Documentary, or is it?

After my presentation I thought further about the way I’d like to produce the video. Someone mentioned that it is interesting how I will visually imagine the things said (from the interview) and have my interpretation of it just as much as a blind person has to interpret things that are explained to them (which they visually can’t grasp, something they probably have to do quite often) – so it is almost like reversing roles. Now that led me to the question which genre/conventions my video will be based on.

My production partner Annie will be doing a video based on the conventions of the “Observational Documentary”  and through talking to her I understood not only what that means but also what conflict it brings.

Stella Buzzi points out in her book “The New Documentary” that “most practitioners recognise, by now, that documentary film can never offer a representation of real events indistinguishable from the events themselves” and “that such a pursuit towards unadulterated actuality is futile” (Buzzi, 2007).

Annie knows that she wants to keep the camera rolling without intervening too much when she is following the unregistered practitioner, yet being aware that here mere presence might already have an affect on the “reality” she is filming. Also framing the image, the questions she asks as well as post production will give the piece her personal touch. So there will always be some sort of subjectivity although the aim is to keep it as observational and objective as possible.

Which is very different to my approach and makes me question if it is actually a “documentary” I want to produce.

This is why I looked into the various forms of documentary and found a comprehensive overview online which is based on Bill Nichols “Introduction to Documentary” (2001) and “Representing Reality” (1991). I will have a look at the two sources myself and get the books out of the library to get a better understanding but for now it seems that a documentary can be many things and doesn’t always have to be observational or objective.

Here are two forms which could (partly) apply to my project:

Poetic documentaries, which first appeared in the 1920’s, were a sort of reaction against both the content and the rapidly crystallizing grammar of the early fiction film. The poetic mode moved away from continuity editing and instead organized images of the material world by means of associations and patterns, both in terms of time and space. Well-rounded characters—’life-like people’—were absent; instead, people appeared in these films as entities, just like any other, that are found in the material world. The films were fragmentary, impressionistic, lyrical. Their disruption of the coherence of time and space—a coherence favored by the fiction films of the day—can also be seen as an element of the modernist counter-model of cinematic narrative. The ‘real world’—Nichols calls it the “historical world”—was broken up into fragments and aesthetically reconstituted using film form.

Examples: Joris Ivens’ Rain (1928), whose subject is a passing summer shower over Amsterdam; Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s Play of Light: Black, White, Grey (1930), in which he films one of his own kinetic sculptures, emphasizing not the sculpture itself but the play of light around it; Oskar Fischinger’s abstract animated films; Francis Thompson’s N.Y., N.Y. (1957), a city symphony film; Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1982).


Performative documentaries stress subjective experience and emotional response to the world. They are strongly personal, unconventional, perhaps poetic and/or experimental, and might include hypothetical enactments of events designed to make us experience what it might be like for us to possess a certain specific perspective on the world that is not our own, e.g. that of black, gay men in Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied (1989) or Jenny Livingston’s Paris Is Burning (1991). This sub-genre might also lend itself to certain groups (e.g. women, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, etc) to ‘speak about themselves.’ Often, a battery of techniques, many borrowed from fiction or avant-garde films, are used. Performative docs often link up personal accounts or experiences with larger political or historical realities.

Examples: Alain Resnais’ Night And Fog (1955), with a commentary by Holocaust survivior Jean Cayrol, is not a historical account of the Holocaust but instead a subjective account of it; it’s a film about memory. Also, Peter Forgacs’ Free Fall (1988) and Danube Exodus (1999); and Robert Gardner’s Forest of Bliss (1985), a film about India that I’ve long heard about and look forward to seeing.



Out of these two descriptions I especially feel that the performative documentary describes quite well what I’m set out to do, something that is based on subjective experience and emotional response to the world (which will come out of the interview) and also very personal in the way that it is clear that it holds my own interpretation (even if only visually) and my understanding of what is said, it might be even experimental / abstract, and what especially applies is that it might include hypothetical enactments of events designed to make us experience what it might be like for us to possess a certain specific perspective on the world that is not our own. Which is really what I would like to try to do, somehow convey that feeling of how it might be like to perceive the world so differently, because just as Buzzi points out it is basically impossible to achieve a “real” image so I might as well skip that attempt and actually try out a different form. The base for it though is real, as it will be a real account which I will get through the interview, which distances my project from fiction really.

The things that apply from the poetic documentary might be that it will be very fragmented, impressionistic and lyrical. And that there will be a disruption of the coherence of time and space, in the way that I won’t “follow” the blind person around for one day for example (trying to portray One day in the life of …) but rather take all the different fragments and assemble them or like it is described that the ‘real world’—Nichols calls it the “historical world”—was broken up into fragments and aesthetically reconstituted using film form.

I gained a better orientation through these descriptions and will look at the examples mentioned to see how this has been done before, also in terms of narrative and visuals.


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