Cultural theory and Documentary film


Does documentary make difference?
January 13, 2010, 19:02
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Documentary footing has proven to make difference, one notable filmclip was the police brutality towards Rodney King which was witnessed and filmed by a person through one of the windows in her apartment.
But if you think of ordinary documentaries done by professionals, I sincerely wonder about their ability to influence.

Fredrik Gertten made the documentary movie “Bananas” about bananaworkers that had been and still is risking severe damage by the poisons used by banana companies. And I wonder if somebody more, than the usual 5 percent that care about human conditions and does actions to make a difference, even would have noticed the documentary altogether.
Now the documentary hit the headlines of the big press in several countries because of the lawsuit filed by the Dole Company in order to silence the critic. And the movie and the situation of the Banna workers got noticed by very much more people than usually for conscience hitting documentary material.

Then did the documentary do any massive impact on opionion? Well Dole, for what I know, still does sell loads of bananas. The working conditions hasn´t surely improved in any great extent, with expection of a small increase in interest for Fair trade bananas.
The documentary has moved on to be shown in public theatres at least in Sweden, but it goes for only a short period in a few small saloons, and the visitors are the usual crowd of “do-gooders” that drives the whole activist and political action in the westworld…

I am sure that the documentary hadn´t even seen so much of moviesaloon´s if Dole hadn´t made such fuss of it.The lesson learned is, are you doing crooked business, just go on doing it, do not draw any attention to critics as it only exposes you. And if you are big enough just do whatever you want, the masses will keep on consuming your products if they are cheap enough…

http://www.bananasthemovie.com/



Upon Eskimoes and documentary film
July 4, 2009, 11:44
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As I am supposed to produce some 15 page report as an exam of the course “Cultural theory and the documentary film”, I thought I´d better get practising my english at once. And the way to do it is of course to blog. Just lay another grain of sand in the huge desert of abandoned blogs in the cyberuniverse. But in order to take the massive amount of reading we are supposed to do, I need this to clear things upp for myself. And is anyone else enjoyed by this, so much better.

I left university with a bachelors degree in 1999 and have on occasions thought of  maybe taking a masters exam. But as it is, I have had work and living on loan for studies is a very lean way of life not near the convenience I enjoy now, so it´s never got off to anything. But then I stumbled upon this course, made an application and got in. Hadn´t really decided to join in but as it was  the lectures was placed on afternoons in a convenient time for me to get to them. So, I went for it.

Our main books is Grant and Sloniowski´s “Documenting the Documentary” and Alison Griffiths ” Wondrous Difference”, and a thick reader to it. The first lecture was this thursday, and to my big surprise it was Alison Griffths herself who held it. I had expected some assistant lecturer making a extra buck on a summer course, so this was a real positive surprise. So now I am more inclined to actually fulfill the course. From the very beginning I thought I would jump it, if my vacation plans change, as I read this course on my vacation.

I  can testify that I much need a vacation after one year of duties and work, and then again you could think of the poor americans that often doesn´t get more than a week or ten days of summer vacation. A rotten deal in my humble opinion.

However this first lecture gave some of the framework for discussing documentary film. First we did away with some of the myths surrounding documentary film even today.  One is that calling something for a documentary automatically impedes something that is more objective than anything else. The objective statement adheres from the thought of the photographic picture as being a conveyer of something that is understood as a “real life” picture, the camera doesn´t lie idea. But, alas, as soon as  you have chosen a lens and a camera position a standpoint has been taken…

Also can people think of documentary film as a “unmediated window on the world”, but here again someone has chosen what to show and when and the angle.

There exists an idea of the documentary film as being less manipulated, less constructed than fiction. But even as the production isn´t exactly the same as the fictionproduction process, the production operates within the same technical space. You have to edit your material, you postproduction sound, mostly a soundtrack is added and so on.

And lastly somehow there exists the idea that the filmmaker exercises less control over his subjects in documentary film, everybody thinks that actors receive very exact instructions for every scene. But even in documentary there is staging going on, filmmakers choose backgrounds, tries to find the most effiicent bearer of the message in question, you have to deal with the subjects which sometimes tend to deliver what he or she thinks the filmakers wants to have from he or her instead of their original own opinion. The example of children was brought up as culprits in these matters, when they for an example,  doesn´t answer to question as they really think, but as how they think a satisfying answer to a grown-up should be…

I think the myths are encouraged in television very much to differ the documentary from the fictional entertainment they mostly show, if it isn´t of course a pure documentary channel. This is done in various ways to display that the film is from “the reality itself”.

Then on the contrary we got on to some facts that seems to really apply to documentary film.

Firslty documentary shares a indexical bond with reality: indexical power leads to belief in objectivity. That is, that if the documantary isn´t a fake, there is some obvious things that are for real, these people where at the stated place at that time, the buildings looked like this in that place in that angel and in that light. Things were said, done and could be studied upon.

Secondly, documnetary is highly mediated & constructed relying on a set of conventions (rules about how to represent the world).
Which means that in order to produce an interesting film the makers tend to use common strategies to make the film understandable. In class we suggested, problems solutions formula, conflicts, talking heads, music and sound effects, characterbuilding as conventions by which filmmakers operate to make films readable for spectators.,

Which leads on to the third conclusion of documentary film, it operates with the similar strategies and structures as fictional filmmaking.

The fourth statement about documentary that it is always an act of intervention as the camera is an intruder to the situation that is portrayed, the physical appearance of camera and crew is a obtrusion to the reality you want to document.  Today although there is more possibilites of using the hidden camera, but that wasn´t discusssed at this point.

And lastly documentary means a heftier investment often emotionally by the viewer. Often the question after the documentaries ending lingers on, as to what happended to those portrayed after the films ending… A question that normally doesn´t arise after a fictional movie.

A note I did in my mind was the difficulty to find good protagonists for a documentary. In class there was the example of Michael Moores “Sicko” documentary, he called out for examples of the american sickinsurance system and got thousands of stories to  choose from to make his film. By the way, which is a very good example of a documentary that drives a point, by choosen examples and drastical comparison´s. And very obviously not objective but driving a statement.

I have myself indulged in doing some recordings of relatives life stories, and one was a hilarious storyteller and the other was so ultimately boring although some parts had a good history in it. So who portrays the boor´s?

The screening this time was a classic apparently in the documentary field, of course hadn´t I heard of that special film before this day. Robert Flaherty´s “Nanook of the North” , about a eskimo family in the 1920´s. It was a description about their life but mostly pictures of the man hunting in difficult circumstances. I think the film was shot very straight on with a tripod camera standing still, sometimes very near, sometimes  a bit away. It was hard to see any cinematographic special values in the camerawork, other than it´s easy to see that the filmning itself surely meant some hardships for the cameracrew. The film had a soundtrack of a violinorchestra which was used to strengthen the emotionalities in the hunt, in play and so on. But for the modern viewer the soundtrack mostly sounded awful and made me  distanced from the film and encouraged me to see it as a historical artefact of some sort. The historicity was also brought upon by the bad quality of the filmpicture.

The critical voices of the film as racial I don ´t recognise of the footage in itself, but the text was typical of the times, were the eskimoes were refered to as as “happy, friendly” in context simple beings.

What made this picturea success attracting many viewers? I think that it was the contrast to our lives in the western world. The grim hunt for something to eat, which often was eaten raw, the massively unfriendly surroundings these people live in, must made a impression, and it made an impression to me anyway even today. Alison made a comparison with a later documentary that Flaherty also did about original inhabitants at a southern island which didn´t succced likewise. But I think this fully understandable upon the difference in lifecircumstances, a sunny place is a lot nearer to us than the cold miles of ice in the north.

© Seppo Laine 090704