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