The films aesthetic embraces its insufficienciesas a mould of realism. The documentary follows the observational mode methods usinga handheld camera movement and the use of diegetic sound, the story reveals unscriptedand without narration. Theexposition of Grey Gardens was done usinga montage of news offcuts showing the exposure the film was receiving. The useof 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, whilstheadlines 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 filmmakersare supportive of the characters.
The filmmakers are also seen as sightsthrough the reflection of mirrors when the characters directly address thefilmmakers. Through showing images of the brothers with their equipment, the vieweracknowledges that although the film shows the real lives of the characters, itis presented as an industrial product. ‘These ‘flaws’ in themselves seemto guarantee authenticity and thus became desirable.’ (MacDonald, 1996, p.
250). Grey Gardens is filmed as a fly on thewall film, conforming to the conventions of observational film. The handheldcamera allows the filmmakers to move easily and capture the action successfullyin a reckless method, though at times the film lacks focus and amateur. The flyon the wall technique is advanced by the use of sound due to the absence ofscripts or cues and the competition for attention. ‘The beauty of a Maysles image most often arises through itsstartling immediacy, capturing and seizing the spontaneity of a moment…. ratherthan freezing the image into one of overly aestheticized beauty.’ JoeMcElhaney – Albert Maysles University of Illinois Press 2009. McElhaney pointsout that the filmmakers being there to capture the action unfold is part of theattraction of this documentary.
Observationaldocumentary can be seen as an approach which neglects fictional basics. Thiswould suggest that all we see on screen is the ‘truth’, However, it is throughthe editorial choices that the ‘truth’ captured by the camera is given ameaningful narrative. Editing methodsused through the documentary subsidise to the disordered feel of the film, theshots are short and jump between shots quickly and frequently. This suits the meansof the story as it features highly fragmented and challenging narrativestructures through to lack of concept of time. Combinedwith image, synchronous sound is played which is fully diegetic. Inobservational documentary, the filmmaker should not produce an artificial appealto 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 musicrecords, arguments and talking over one another are some of the way sound isproduced naturally throughout the film. GreyGardens does not use a narrator, as this is additional common aspect ofobservational documentary, the believe is that the subject matter isinteresting enough and does not require explanation. ‘High School’ (1968), Frederick Wisemans’ secondfilm after the controversial ‘TiticutFollies’ (1967) is also a film that uses observational mode throughout.Wiseman began his career during the period of observational documentary in the1960’s.
However, his style is evidently unlike to other filmmakers such as Albertand David Maysles. Wiseman outlines his footage for High School through the heavy use of editing, providing an artisticform and structure for the film that is distinctively different from thechronological approach. Most observational filmmakers tend to focus on fascinatingpersons as seen in Grey Gardens motherand daughter duo, whilst Wisemans films including High School shot in Northeast high school in Philadelphia, studysocial and executive sensitivities instead.
Initially,High School, photographed by RichardLeiterman, a significant Canadian cinematographer, has a loose structuresticking to a conformist ‘day in the life of’ method. The documentary opensfilming riding in a car, seemingly on the way to school in the morning. Thefirst 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 likean industrial process. Wiseman has said that when he first saw the school, hewas struck by how much it bared a resemblance to a factory. High School views the American public-schoolexperience as a factory-like process, with the pupils becoming the socialisedand consistent products it produces. Wisemansediting rapidly reveals the films sarcastic view of public education, with thecontents of the first lesson, a Spanish lesson, seeming ironic in the contextof its presentations with the teachers approach to have the entire class dronein unison. Wiseman cuts from the Spanish lesson to the percussion lesson, withthe 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 theirbodies, clothed in identical uniforms, making them indistinguishable from oneanother. High School comprises 37 distinct segments,each one showing an episode of high-school life. Some segments, such as chorusrehearsal, are quite brief; others involve extensive dialogue. Formally, thefilm presents a challenging combination of structural sorts.
overall, the formis categorical. The main category is high-school life, and the subcategories containof typical activities: classes, student teacher confrontations, and sportsactivities. The way in which categorical, narrative, and associationalstrategies combine becomes clearer if we look at how Wiseman has selected andarranged his material. The film is not a full cross-section of high-schoollife. It omits many important aspects.
We never see the home life of studentsand faculty, and, strikingly, we never witness any conversations betweenstudents, either in class or outside ii. Wiseman has concentrated on one aspectof high school life: how the power of the authorities demands obedience frompupils and parents.The use ofthe observational mode by Wiseman reflects his view on his affiliation with histhemes. Wiseman is never presented inthe documentary, and states that it is not his profession ‘to intervene intheir lives…I want to show the reality without changing it’ (Ferguson, 1994).This lack of involvement generates a dependence on graphic and audio symbols.
Thisdocumentary is purposely manipulated in order to convey a message that is commonlyapplicable. HighSchool, thesubjects later resented their portrayal by Wiseman. They gave himcomplete access to view their lives or their lives at work and weredisappointed with Wiseman’s selective edits and the ensuing publiccriticism. 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 wouldargue that the subject is unable to fully grasp how little and how much acamera is capable of capturing, nor what kind of effect the camera will haveupon their subsequent actions. As discussed,both films use the observational mode in very different ways, where the Mayslesbrothers use fascinating characters as their subject matter, Wiseman focuses ongovernmental and social issues yet they both captured reality and life in arealistic and compelling way. Observational footage is an important part offilm as it primarily allows the viewer to have the most unbiased view of asubject matter. Although the filmmaker is at liberty to choose which pieces offilm are put in to a documentary, without the narrator there is no biasedopinions or views on the viewer.
The viewer is therefore entitled to interpretthe 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 adocumentary in order to be educated, yet with nobody telling the viewer whatthey are watching, is it possible for one to learn? How much can a person learnor understand from just looking and nobody to explain what is happening in thesituation. Although the observational mode is supposed to be the mostunobtrusive mode with least interaction and just cameras, one may argue thatthe subject matter knowing there are cameras filming them will affect theirbehaviours therefore not creating a realistic and true insight to thesituation.