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Issues and Concepts in Documentary
Bloomington and Indianapolis
1qcts.9 D(:, rvs'i f Of '11
1991 by Bill Nichols
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library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Representing reality : issues and concepts in documentary I Bill Nichols. p. em.
Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-253-34060-8 (alk. paper).- ISBN 0-253-20681-2 (pbk.:
alk. paper). 1. Documentary films-History and criticism. I. Title.
PN1995.9.D6N54 1991 070.1'8-dc20 91-2637
1 2 3 4 5 95 94 93 92 91
Dedicated to the memory of Emile de Antonio ( 1920-1989)
andjoris Ivens (1898-1989)
DOCUMENTARY MODES OF REPRESENTATION
Situations and events, actions and issues may be repres~nted in a ~ariety o: ways. Strategies arise, conventions take s~ape, consa:a~.nts come mto play, these factors work to establish commonality amon~ diffe~ent ~exts, to place th "th"n the same discursive formation at a giVen histoncal moment. em Wl I 1 t Modes of representation are basic ways of organizing texts m re anon o certain recurrent features or conventions. In docum~n~ry film, four modes of representation stand out as the dominant orgamza~onal ~atterns around which most texts are structured: expository, observatlonal, mterac-
tive, and reflexive.* . . the These categories are partly the work of the analyst or cnuc and partly
product of documentary filmmaking itself. The terms the~selves ~e essen-tially my own, but the practices they ~ef~r t~ are filmmaking pracuces tha~ filmmakers themselves recognize as distlncuve appro_ac~es t~ the represen tation of reality. The four modes belong to a dial~ctlc m wh1ch n~w for_ms arise from the limitations and constraints of preVIous ~orms and m ~hic~ the credibility of the impression of documentary reality changes histon-cally New modes convey a fresh, new perspective on reality. Gr_aduall~, the con~entional nature of this mode of representation beco~es mc:easmgly apparent: an awareness of norms and conv~ntions t~ which a g~.ven text adheres begins to frost the window onto reality. The orne for a new mode
is then at hand. l"k th A very cursory history of documentary representation might run I e IS:
ex ository documentary (Grierson and Flaherty, aJ.nong olll:e.rs) arose fr!m a dissatisfaction with the distracting, enter~inment q~alitles of the fiction film. Voice-of-God commentary and poetlc perspecnves sought to
* The four modes treated here began as a distinction betwee~ di:e~t ~d U:direct address in Ide 1 nd the Image Julianne Burton revised and refined th1s distmcuon mto an extrem~ly my oogya art olo in"TowardaHistoryofSocia!Documentarym
use~ul and ~u~~ mhore nuthanocloedgy o~~Soci~ocu~tary in Latin America (Pittsburgh: University of Laun Amenca m er an ' . , 1 Pittsburgh Press, 1990): 3-6. This chapter is a further elaborauon of Burton s typo ogy.
Documentary Modes of Representation 33
disclose information about the historical world itself and to see that world afresh, even if these views came to seem romantic or didactic. Observa-tional documentary (Leacock-Pennebaker, Fredrick Wiseman) arose from the availability of more mobile, synchronous recording equipment and a dissatisfaction with the moralizing quality of expository documentary. An observational mode of representation allowed the filmmaker to record unobtrusively what people did when they were not explicitly addressing the camera.
But the observational mode limited the filmmaker to the present mo-ment and required a disciplined detachment from the events themselves. Interactive documentary (Rouch, de Antonio, and Connie Field) arose from the availability of the same more mobile equipment and a desire to make the filmmaker's perspective more evident. Interactive documen-tarists wanted to engage with individuals more directly while not reverting to classic exposition. Interview styles and interventionist tactics arose, allow-ing the filmmaker to participate more actively in present events. The filmmaker could also recount past events by means of witnesses and experts whom the viewer could also see. Archival footage of past events became appended to these commentaries to avoid the hazards ofreenactlnent and the monolithic claims of voice-of-God commentary.
Reflexive documentary (Dziga Vertov, Jill Godmilow, and Raul Ruiz) arose from a desire to make the conventions of representation themselves more apparent and to challenge the impression of reality which the other three modes normally conveyed unproblematically. It is the most self-aware mode; it uses many of the same devices as other documentaries but sets them on edge so that the viewer's attention is drawn to the device as well as the effect.
Though this short summary gives the impression of a linear chronology and of an implicit evolution toward greater complexity and self-awareness, these modes have been potentially available from early in the cinema's history. Each mode has had a period of predominance in given regions or countries, but the modes also tend to be combined and altered within individual films. Older approaches do not go away; they remain part of a continuing exploration of form in relation to social purpose. What works at a given moment and what counts as a realistic representation of the historical world is not a simple matter of progress toward a final form of truth but of struggles for power and authority within the historical arena itself.
From an institutional point of view, those who operate largely in terms of one mode of representation may well define themselves as a discrete collectivity, with distinct preoccupations and criteria guiding their film
. practice. In this regard, a mode of representation involves issues of author-.. ity and the credibility of speech. Rather than standing as the idiosyncratic utterance of the individual filmmaker, the text demonstrates compliance
the norms and conventions governing a particular mode and, in turn,
34 Axes of Orientation
enjoys the prestige of tradition and the authority of a socially established and institutionally legitimated voice. At issue for the individual filmmaker are strategies of generalization, ways of representing the highly specific and local as matters of broader import, as issues with larger ramifications, as behavior of some lasting significance through recourse to a representa-tional frame or mode. Attaching a particular text to a traditional mode of representation and to the discursive autho~ity of that ~adition rna~ well strengthen its claims, lending to these clatms the wetght of _previOusly established legitimacy. (Conversely, if a mode of representauon comes under attack, an individual text may suffer as a result of its attachment.)
Narrative-with its ability to introduce a moral, political, or ideological perspective to what might otherwise be mere chronol~~-and_ ~e~i~mwith its ability to anchor representations to both quoudtan verlSlmthtude and subjective identification-might also be considered modes but they are of yet greater generality and frequently appear, in d~erent forms: in each of the four modes discussed here. Elements of narrauve, as a parucu-lar form of discourse, and aspects of realism, as a particular representa-tional style, inform documentary logic and the economy of the t~xt routinely. More precisely, each mode deploys the resources of narrauve and realism differently, making from common ingredients different types of text with distinctive ethical issues, textual structures, and viewer expec-tations. It is to these that we shall now turn.
The Expository Mode
The expository text addresses the viewer directly, with titles or voices that advance an argument about the historical world. Films like Night Mail, The City, The Battle of San Pietro, and Victory at Sea that utilize a '~oi~e-of-God" commentary are the most familiar examples. Network news Wlth Its anchor-person and string of reporters in the field is anot~er. This i~ the mode closest to the classic expository essay or report and It has conunued to be the primary means of relaying information and persuasively making a case since at least the 1920s.
If there is one overriding ethical/political/ideological question to docu-mentary filmmaking it may be, What to do with people? How can people and issues be represented appropriately? Each mode addresses th1s ques-tion somewhat differently and poses distinct ethical questions for the practitioner. The expository mode, for exampl~, raises ethic~l issues of voice: of how the text speaks objectively or persuasively (or as an mstrument of propaganda). What does speaking for. o:. on behalf o_f someone or something entail in terms of a dual responstbthty to the subject of the film and to the audience whose agreement is sought?
Expository texts take shape around commentary directed toward the viewer; images serve as illustration or counterpoint. Nonsynchronous
Documentary Modes of Representation 35