Whatever may have been the case in years gone by, the true use for the imaginative faculty of modern times is to give ultimate vivification to facts, to science, and to common lives, endowing them with the glows and glories and final illustriousness which belong to every real thing, and to real things only. – Walt Whitman
The Cambridge Dictionary tells us that the word, “documentary”, comes from the Latin "documentum" – meaning ‘a lesson, example, or warning’; from docere, which means ‘to teach’. But apart from those documentaries whose purpose it is to impart raw data in the form of techniques, methods and processes (e.g.: “how to build an ant farm”), what does the documentary – any documentary - offer by way of instruction?
In a word, it offers EVIDENCE; and when done well, it does so compellingly.
The art of documentary is the facility to compel an audience’s imaginative involvement with its subject by promoting an intellectual and emotional engagement with what is "actual" Whatever its subject matter, the dramatic documentary seeks to enlarge or enhance in its audience a more complete understanding and appreciation of actual people, places, and events, by making them as fully present as possible. Sometimes, as is the case with cinema verite, the documentarist assumes a “fly-on-wall” perspective, purportedly recording the life and living experience of its subject as it actually occurs, though the verite element – unless executed in secret – is often impacted or polluted by the presence of the filmmaker (“observer effect”), and almost always by the decisions that the filmmaker/editor makes in the edit suite.
Perhaps the simplest description that can be made concerning the documentary film is that it is the cinematic application or assignment of meaning to reality, in distinction to “fictional” narratives that tend to assign “reality” to meaning (premise/theme).
Because reality is essentially unknowable, people seek clues to it in the life around them. Documentary filmmakers tell their stories to make sense of their experience and of their feelings for that experience. However, there is also an ironic side to it. No doubt, the experience of making a documentary impacts upon the filmmaker’s understanding of that experience, but so too do the meanings that a filmmaker assigns to the film and its subject (his/her prejudices, assumptions, expectations and secondhand knowledge) determine the nature and variety of the evidence that is available and accessible to him/her.
There is also a sense in which one realizes that the most potent elements of any documentary are invisible. One might even go so far as to say that a filmmaker examines the visible in order to find the invisible; employing the sayable and heard in order to express the unsayable and unheard.
What is visible belongs to time and space – to history: the naked details of measurable actions and reactions as these are described and quantified by any sociologist, statistician or historian – but film documentary, when conceived and realized with the grammar relevant to drama, creates a sense of participation, involvement, and interaction by applying meaning to reality in the form of story. If a story is to be effective, however (i.e.: emotionally compelling and memorable) – indeed, one might say if it is to be a story at all! – it must not only be dramatic, but must also provide evidence – dramatic evidence – about something that actually matters.
In terms of documentary filmmaking, the filmmaker’s chief concern must be with is CONTENT, and content is “newsworthiness” – that is, any action (or series of actions) that is momentous, rare, or arresting.
As storytellers we are the custodians of many “dreamings”. Those dreamings that offer unusual insights and inspiration concerning who and what we are; that provoke ideas that impact on our well-being and the well-being of those with whom we identify, are newsworthy. They impel our sympathies and rouse our courage and curiosity. In short, they have value, offering lessons in living in the form of dramatic actions and events that show us what life is like - or has been like – and what it might become.
If a documentary is to compel our interest as well as our sympathies, the story finder/filmmaker will need to navigate the actual with some instinct for drama. He/she must be able to recognize it wherever it appears, in whatever guise, and enter it, re-construct it, and work with it, whilst all the time managing the anxieties created by its appearance and provocations. It is a task ill-suited to those who have little faith in “the withness of the Universe”.
As is nearly always the case, the primary issue at the heart of almost every dramatic story – including dramatic documentaries - involves a relationship, or several relationships, that provides the emotional context for the evidence presented, and whose ultimate success or failure commands our attention by provoking both hope and dread. Whether the focus is upon a family (Brother’s Keeper), an organization (Enron, the Smartest Guys in the Room), humanity's problematical and unpredictable associations and struggles with its surroundings (Up The Yangtze), or that complex web of dynamic conflict and collaboration by which the physical environment prospers or is impoverished (Darwin’s Nightmare), the dramatic documentary provides much more than the naked “facts”.
The dramatic presentation of evidence is the presentation of evidence embedded with problems, goals and plans, as expressed and given form in the living words and actions of those "characters" with whom the documentary is concerned.
As with other forms of drama, the central questions are: Who wants what? Why do they want it? Who (or what) is (or has been) stopping them from getting it, and why?
The issues raised by these questions and the strategies employed by the characters in order to solve or overcome the problems or opportunities with which they are faced, form the grammatical spine of every dramatic documentary. As the filmmaker uncovers the emotional energies that lie buried in the characters' needs, hopes and fears, the grammar facilitates in the apprehension of the emotional significance of the so-called facts, continually guiding both filmmaker and audience back to the impetus for action – to the characters’ needs and objectives, as well as the risks. It also assists the filmmaker in becoming ever more sensitive to the selection and rhythmic ordering of events, thus enabling the effective building of emotional energy. As is the case with any drama, as the emotional relevance of the evidence builds we begin to care about what we are seeing and hearing.
At the heart of every dramatic story is a problem or opportunity that must be overcome, addressed or exploited if one is to have a chance of achieving one’s goal. Stated in another way, the effective chronicling of relationships requires conflict or disconnection to make it newsworthy.
Conflict is what separates the dramatic documentary from home movies. In the dramatic documentary there is always something at risk. The higher the stakes the bigger the drama. Every dramatic rendering of factual events - in contradistinction to the "dramatized documentary" - works to draw the audience into the matrix of relationships, and thus, into an emotional relationship with those whose actions are driving the story. It is the drama that gives us a chance to identify with the characters, what they are doing, and what is happening to them.
Dramatic, factional storytelling, like fictional storytelling, requires characters that, in the act of grappling with a problem or opportunity of some magnitude, are actively pursuing a plan of action that will enable them to overcome their problem or seize and make a success of an opportunity. The key word here is “grappling”, because the quest must provide a challenge that includes risk, threat and the possibility of failure.
The quest need not be world-shattering. It can be intimate and thoroughly insidious as in the endless and subtle power struggles that transpire between mother and daughter in Grey Gardens. Or in the seemingly impossible quest for approval, partnership and love as presented in Sherman’s March. What is important is that the human or human-like characters are striving to attain perceivably important goals or objectives, whether it be to win a spelling bee (Spellbound), a court case (The Staircase), to get down a mountain (Touching the Void), or to help a disabled relative become independent (Best Boy). Unless there is someone in whom we can invest our hope and belief, someone who carries out the “good fight”, who risks all for justice, or truth or love, or life, there will be little reason to care.
In the film, Bus 174, a former street-kid bails up a city bus in Rio de Janeiro, taking a dozen hostages and demanding a weapon and a flight out of Brazil. The film presents not only the chronicle of the siege – one young man surrounded by hundreds of armed policemen and countless television cable news services – but also an intimate look at the life and times of the hostage-taker and the relationships and disconnections that led him to board bus 174 on that fateful day. What it shows us is a man in need of a gun and a ride out of down; what it conveys is how society makes victims out of what it perceives as its weakest, and how the absence of human understanding and love is the crime of the century, every century.
In 1947, Frederick Lewis Allen wrote: “One of the strangest things about the Depression was that it was so nearly invisible to the casual eye (and to the camera for that matter). To be sure, the streets were less crowded with trucks than they had been, many shops stood vacant… and chimneys which should have been smoking weren’t doing so. But these were all negative phenomena. There just didn’t seem to be many people about.” One could “almost feel” the Great Depression, but it was not something that you could automatically see, simply by gazing out your window.
We examine the visible to find the invisible, the sayable and heard in order to discover the unsayable and unheard.
The art of documentary is to make the invisible visible.
Films mentioned in this article and highly recommended::
Up the Yangtze
Touching the Void
Enron - The Smartest Guys in the Room