Final Project – Documentary and Essay

Over the course of this entire semester, we have studied various approaches to documentary filmmaking. As we have read and viewed works belonging to each mode, we have come to a clear understanding of how each method works. Each one, unique and distinct in its own nature, provides filmmakers with the opportunity to document reality. Bill Nichols, the author of one of our class textbooks Introduction to Documentary, related how documentary has the power to speak “about situations and events involving real people (social actors) who present themselves within a framework” (Nichols 10). However loose or constructed this framework is designed, documentary can be a powerful tool. Whether artists choose to document an expository or an observational film, each technique merits talent and thoughtful consideration. As our semester was coming to a close, I considered what I might want my final documentary to say. I came to the conclusion that I wanted my final project to be a personal and meaningful one. Seeing as a large part of my identity is largely dependent on me being a twin, I chose to explore this realm of individuality. I found that my film could not be told in solely one of the modes studied this semester, and instead seems to overlap and interweave between a few of the approaches. My short film qualifies to be autobiographical, participatory, performative, and even dips its toe in the poetic area. Each mode is distinguishable and inspired by different techniques and films illustrated in their field. 

Intuitively, artists thrive on expression. Through various mediums and methods, they communicate to audiences their thoughts and feelings. Filmmakers, even documentarians, are the same.  The autobiographical mode is one that documentary filmmakers use as an almost “diaristic model” where they can tell audiences their honest thoughts (Nichols 150). A filmmaker’s perspective and experiences are heavily weighed. The entire plot structure of the film illustrates a moment in time or perception that the filmmaker had once experienced. Through personal archival footage, and simply the way the documentary is shot, individual stories are told. Deborah Hoffmann’s Complaints of a Dutiful Daughteris a clear example of this approach. Although the story revolves around the event of her mother, Hoffmann fashions the film around her personal experience of dealing with her mother’s advancing Alzheimer’s disease. Through her personal monologues or archived footage, Hoffmann tells her side of the story. Deborah essentially writes the story, not her mother. She has chosen to utilize the platform of autobiographical documentary to communicate her perspective. Inspired by this brilliantly constructed documentary, I found myself wanting to express my personal experience and view of what it feels like to be a twin. Although the subject of my “twin-ness” is something I confront on a daily basis, I had never truly explored telling an audience what it truly feels like. I was fascinated with the idea of how I could communicate the different levels of depth and meaning that I face regularly when it comes to being a twin. 

Any twin will tell you that they are bombarded with questions, quite regularly. It’s just something that comes with being a twin. But what most curious inquisitors don’t fully realize is that depending on the questions they ask, a twin may perceive the level of effort or genuineness, and therefore react accordingly. To fully convey this message, I split my documentary into three sections – the surface level questions and interactions that twins deal with, the more sincere efforts made by others to get to know us, and the ultimate realization where others see us as individual human beings. I chose to explore this change in tone and mood through a somewhat poetic mode approach.  Nichols explains that when images are purposefully arranged and organized in a certain manner, they can convey a rhythm or tone (Nichols 112). Like Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, I juxtaposed certain clips next to each other, so that I could communicate a new meaning. For example, in the surface-level effort section of my film, I included several clips of my twin sister Lacey and I walking around campus. Our faces are obscured, either because of reflections, angling, or shadows. I chose to put these clips here because I wanted to create a mood that shows audiences that at this stage in the interaction, we are not seen for who we are individually, but rather for the rarity of our pair-ness and duo presence. Similarly, in the second stage of my film, I included pictures of Lacey and I together throughout our lives, showing that once people make the effort to get to know us, they are able to become a little more familiar with who we are together. Finally, in the third section, I only included long takes of either my face or Lacey’s face talking directly to the camera. This helped create the focus that we are each individual human beings with our own thoughts and opinions. No images or video clips overshadowed our separate time in front of the camera, because this is where we were as honest and real with the audience as we could be. I was grateful for the poetic mode’s ability to help pace and stylize my film, creating an even deeper layer to the meaning of the film. 

Following the nature of my film, I evidently was a main contributor to the story’s progression. For lack of a better word, I was a participator. In this sense, my film, that explores a huge aspect of my life, was a participatory documentary.  Nichols describes how in this mode, filmmakers “speak with them for you” (Nichols 138). Participatory documentaries stem back several centuries.  One of the earliest filmmakers to experiment with being an active participant in their own films was Jean Rouch, a French filmmaker. Alongside Edgar Morin, these two artists approached civilians on the Paris streets and questioned them, in presence and view of the camera, whether they were happy or not. Erik Barnouw, author of DocumentaryA History of the Non-Fiction Film explains how at the time of their experimentations, “the Algerian war […] had sickened and split the nation – and had aggravated crisis in economics, race relations, education,” but all of that seemed to coming to an end. It was at such a crucial time in history where these citizens could reflect, and Rouch and Morin wanted to capture that. This approach evolved into the Rouch cinema verite, where the artist was an “avowed participant”  (Barnouw 253-5). Several films exhibited throughout the semester mirrored Rouch’s approach. Ross McElwee is one example in his documentary Sherman’s March. Although initially intended to explore the American Civil War campaign, McElwee’s film evolves into his own story, one where he is a crucial participant. His camera essentially is the window to his eye, illustrating to the audience his perception and interpretation of the experiences he goes through. Just about two decades before, the participatory mode was coming on scene. As illustrated through Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s experiments, the 1960s “were a thus a period in which the ideas of a […] far more participatory mode (also known as cinema verity) gained prominence” (Nichols 21). This mode emphasized engagement and interaction. It presents an arena where the filmmaker can refer to the past in the present. Demonstrating the importance of personal interactions, the participatory mode often utilizes interviews (Nichols 109). Those interviews in turn evolve into conversations, collaboration, and maybe even confrontation (Nichols 138). Throughout it all, the filmmaker’s presence and the camera’s presence, significantly affect the tone of the film. Inspired by these important trailblazers and techniques, I decided that the only way to accurately convey my thoughts and feelings in my twin documentary was to be an active participant in it myself. I wanted to personally, honestly, authentically tell, as Nichols explains, what it feels like to be in a situation. There was no other better expert on the subject than my twin sister and I. Somewhat inspired by Trinh T. Minh-ha’s documentary Surname Viet Given Name Nam, I constructed my interviews, in the sense that I organized the “questions” that audiences typically ask Lacey and me. Those questions were constructed, much like the interviews in Minh-ha’s documentary are. However, wanting to be an authentic and active participant, our responses to the questions were un-scripted, and instead we spoke from our hearts in the moment while the camera was rolling. These emphases on the interaction between myself, the filmmaker and the subject, as well as with my other subject, my sister, created a dynamic that is not regularly explored. Nonetheless, I was satisfied with the result, and felt that we were accurately portrayed and given the chance to each express our thoughts.

The final technique explored throughout my short film was the performative documentary mode. It is within this mode, that filmmakers eliminate the sole reliance on knowledge, and instead revert to experiences of a deeper degree of honesty, where subjects can re-create the perception of their world. I was captivated with this idea of honesty, and in hindsight, I believe I have never been as honest in any film I have ever made. As a filmmaker, I had to be willing to wear my heart on my sleeve if I wanted to create a reliable atmosphere for my audience. Nichols describes how filmmakers who use a performative documentary mode, “help us sense what a certain situation or experience feels like. They want us to feel on a visceral level more than understand on a conceptual level” (Nichols 151). Filmmakers must rely on using their personal voice and point of view, in turn becoming heavily subjective (Nichols 150).  This subjectivity, although initially appearing limiting, can provide fruitful opportunities for filmmakers to act as embodiments of knowledge where introspection, testimonials, and expressivity is celebrated (Nichols 109). One example of such an approach can be found in Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, Errol Morris’s documentary. Following the experiences of four separate men with unique jobs, the camera presents these individuals with a platform of expression, where they can relive every detail and aspect of their experiences. Whether it be through sit down interviews or re-creations of the events, their stories are told to a tee. Encouraged by these moving documentaries, I felt as though the performative mode was a perfect approach to my topic. As I described above, in order to truly deliver the message of what it feels like to be a twin, I designed my film to be separated into three units. The first, representing surface-level interactions, is set in a classroom setting, with footage from an academic, formal, school location. I chose this as the surrounding for these sorts of interactions because they are the most common. Usually, curiosity strikes observes in these temporary settings as we pass them by in school or on the street. And before we know it, someone is stopping us to ask us questions. The classroom setting also alludes to the expertise versus inquisitorial dynamic that is created when people ask us about being twins. In a sense, my twin and I are the experts, the professors, and the scholars on what it’s like being twins. Those who ask us are basically the students, learning from our insights. But like the school setting is set up, personal connections, genuine interest,  and authenticity is rarely explored between teachers and students. It is simply a formal situation, and this is exactly what those interactions feel like. The second performative re-creation that I explored was set in my apartment’s living room. Here, the questions become a little more personal, and the camera inches a little closer to our faces. Juxtaposed between our answers are photographs of Lacey and I throughout our lives. This setting becomes a little more personal, because these sorts of questions took a little more effort on the inquisitor’s part. And yet, still we are seen together and answering questions as a duo. The final preformative scenario that we illustrated in my documentary is set in our bedroom. The camera frames around only one individual’s face, either Lacey or myself. We stare directly into the camera. The duration of the clips are extended and rarely cut up. This is what it feels like when someone takes the time to know us each individually as separate human beings. We each have our own interests and perspectives, and as twins, that often gets overlooked. 

Since early cinema, documentary has evolved and transformed, introducing along the way new methods of approach. This semester we had the wonderful experience of exploring each mode of documentary. As a final closing chapter to our newfound knowledge, we were given the opportunity to choose one or more modes to use in our final documentary projects. Wanting to create a meaningful short film, I decided to incorporate four modes – autobiographical, poetic, participatory, and performative in my documentary about being a twin. The autobiographical mode was heavily strung throughout the film, as my thoughts and opinions were constantly being illustrated. Juxtaposing clips and images, I used the poetic mode to create a mood, rhythm and tempo for my film. The participatory mode was evident in every sense as I used my own voice to perpetuate the story. And finally, the performative mode was illustrated in the way that I structured and recreated the feelings and experiences that I have been through. Each mode so gracefully enhanced my video in one-way or another, working together and balancing each other, until they were able to fully create an authentic representation that I felt adequately represented my perspective.  

Online Response 5 – Politics & Nation State

One of documentary’s most effective characteristics is its ability to highlight the world around us. Our world has so much to offer, and documentary helps to document it. Politics, nation states, or society can prove to be influential subjects, often posing a variety of questions surrounding the ethics of filmmaking and representing others. When creating documentaries about politics and nation states, filmmakers must question how they might avoid stereotyping certain people and instead remain authentic and respectful. When filmmakers are able to gracefully demonstrate society through a reliable and courteous frame, powerful films are made. Two such films were presented in class. Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber’s Peace Officerand Jesse Moss’s The Overnighters. While these documentaries appear on the surface to be a distant representation of society, they can have the power to personally connect with all audiences and individuals.

It can be easy to assume while watching a documentary that the viewer will solely passively watch the film and not be affected. Films involving politics, society, and nation states however, demonstrate an interesting dynamic between the audience, the subjects, and the filmmaker. Bill Nichols, author of Introduction to Documentary, explains that documentaries have a “complex weave of identities, voices, and times that constitute national identity as a fragile, multi faceted entity” (Nichols 185). Managing this can be difficult, but many filmmakers have successfully done so. In Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber’s Peace Officer,the directors create an interesting situation for audiences as they watch and hear sit-down interviews with both sides of the story adamantly testifying their opinions. On one hand the militarized police officers swear by using violence. Juxtaposed with their strong opinions, pleading victims of SWAT team forces personally demonstrate the affect of these traumatic attacks. Audiences watch in awe at the impact these societal issues have had on living people, and soon they realize that the film is in fact “focus[ed] on the individual rather than the social issue” (Nichols 187). These emotional testaments ring in the ears of audiences and viewers, most of who come to the theater with various background experiences and opinions. With such polarized opinions in Peace Officer, audiences bring with them the ability to connect and relate to the story being told on screen, and in the end, whether they believe it or not, they are changed by what they have seen. This is one of documentary’s most powerful abilities as it shows real people, real stories.

Another film that follows this same structure is Jesse Moss’s The Overnighters, a film about a North Dakota pastor who opens the church’s doors to homeless men and women. This film is one that most audiences might not feel an immediate connection to, but as the story unfolds, it is easy to see how the documentary isn’t exclusively focused on a societal issue, but rather many different struggles individuals are dealing with, including the pastor. This documentary helps to provide a voice for marginalized groups (Nichols 174). Although difficult, the filmmaker Jesse Moss had to restrain from getting involved in the story, such as warning the pastor about a controversial publishing in the newspaper, in order to remain authentic to the story unfolding. It is through the demonstration of vulnerability and emotional reveals that this film helps connect with audiences on another level. If the filmmaker had intervened and adjusted the truth and natural course of events from coming to the surface, the film would not have been as effective. Instead, it stands as an incredibly moving documentary that deals with a variety of issues from charity to adultery to homelessness.

Documentaries that feature society and all of its complex issues can have powerful impacts on audiences. Although on the surface they may seem to be observational documents of community and civilization, there are often beautifully personal connections to be found within. Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber’s Peace Officerdelivers a film filled with high stakes as opposing opinions clash over a sensitive topic of the militarization of SWAT teams in Utah. Audiences are given the opportunity to digest and contemplate the story that is unfolding in their very community. Jesse Moss’s The Overnighterssimilarly provides a heartfelt story of homelessness and compassion, which unexpectedly takes a turn toward betrayal. It is an emotional film that causes audiences to contemplate the intricacies presented. Both films, alongside many others, prompt audiences to feel emotionally connected and moved by the stories that are happening in their very communities.

Works Cited

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary, Third Edition, Indiana University Press, 2017.

Documentary Mode 3: Autobiographical

In my life I have discovered that one of the hardest questions to answer is one of the most common ones – where are you from? Usually when I have been confronted with this question, I have to make an instant decision – do they want the short answer or the long one? Most people asking the question are looking for the location where you grew up. The truth is, in my heart, no single oneplace feels like home. For me, it’s more like eight places. I decided this honest reflection would be the perfect subject for my autobiographical documentary – an authentic look at the places that have made me who I am today; the places I call home.

I was born in Seattle Washington, where I lived for only a few months. At just six months old, I boarded my first flight to Bountiful, Utah, living on the hill with my family for six years. My family then moved to La Dehesa in Santiago Chile, where I began kindergarten and studied up through fourth grade. At age eight, we moved to Las Condes Santiago Chile, where my parents served as Mission Presidents. At a very young age there, I grew up surrounded by hundreds of missionaries, which felt like having several hundred brothers and sisters. At age eleven, my family and I moved to St. George, Utah, living there for two years. Next, we moved in Salt Lake City, Utah for another two years. It was the summer before high school when we moved to Guatemala City, Guatemala, where I spent my four years of high school. After graduation, I moved to Provo, Utah to study at Brigham Young University, where I currently am today. Home to me really means three different countries and eight different homes.

In class we discussed how autobiographical documentaries don’t necessarily have specific techniques or parameters. Autobiographical documentaries aren’t supposed to be shot one certain way. They are interpretative and meaningful to filmmakers, often relating to them on a personal level. Deborah Hoffman’sComplaints of a Dutiful Daughter, and Nanfu Wang’s I Am Another Youinspired me.Hoffman demonstrates an honest and vulnerable documentary that portrays life’s events from her perspective, showing the audience how she perceived and interpreted different situations and periods of her life. Wang illustrated emotions and experiences through re-enactments. She often held a camera observing the world all around her, documenting the moments as they happened. Stemming off of this concept, I presented my interpretation of home in my documentary by using maps, globes, atlases, audio, and royalty free stock footage.

I decided to take my audience on a visual journey through the places I call home, quite literally showing every step of the way including the sights and sounds of home, travel, and moving.  I introduced each new home with a visualization from Google maps, atlases, or physical paper maps. I was also able to get shots of the several exteriors of my homes around the world. Like Nanfu Wang, I wanted to recreate the feelings of the moment. I did this by implementing audio clips and sounds from each new place. Whether it was the heart monitor beeping in Seattle Washington, symbolizing the hospital where I was born, or the energetic Latin bands that played at street markets in Guatemala,, or the dusty wind blowing in St. George, I used audio to illustrate what those homes felt like to me. Alan Berliner’s Nobody’s Business, used a variety of sit down interviews, where different people voiced their points of view about someone or something. I thought this was an applicable approach for my documentary. Like the subjects in Berliner’s documentary, I voiced my interpretation of home through the autobiographical documentary mode.

Documentary Mode 2: Participatory


As creative and passionate artists, it is not uncommon for filmmakers to become one with their films, engaging with the action so much that they, too, become a part of the narrative. This approach can often be described as the participatory documentary mode, where emphasis is made on the filmmaker’s involvement. This method of documentary can be captivating, giving artists a platform to actually use their voices and presence in the unfolding story. However, many times as a filmmaker tries to collaborate with others, other subjects may shy away or at least act unnaturally. Given the presence of a camera in the room and the filmmaker listening in on the action, this is understandable. There is still beauty in the nature of these modes where a filmmaker is given the opportunity to engage themselves with the subjects, something not many other modes provide.

With this technique in mind, I was fascinated with the concept of actually being a part of my film. I wanted to tell a story that meant something to me. I decided to highlight a situation that has been going on at my apartment complex with my roommates, neighbors, and myself. I used the participatory mode to tell our story because it is something that has affected everyone, including myself. Over the past two years our apartment complex has dealt with faulty balcony doors that literally fall out of their frames, sometimes crashing on tenants. Two of my roommates have even been injured because of it.

Weighing the severity of this situation, I wanted to contribute my voice and insights to the story. I did so by creating a discussion and conversation with a few of my roommates and neighbor. Bill Nichols, the author of Introduction to Documentary, explains that within the participatory mode, “filming takes place by means of interviews and other forms of even more direct involvement, such as conversations and provocations (Nichols 22).” I applied this technique in my video, by using interviews to tell the story. I knew that if I were able to actually talk with my interview subjects, instead of solely expecting them to provide all the information on the whim, the story would unfold more smoothly. Nichols describes how a filmmaker’s questions can turn into conversations (Nichols 137). This is exactly what I aimed to do. With each question I asked, I was able to steer the conversation to the way I wanted it to go. Much like Errol Morris’s film Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, my film is simply a conversation between the filmmaker and the subjects through the technique of talking heads.

While it was exciting to be a part of the film myself, there was an obvious layer of inauthenticity to it. Most filmmakers realize that the presence of a camera can affect how subjects or actors behave or perform. My film was no stranger to this. I found that my friends behaved, even unconsciously, different than usual. This was understandable however, as Nichols explains that a filmmaker’s presence can often impact the film overall. In our class discussion we talked about one film that demonstrated this effect. Ross McElwee’s film Sherman’s March, presents audiences with a variety of interviews and conversations between McElwee and different women. Some of the women become incredibly shy when the camera points at them, whereas others embrace the audience and perform in front of the camera. In the participatory fashion, McElwee reacts to these reactions, because his film is just as much a part of his story as it is theirs. While the participatory mode creates an interesting dynamic between the subjects and the filmmaker, it is still a documentary mode worth exploration.

Filmmaking provides artists a podium to express themselves. In fact, an even more direct approach can be found within the participatory mode, where the emphasis is placed on the filmmakers engaging with the story and subjects. Captivated by this idea, I used this technique to tell the story of my apartment’s faulty balcony doors through interviews and conversations. Participatory documentary can sometimes create an uncommon setting, but even so, it helps to provide a situation where everyone can voice his or her thoughts, even the filmmaker.

Works Cited

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary, Third Edition, Indiana University Press, 2017.

Pop Quiz – Group Reflexive Documentary

  • One technique that we used was our discussion of representation. Although our interview appeared to have been focused on Chris with our questions like “What makes you, you?” both Will and I turned our cameras to focus on each other. This is reflexive because we were more concerned with the filmmakers than the actual subject. 
  • The next element we used was the difference of close ups and far away shots of Chris. These drastic changes to the audiences’ eyes allowed them to be aware that there was a camera present and that editing had been established, therefore become less natural than it could have been. 
  • Another element of reflexivity that we used was our direction on telling Chris how to say something. We originally had planned to write an entire script out for Chris to read, but at the last minute we scratched that idea and decided to question him with another idea. At one point Will is even seen discussion how the interview will unfold with Chris – which is reflexive because it shows how the filmmakers are in charge of everything.
  • We also used the technique of unpacking realism by rewinding all the way back to when we were sitting in class, discussing what we wanted to film. Leesie is seen talking about how we are going to write a script for Chris. This shows reflexivity again because of how we had planned every aspect of the interview before we even started. 
  • Finally, our last element was the fact that throughout the interview we switched positions/couches for Chris and Will to sit on. This is reflexive, because wanted to emphasize the power of the camera’s ability to pause and play, as well as the abilities available to us through editing, and how it can all be constructed to look one way. 

Online Response 4 – Participatory and Reflexive Modes

For the past two weeks our class has studied two documentary modes, the participatory mode and the reflexive mode. The participatory mode emphasizes the interaction between the filmmaker and the film as they engage in the unfolding story. This technique can be found in two films we viewed, Born Into Brothels and Sherman’s March. The other approach is the reflexive mode, which brings light to the construction of film itself, causing audience to be aware of the filmmaking taking place. Two films that fall under this category are Man with a Movie Camera and Surname Viet, Given Name NamAlthough the participatory and reflexive modes are separate approaches within documentary, it is easy to find several similarities, as well as differences, between both methods.

Perhaps the strongest similarity between the participatory and reflexive documentary modes is found in the unnaturalness of these approaches. Both modes cause viewers to gain an increasing awareness of what is taking place. A participatory documentary is largely based on the interaction of a filmmaker within the world being recorded. This obvious presence of the camera causes the filmmaker, other subjects within the film, on-lookers in the film, and even audience members to act a certain way. Everyone becomes aware that a camera is present and recording. This was evident in Ross McElwee ‘s documentary Sherman’s March when his friend Charleen says, “This isn’t art! It’s life!” (see link below). Everyone suddenly became keenly aware of the abnormality of the situation. Social actors realize that they now must act differently because the camera is listening and watching. Viewers become aware that this fact may have altered the authenticity of the situation. Bill Nichols, author of Introduction to Documentary, explains that there is no way to go around the fact that a filmmaker’s presence with a camera simply impacts the film (Nichols 139). This unnatural feeling can similarly be seen within the reflexive documentary mode. Documentarians of reflexive films communicate the idea that film is a construct, manipulated through editing, and essentially built a certain way to communicate a distinct idea. All of this manufacturing demonstrates how unnatural a film is. In Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera we see a woman physically cutting filmstrips and editing in a lab. This scene causes viewers to be aware of the construct of it all. Suddenly everything feels unnatural because you are aware that you are watching a film. Together, the participatory and reflexive modes both illustrate how unnatural filmmaking really is.

Although the participatory mode and the reflexive mode share similarities, there are still differences between the two. One variance is found in the overall engagement of the filmmakers between the two types of films. The participatory mode is heavily dependent on the filmmaker’s engagement, with them often becoming a part of the story themselves. They have the duty to keep the story going. This can be seen in the film Born into Brothels when the director Zana Briski takes it upon herself to ensure stable futures for her students. Her involvement is key. Nichols describes how filmmakers’ questions can turn into interviews (Nichols 137). This is seen in Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March. There is such a fine line between his life and the film that his interviews are simply conversations. He is so engaged, it is almost as if he is simply living that moment, but there happens to be a camera there. On the other hand, reflexive documentaries take a step back from the involvement and comment on the actual process of filmmaking. Surname Viet, Given Name Nam by Trinh T. Minh-ha is another example of how the filmmakers make a statement about film itself, allowing viewers to become aware of the staged action. Minh-ha isn’t so much concerned with the plot; rather she wants viewers to take a deeper look. Nichols explains that this type of documentary analyzes how sometimes we too unthinkingly accept and receive the claims documentaries give us (Nichols 130-1). Perhaps we could benefit from stepping back and reading between the lines. Unlike participatory documentarians, filmmakers of the reflexive mode hope to have a conversation with the viewers rather than with the film’s subjects.

Both the participatory and reflexive modes of documentary provide thoughtful approaches to filmmaking. Although they are distinct modes, it is easy to find similarities and differences between the two. Together these modes share the sense of being unnatural, whether that is through the self-conscious presence of a camera or through techniques like editing. However, they differ in how engaged the filmmaker is with their subjects. The participatory mode relies on filmmakers being fully engrossed in the stories that are being told, whereas the reflexive mode invites viewers to step out of the story and think a little deeper.




Works Cited:

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary, Third Edition, Indiana University Press, 2017.


Documentary Mode 1: Poetic



Recently, events in my life have caused me to think about the how precious our time is, how irreversible it remains, and how it constantly moves. I’ve been thinking especially about how we, as college students, never seem to stop moving. Whether it is through our studies or our entertainment consumption, rarely do we ever stop and take a moment to stand still. Sometimes it feels like we’re automatic machines always moving, never pausing to take a breath or refresh.

I chose to explore this idea through the poetic documentary mode. In our class discussions we explored the idea of how documentary can convey a specific meaning through the use of rhythm and tone, like a poem would. Our class readings explain that the poetic mode allows the documentary filmmaker to illustrate their distinct point of view through this artistic medium. Techniques often used might include unnatural editing, using color to convey mood, juxtaposing images or sounds, or conveying a tone through the rhythm of the editing. In class we discussed how in poetic modes, sometimes the filmmaker engages more with the form of film than with any subject matter. By playing with the form of film itself, poetic documentaries allow filmmakers to have more creativity in their project.

With these specific aspects of the poetic mode in mind, I used certain techniques and made decisions in my short documentary to help convey my message. My main motive was to compare college students with machines. To illustrate this idea, I used certain juxtapositions of videos, moving students compared to clocks and other machines. I also relied on the use of sound to help create tempo and meaning. Underneath the footage I applied several audio pieces that I had recorded. I specifically used machine noises from car engines, ticking clocks, printers, computers and generators. Applying these automatic, non-stop noises to the motion of students walking on campus helped to tie these two ideas together – how we are just machines constantly running and churning forward. I also spruced throughout the audio, a ticking clock. I wanted to remind the audience that time will always be there, whether we are aware of it or not, it never stops moving. This allows viewers to think about how they might be choosing to spend their time, something that we can never rewind. The ticking of the clock also helped create an almost musical tempo for my video. Like our class reading indicates, my film also has no coherent continuity or specific location. Rather, it embraces my idea over a variety of moments and places.

One of my inspirations for my film was a short we watched in class – Rainby Joris Ivens. I was fascinated with this 14-minute doc that highlighted the rhythm of rain in a city. Without focusing on any particular subject or person, Ivens concentrates on the beauty of such a natural element, water. Citizens in the city are left as ambiguous figures. Like Ivens, I tried to steer clear of focusing on any single person or student that I filmed. I wanted instead to focus on the student body in general, even our society overall, or really anyone who might relate. As a result, I chose to film students’ feet or students from far away so they could remain unclear.

It was an exciting challenge to be able to use film in such an experimental approach. I found myself appreciating the mode of poetic documentary because it allows filmmaker’s with ideas to be able to creatively express themselves through authentic means. Poetic documentary, although somewhat unconventional, has the beautiful power to invite viewers to pause, and think.

Online Response 3 – Exposing Expository Films

When one typically thinks of a documentary film, they picture the quintessential expository documentary film. It is within this mode of filmmaking, that documentarians are able to bring to light an issue or situation that they believe is worthy of our time and attention. Although generally didactic in its approach, expository films embrace their truth and seek to illustrate a situation they believe audiences should be aware of. These films are often incredibly moving, hoping to influence audiences to act. Within the three films we studied this week, Born into Brothels, The Plow that Broke the Plains, and Corporation, different techniques were used to expose viewers to complex issues.

Zana Briski, the director of Born into Brothels, teaches photography to a handful of children growing up in the red light district of India, born to mothers working in the brothels. In this extremely darkened world, these children shine bright. Briski uses the documentary to voice her concern for these children and their incredibly bleak living conditions. Bill Nichols, the author of Introduction to Documentary, explains that expository films develop viewer’s trust in a variety of ways. One way, Nichols describes, is for the filmmaker to present their personal connection to the situation at hand, bringing a distinct mood that feel authentic and believable (Nichols 61). Although, seen on screen, Briski establishes a voice of authority through her commentary and interactions with the children. She proves to the audience that she genuinely cares about the future of these children. Her authenticity and honest interest in their lives shows the audience that the situation at hand is real and raw. Nichols presents the idea that expository films can be limiting due to their over-enthusiastic and moralizing tone. The point is valid seeing as viewers often feel like they are being corralled into believing a certain viewpoint; but this may in fact be the entire motive of these passionate documentarians, much like Zana Briski, who may see no other alternative to convincing their audience of the dire circumstance at hand.

The other two films mirrored the same approach. The Plow that Broke the Plains, directed by Pare Lorentz, is a short documentary that highlights the beginnings of the great dust bowl that haunted many lives within America in the early 1900s. Nichols argued that expository films often use different images to boost their claims (Nichols 108). This was distinctly seen in this short, as the filmmakers introduced footage of vintage images and real advertisements to support their claims and maintain their credibility (see images below). With the inclusion of these images, the Lorentz’s perspective appears to be objective, which ultimately helps convince audiences. The second film, Corporation, by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott takes on an evidently more passionate approach, although still expository. Through unseen voices-of-god, the film is nowhere near subtle. LikeThe Plow that Broke the Plains, additional footage of news channel anchors and various interviews blares down on the viewers, almost trying to eradicate any room for doubt. Although more obvious, this film still exposes audiences to the overbearing power of corporations across the world.

Expository documentary films pursue their duty to teach audiences and influence change. It is within these films that documentarians use different techniques to voice their thoughts and persuade a certain perspective or opinion. Zana Briski in Born into Brothelsuses her personal connection to her subjects to show audiences how adamant she is about the situation she is exposing.  Pare Lorentz uses authentic images from the early 1900s to prove his point of view in The Plow that Broke the Plains. And finally Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott use omniscient voices and a excessive amount of footage to illustrate their perspective. Each film is didactic and opinionated, some less subtle than others. While these films seem overbearing on the surface, every expository documentarian is using their film as a platform to convince audiences they have the power to change the world, even if only a little.

Works Cited

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary, Third Edition, Indiana University Press, 2017.

Online Response 2 – The Truth of the Past

Documentary filmmakers are given the unique opportunity to bring to light the most beautiful truths or the darkest abysses of mankind. Although it can be incredibly excruciating to watch, war documentaries can present realities within our history. This week our class had the opportunity to watch two war documentary films –Night and Fog, focused on the heartless concentration camps during WWII, and The Act of Killing, following gang members who had been in charge of eliminating communists in Indonesia many years ago. Both of these films didn’t shy away from displaying the horrors of genocide, and consequently as someone with a sensitive spirit and exceptionally weak stomach, who never watches films like these, this week was extremely difficult. Emotions aside, it is interesting as a film student, to be exposed to this horrific content and try to analyze both films for what they are, documentations of reality.

As class was being dismissed, Scott asked us how these films had affected us spiritually, especially as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In a world where there is evident unkindness, the Church remains a source of peace and hope, emulating the example of the Savior as He was always encouraging the extension of love and kindness toward others. So as I try to follow this mentality and practice within my life, it’s hard to put into words how my spirit felt being exposed to such morbid images and cruel sentiments. And to be quite honest, I had to look down a lot throughout both films. It can be easy to let that negativity weigh you down, but there is power and health in rising above it and not letting it touch your spirit.

I’ve thought a lot about the difference between Night and Fog, directed by Alain Resnais, and The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. One major distinction between the two is the way they chose to tell their stories. Resnais approached the genocide of World War II with clear condemnation and disapproval, by implementing his opinion through an omniscient narration. The narration felt separated from the past, yet critical and reproachful of the choices that had been made. Erik Barnouw, author of Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film wrote about the techniques used within Night and Fog, saying. “Resnais made brilliant use of a simple device: frequent shifts between black-and-white archive footage of the extermination camps, and sequences in warm color filmed in the verdant surroundings of a former camp” (Barnouw 180). By separating the past horrors from the present day, viewers were able to ache for the lives lost, yet know that these dismaying actions were long gone in the past (See images below). On the other hand, set many years later, in The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer brings us face to face with killers as they gloat about their choices and reenact the past. It’s shocking to witness and hear the things these men say. And as Oppenheimer remains detached from the scene, the gang members are able to tell their absurd story the way they want it told, essentially giving the audience the choice to choose how they feel. There was one moment within the film however, that I thought spoke leaps and bounds. As the gang members are being interviewed on live television, with a supporting audience in rapture, Oppenheimer inserts a short dialog between the camera operators behind the scenes as they gawk in disbelief at the horrible lives these men are leading. This small insert proves to the audience that not every person within reach of the gangsters was supportive of their genocide. Although it was a subtle inclusion, I believe it tells a lot about the world surrounding these gangsters. Resnais and Oppenheimer both represented the horrific reality of the worlds they were displaying, yet in their own distinct and unique way.

War documentaries are rarely delicate. They embrace their duty to tell the truth of the past, no matter how horrifying. As a viewer, it was very disheartening to watch such heavy scenes play out, but once audience members realize that these documentary filmmakers are simply documenting the truth that has occurred, we are able to appreciate the different ways these filmmakers chose to tell their stories. Alain Resnais, director of Night and Fog, used authentic footage from the past to emphasize the cruelty real-life individuals had to face. Joshua Oppenheimer, director of The Act of Killing, documented the living killers as they shared their absurd points of view. Both approaches of documentary proved to be extremely powerful and memorable. As they do their job to document, we must do our job and chose how we will react.

Works Cited

Barnouw, Erik. Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, Second Revised Edition, Oxford University Press, 1983.

Online Response 1 – Early Documentary Filmmakers: Their Truth Perceived

The early years of cinema proved to be full of incredible potential for films across all genres, one of which included documentary. At this beginning stage, trailblazers like the Lumiere Brothers led the way for aspiring filmmakers to follow suit. Two films, both of which rightfully earned the spotlight of being among the first documentaries ever created, were Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. However, many filmmakers, critics, and students today look at both films with an eye of skepticism and disappointment, claiming instead that these early documentaries shouldn’t be considered documentaries at all due to the fact that they were manipulated, adjusted, and edited to show something other than the explicit truth that unfolded. I personally believe, however, that we can’t make such harsh claims against these early films that were created before any standards had been quite cemented. Every filmmaker is allowed to have a framework to work within.

It is easy to look to the past and say they didn’t do things right – especially when looking at early documentaries like Nanook of the North and Man with a Movie Camera.  But adopting a mentality of presentism, the action of judging the past through the eyes of today, is unfair. There is often a misconception that documentaries are always about something that actually happened, real people, or stories about what happens in the real world. Bill Nichols, the author of Introduction to Documentary, stated instead however, “Documentary film speaks about situations and events involving real people (social actors) 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…” (Nichols 10). In reality, we can see that there are many approaches to documentary, often times depending on the perspective and framework the filmmaker chooses to present the work within. Because filmmaking is a creative medium, perhaps we should give filmmakers a little leeway to express their ideas in the way they choose.

Flaherty’s Nanook of the North is often reprimanded for his attempt at being observational and instead making adjustments to the set and processes portrayed. As an example, at one point in the film the inside of an igloo is seen as the family is rising for the new day. As it turns out, this remarkable shot was a devised set created by Flaherty cutting half of the igloo open so that he could access better lighting (See picture below). Such a manipulation, in my mind, shouldn’t degrade this film. Although the story is filled with actors and the portrayals were outdated, we can’t jump to the conclusion that Flaherty was trying to betray audiences. In our class discussion the subject of salvage ethnography came up. Salvage ethnography is a tradition where attempts are made to preserve a part of one’s culture and history. Perhaps this was Flaherty’s purpose, to highlight these once-authentic characteristics of this people’s culture, adjusting a few things here and there to show the world what their lives had once been like. Like Nichols stated, the filmmaker’s point of view and chosen framework is allowed to shape the film, even in documentary. That doesn’t seem like a dire sin to me.

Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera provides a similar approach to documentary. Nichols stated in Introduction to Documentary, that there are four different key elements that form a documentary film: indexical documentation, poetic experimentation, narrative storytelling, and rhetorical address (Nichols 94). Vertov strongly implements a poetic tactic to his film allowing himself to experiment with ways of expressing his artistic thoughts. On the surface, his interesting use of juxtaposition and extreme editing could seem artificial and unrealistic. Yet Vertov uses the power of editing, repetition, crosscutting, and superimposition to portray the reality and perspective that he sees. The audience becomes fully aware that they are watching a constructed film, and this was quite obviously Vertov’s intention. His film, both incredibly self-reflexive and thought-provoking for audiences, brought light to the reality of a filmmaker’s power and the influence of cinema. Filmmakers are real people, and so are the audience members. It was through this poetic experimentation of extreme editing that Vertov hoped to convey this real message of the relationship between the man and the camera.

Documentary film has evolved over many, many years. As we look to the past, we find noteworthy films like Nanook of the North and The Man with a Movie Camera. Although these early films appear inauthentic and deceitful at the surface, both Flaherty and Vertov chose to present their films as the truth that they perceived, a fact that we should all be able to respect and appreciate.

Works Cited

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary, Third Edition, Indiana University Press, 2017.

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