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