To say Documentary as dead is like saying that mankind has stopped evolving. Saying that the interest in and the effect of Documentary viewing on the human condition bears no impact is a narrow view of its potential to impact and the ways it already has on society. Required, is an understanding this of Documentary’s changing definition and where it sits as a sub-genre within the genre of cinema and its relevance. This essay explores how Documentary along-side man-kind has simply evolved textually. The argument is that film makers’, audience’s, and institution’s attitudes need to evolve too.
The essay’s skeletal focus that ties the argument together is on the definition of Documentary. This not so simple answer, is “fuzzy” (Nichols, p21), and comparative against fictional cinema at every stage. Some argue that fictional cinematic is another form of documentary because both are evident of the culture that produced it and reproduce a likeness to the people within that culture (Nichols, p1). However documentary differs because it encompasses characteristics, which may not resemble one another, in every way, within the sub-genre, but the combination of these ties a film to predecessors enough to categorize it as documentary (p26).
These fit within four main determining factors that are text, practitioner, institution and audience and it is as these factors change that the definition of documentary changes (22). The text relates to the conventions of the genre and how documentary fits, the practitioners are the filmmakers and their role in invoking change in the definition and the role of the documentary film and the institution is the body that both supports and influences the film-maker’s work. How this works is like a four-tier cake.
Documentary text is the top tier. A prototype documentary film shares qualities of its predecessor’s in the sub-genre of documentary, the way other sub-genres have their distinguishing set of norms and conventions (p26). Shaping documentary film are some but not all of these things – the “voice of God” commentary, interviews, location sound, cutaways, prevalence of informative logic, and reliance on social actors and is character driven. A prototype documentary, made, shares combination of qualities thus slipping into the realm of documentary changing definition changes adding new conventions. Flaherty’s prototype of Nanook of the North possesses some of these characteristics. It re-presents that culture at that time of production. It is character driven and relies on real people as actors, and is observational in approach to the participatory level of the filmmaker. It is however a construction of reality, much like the Reality TV docusoap, Big Brother (Johnson-Wood p66) was at the turn of the 21st century, splicing together image and sound to create a story (p55). Scenarios were created for the characters to play out, that create drama for entertainment purposes. All is reality but not real, if you follow Raymond Williams account of real vs reality Williams, p256 – 262), but a re-presentation. However, similar to Big Brother, Nanook served its purpose as a documented account of history.
The second tier is the practitioner. The foremost concern of a documentary filmmaker is with documenting historical events, places and people (Borsam and Monoham, p65), while maintaining fidelity with the recorded sounds and images, depicting a truthful account. Fidelity is when a documentary is judged its closeness to historical fact (Nichols, p20) and how far it strays to create drama and conflict. Chronologically or not, the film-maker’s interpretation remains a re-presentation of the culture in the spotlight. The practitioners represent the world in favour of their case put forward, putting their convictions under test (Rabiger, p250). They might recreate and/or misrepresent the culture of characters on-screen, as Flaherty did in 1922, no different to Big Brother,