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