Dallas — Last month I began teaching a summer documentary production class at the University of Texas at Arlington. It is by far the best way to run a documentary class: students can go off and follow their subject and not worry about missing other classes, and over the year many great docs have been created in this intense workshop.
Usually I start the class with a discussion of what is a documentary. The first Google definition is a movie or a television or radio program that provides a factual record or report.
Wikipedia says, in part: “A documentary film is a nonfictional motion picture intended to document some aspect of reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction, education, or maintaining a historical record.”
Vocabulary.com says: “A documentary is a film or video examining an event or person based on facts. The word can also refer to anything involving documents.”
Both are very good but it is hard to define exactly what a documentary is.
At their heart documentary films (videos, TV shows, YouTube videos, gifs or even selfies) in some way have a profound negation with truth. That relationship has always been a moving target.
In the beginning, the Lumiere brothers shot people coming out of a factory (view it here), and later came The Kiss (1896) by Thomas Edison. In both of these early films the static camera is a passive observer of life in front of it, with very little artifice between the maker, the subject and the audience. The idea was to capture what was real and show it to an audience.
In 1922, Robert Flaherty took his cameras out to capture the life of the Inuit in the actual arctic called Nanook of the North, or better yet get the Criterion disc it is quite beautifully. He lived up there, shot the film there and processed the film there. He tells the story of what life is like there—fishing, whale hunting and family life all are portrayed. This was great cultural anthropology. This was the era when white explorers wanted to find out what the “savage world” was about.
It was the first documentary feature film hit. However, much of it was made up. Nanook was not his name and much of what is portrayed in the film was done in his father’s generation. Rather than observing what was happening, Flaherty told him what to do.
Does this matter? Thus the battle of truth and the document begins.
Movie theaters would show newsreels before features. These were visualizations of radio news and in some way, were precursors to today’s TV news. They were often shot without sound so they have heavy-handed, sometimes pun-filled voiceovers. The most notorious of these was the The March of Time (1935) from Time Life. They would fabricate visuals for the stories they could not shoot, and pawned it off as “news”—perhaps this was the first example of “fake news.” Henry Luce, the head of Time Life, famously described what they did as “fakery in allegiance to the truth.” Just pause and think about this for a moment.
This dance between truth and the documentary goes way back. As the documentary tradition evolves there are distinct threads or subgenres, such as the anthropologic doc. In these there are the questions when Westerners shoot the video—are we being true to seeing the culture? We should give the cameras and let the subjects shoot themselves in the way they actually are and then do we need to have them edit it? When we do that, are we teaching them a linear, Western sense of editing time? Where can we draw the line that we are fully representing the culture as it is it not as we see it?
Then there is the Direct Cinema experience in which the cameraman is a fly on the wall, observing with the camera and then creating the storyline though editing. This genre was developed by Robert Drew famously in Primary (1960), and the Maysles brothers with Salesman (1969) and many other great films. For them, you don’t tell the subject what to do—if the light does not look good, don't move the light. The filmmaker does not change the world; they observe the world.
For a long time, this was the dominant method of documentary, and the shaky camera and sometime out-of-focus shots are code for “this is truth.”
I remember seeing a panel with Direct Cinema guys Al Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker, and Ricky Leacock, as well as Buddy Squires, the cameraman for Ken Burns. The D.C. guys merciless attacked Buddy for not making work that was truly documentary.
This gets turned around with the bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron (1977). This doc has the look and feel of a Direct Cinema work but while they were making it they would have Arnold Schwarzenegger repeat a line and get another camera angle, and then cut it in a three-act dramatic structure. One could say this was the beginning of reality TV.
Since then the documentary has grown in many directions. Errol Morris created stylized recreations of different versions of the events in The Thin Blue Line (1988) so that many of them were indeed false representations. There were a lot of discussions that this should have been eligible for an Oscar, but at that time it did not fit the Academy’s definition of a documentary.
Moving further away from the fly-on-the-wall approach is the animated documentary. We have shown many of these at Dallas VideoFest but perhaps the best known examples are Waltz with Bashir (2008) and Tower (2016). In both cases the animation was to distance the audience from the horrors of the experience and see it in a new way. But in both, the audio is real so they are indeed documentaries.
What is a documentary and can you ever portray reality in a film? According to the Heisenberg principle of uncertainty, the act of observing something changes it. So, one can say that the filmmaker’s presence makes what is being observed different. I know this to be true, but I also know that after a while the subject’s sense of the camera can dissipate.
How we shoot, where the light is, and many other factors we can make a subject seem favorable or not. Simply by moving the lights so you can’t see into someone’s eyes can make the person seem less trustworthy. If the audio is bad you tend to not discount what someone is saying, so a filmmaker can shape your opinion of what a subject is saying; in fact, most documentary filmmakers have social concerns and expect you to see their point of view—thus, the difference between subjective (documentary) and objective (journalism). But many people have the expectation that a documentary must be journalistic, and indeed the problem comes when there is a difference between the filmmaker and audience expectation.
I used to say that a documentary is a film with a high level of truthiness, to use a term coined by Stephen Colbert.
But now we have a problem: All of this depends on having a shared notion of what is real and what is a fact. The current president has systematically destroyed that by telling lies almost every day and changing his story. This may have been a great strategy when doing real estate, but as president he has made the word of the United States unreliable. What is a documentarian to do when there is no sense of absolute truth anymore? Lies that are provable are promulgated and repeated; if there is not truth, how do you separate nonfiction from fiction?
What do I call documentary film now? You must come to my class to find out. I would be happy to see how you define it, so post your thoughts in the comment section.
» Bart Weiss is an award-winning independent film and video producer, director, editor, and educator who has lived in Dallas since 1981. Mr. Weiss has taught film and video production at Texas A&M’s Visualization Lab, Southern Methodist University, the University of Texas at Austin and Arlington, Dallas Community College District and West Virginia State College. He currently serves as President of the Board of Directors of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, serves on the Board of Directors of the University Film and Video Association, is a past Vice President of the Texas Association of Film and Tape Professionals, founder and past president of the West Virginia Filmmakers’ Guild, and co-founder of VideoFest and the Video Association of Dallas. He has been a video columnist for The Dallas Morning News, The Dallas Times Herald, United Features Syndicate and KERA 90.1 FM Radio in Dallas. Mr. Weiss received an MFA in Film Directing from Columbia University in 1978 and a B.A. from Temple University in 1975. Bart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
» Film Notes with Bart Weiss runs on the first or second Monday of the month.
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