The Film Experience, Chapter 7 Summary-Review/Documentary Films: Representing the Real
FILM IN FOCUS: Man of Aran
Set around 1930,Man of Aran (Robert J. Flaherty, 1934) is an early and classic documentary that describes the often difficult life of the men and women who live on the isolated Aran islands off the coast of western Ireland.
After watching the clip from Man of Aran, consider the questions below. Then submit your response.
1. This sequence depicts the common tasks needed to harvest seaweed. What about it could be described as nonfiction and/or non-narrative? Or there moments in the sequence which seem more fictional or narrative?
2. How does the cinematography in this sequence create a specific relationship between nature and the men and women on the islands? How would you describe that relationship?


The Cove (Louie Psihoyos, 2009) is a contemporary documentary about a group of activists who overtly and covertly investigate a secret cove in Taijii, Japan, where they discover gruesome methods used to capture and kill dolphins.
After watching the clip from The Cove [which has been wonky!], consider the questions below. Then submit your response.
1. Would you describe the structural organization of this sequence from The Cove as cumulative, contrastive, or developmental? Or perhaps as a combination of more than one of those structures?
2. To what extent does the sequence emphasize showing or telling? And in the movement between the two, what seems to be its rhetorical aim? To explore, to interrogate or, to persuade? Do you find it successful? Why or why not?

FILM IN FOCUS: Stories We Tell

At this point in Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012), Sarah has connected with Harry Gulkin, the man she thinks might be her biological father. The clip begins with Harry’s voice reading a letter, and ends with Sarah’s father Michael Polley reading his own version of the story.
After watching the clip from Stories We Tell, consider the questions below. Then submit your response.
1. Notice the different kinds of footage and the different uses of the voice in the documentary. Does your attention shift among them? Does your attitude toward the material shift as well?
2. How does the filmmaker’s presence in the film color our perception of the two men’s words?

FORM IN ACTION: Exit Through the Gift Shop

One of the more inventive contemporary documentaries, Exit Through the Gift Shop(2010) begins as a film about street artists, such as Banksy, but strangely drifts into a film about the filmmaker himself, Thierry Guetta.
After watching the clip fromExit Through the Gift Shop, consider the questions below. Then submit your response.
1. How would you describe the style of this film? Does it align with any other documentary traditions or styles?
2. Would you describe this as a personal documentary or a mockumentary? Why?

Chapter Summary

A documentary film is a visual and auditory representation of presumed facts, real experiences, and actual events in the world. Documentary films usually employ and emphasize strategies and organizations that differ from those that define narrative cinema. Documentaries are about insight and learning – expanding what we can know, feel, and see. While narrative films are at the heart of commercial entertainment, documentary movies operate according to an economics of information.

A Short History of Documentary Cinema

The documentary film was anticipated by various oral, visual, and written practices such as sermons, political speeches, lectures, maps, photographs, folk songs, letters, diaries, essays, and journalism that began in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The very first movies were nonfiction films, frequently called actualities—that is, moving presentations of real people and events. Also popular during this period were other nonfiction film types including scenics, which depicted exotic and foreign locations, and topicals, which presented current events.
Robert Flaherty’s romanticized anthropological documentaries about other cultures, such as Nanook of the North (1922), proved the commercial possibilities of the documentary format. A number of Soviet filmmakers, such as Dziga Vertov, used the documentary form for more political purposes. Films such as Man with a Movie Camera (1929) conveyed their ideological messages in part through the formal technique of montage.
The introduction of optical sound recording in 1927 greatly affected documentary films by allowing the addition of educational or social commentary to accompany images.
Various public and government organizations, such as the National Film Board of Canada, enthusiastically supported documentary films in the 1930s and 1940s. Today, public and nonprofit institutions such as the American Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) continue to be a major source of financial support for documentary filmmaking.
The development of lightweight 16mm cameras and portable magnetic sound-recording equipment allowed filmmakers a new kind of spontaneity and unobtrusiveness when capturing reality, as exemplified by the cinéma vérité movement in France. Beginning in the 1950s, television became an important outlet for socially committed documentaries and news reportage.
The introduction of digital video cameras and editing systems has helped make contemporary documentary filmmaking less expensive and technologically streamlined. This has allowed a growth of personal documentaries such as Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me (2004). Documentary films have also benefited from new avenues of distribution (such as cable, DVD, and Internet) and increased festival and theatrical exposure.
In recent years, reality television has become ubiquitous. Shows such as Jersey Shore and American Idol feature real people in situations that blur the lines between actual events, performances, contests, and reenactments.

The Elements of Documentary Films

The concepts of nonfiction and non-narrative are central to documentary films. Nonfiction films present presumed factual descriptions of actual events, persons, or places, rather than their fictional, or invented, re-creation. Non-narrative films are organized in a variety of ways that de-emphasize stories and narratives while employing other forms such as lists, repetitions, or contrasts as the organizational structure.
The formal strategies used in documentary film—documentary organizations—show or describe experiences according to a certain arrangement, logic, or order that is different from that of fictional narrative organizations. While narrative film relies on specific patterns to shape the material realities of life into imaginative histories, documentary film employs strategies and forms that resemble scientific and educational methods.
Cumulative organizations present a series of images or sounds that accumulate over the duration of the film. Contrastive organizations present a series of images or sounds that contrast or are in opposition to provide different points of view on a subject. Developmental organizations present people, places, things, and experiences through a specific pattern of development that is non-narrative.
Similar to the use of narrators and narration in a fiction film, documentary films employ rhetorical positions that shape the film according to certain beliefs and perspectives. These positions are designed to explore, analyze, or debate a subject. Explorative positions announce or suggest that the film’s driving perspective is a scientific search into particular social, psychological, or physical phenomena. Interrogative or analytical positions rhetorically structure a movie in a way that identifies the subject as being under investigation – either through an implicit or explicit question-and-answer format or by other, more subtle, techniques. Persuasive positions articulate a perspective that expresses a personal or social position using emotions or beliefs and aim to persuade viewers to feel and see in a certain way. Reflexive and performative positions call attention to the filmmaking process or perspective of the filmmaker in determining or shaping the documentary material being presented. Often this means calling attention to the making of the documentary or the process of watching a film itself.

Making Sense of Documentary Films

Documentaries are significant in their ability to reveal new realities not typically seen in fiction films and to challenge our experiences and ideas. They may also present a well-known subject in a new light, or confront viewers’ assumptions about a particular position, person, or issue.
The two primary traditions of documentary are the social documentary and ethnographic film.
Social documentaries examine and present both familiar and unfamiliar peoples and cultures from around the world from a perspective that focuses on a particular problem or social issue. A form of social documentary, political documentaries aim to investigate and to criticize or celebrate the political activities of men and women within the social sphere. Political documentaries that explicitly support specific social or political issues are sometimes considered propaganda films. Another subset of the social documentary, the historical documentary is a type of film that concentrates largely on recovering and representing events or figures in history.
Ethnographic documentaries are cultural explorations aimed at presenting specific peoples, rituals, or communities that may have been marginalized by or are invisible to the mainstream culture. Two practices within this tradition include anthropological films and cinéma vérité. Anthropological films explore different global cultures and peoples, both living and extinct. The French documentary movement of cinéma vérité presents real objects, people, and events in a confrontational way, with the subject acknowledging the reality of the camera recording it. The North American version of cinéma vérité, referred to as direct cinema, is more observational and less confrontational than the French practice.
In recent years some new types of documentaries have emerged that blur the boundaries between social documentaries and ethnographic films and even between nonfiction and fiction. Personal or subjective documentaries create films that look more like autobiographies or diaries. Reenactments use documentary techniques in order to re-create presumably true or real events. Mockumentaries take a much more humorous approach to the question of truth and fact by using a documentary style and structure to present and stage fictional subjects.
1. What effect did the introduction of optical sound recording in 1927 have on documentary filmmaking?
2. Describe the impact that Robert Flaherty had on documentary filmmaking. How would you describe the kind of documentaries that Flaherty made? What primary qualities do they exhibit?
3. Documentary films tend to use different expositional strategies than narrative films to depict or describe experience. What are the three documentary organizations outlined in the textbook? Briefly describe the primary strategy of each.
4. Describe the functions of a persuasive rhetorical position and give an example of a film that employs this rhetorical position.