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.  

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