Introduction to Documentary, Second Edition

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Though correct, and although built into Grierson's idea of the "creative treatment of actuality," it is important to say a bit more about how documentaries are "about something that actually happened. Kennedy, using Abraham Zapruder's documentary footage of the president as the rifle shots struck him. We might, therefore, modify this definition of documentary by saying, "Documentary films speak about actual situations or events and honor known facts; they do not introduce new, unverifiable ones.

They speak directly about the historical world rather than allegorically. They create one world to stand in for another, historical world. In an allegory or parable everything has a second meaning; the surface meanings therefore may constitute a disguised commentary on actual people, situations, and events. Within an alternative fictional world a story unfolds. As it does so it offers insights and generates themes about the world we already inhabit.

This is why we turn to fiction to understand the human condition. Documentary films, though, refer directly to the historical world. The images, and many of the sounds, they present stem from the historical world directly. Although this statement will receive qualification later, documentary images generally capture people and events that belong to the world we share rather than present characters and actions invented to tell a story that refers back to our world obliquely or allegorically.

Introduction to Documentary

One important way in which they do so is by respecting known facts and providing verifiable evidence. They do much more than this, but a documentary that distorts facts, alters reality, or fabricates evidence jeopardizes its own status as a documentary. For some mockumentaries and for some provocative filmmakers this may well be exactly what they set out to do: as we will see, Land without Bread is a prime example of this possibility.


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This statement, although true, also needs modification. Fiction films also focus on real people, except that these people are usually trained actors playing assigned roles characters.

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Viewers often go to fiction films to see their favorite stars, even if the film itself seems mediocre. In fiction real people assume roles and become known as the characters who populate a fictional world. A more accurate statement might be, "Documentaries are about real people who do not play or perform roles. They draw on prior experience and habits to be themselves in the face of a camera. They may be acutely aware of the camera's presence, which, in interviews and other interactions, they address directly.

Direct address occurs when individuals speak directly to the camera or audience; it is rare in fiction where the camera functions as an invisible onlooker most of the time. The presentation of self in front of a camera in documentary might be called a performance, as it is in fiction, but this term may confuse as much as clarify. What happens in a documentary differs from a stage or screen performance in the usual sense. Real people, or social actors, as Erving Goffmann pointed out several decades ago in his book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life , present themselves in everyday life in ways that differ from a consciously adopted role or fictional performance.

ISBN 13: 9780253222602

A stage or screen performance calls on the actor to subordinate his or her own traits as an individual to represent a specified character and to provide evidence through his or her acting of what changes or transformations that character undergoes. The actor remains relatively unchanged and goes on to other roles, but the character he or she plays may change dramatically. All of this requires training and relies on conventions and techniques. The presentation of self in everyday life involves how a person goes about expressing his or her personality, character, and individual traits, rather than suppressing them to adopt a role.

It is how people undergo change as people, rather than how they represent change in fictional characters. There is no specific training for self- presentation other than the experience of becoming a member of society. Instead of a gap between the presentation of self and the actual person, the "front" a person presents serves as a way to negotiate with others about the nature and quality of an interaction as it unfolds.


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  • Self-presentation allows the individual to reveal more or less of him- or herself, to be frank or guarded, emotional or reserved, inquisitive or distant, all in accord with how an interaction unfolds moment by moment. The presentation of self is less an adopted mask than a flexible means of adaptation. It suggests that individual identity develops in response to others and is not a permanent, indelible feature. Some have even argued that gender identity how a person understands his or her masculine or feminine nature possesses a fluid, adaptable quality.

    The presentation of self comes into full play when people come before the camera and interact with filmmakers. It is not the same as adhering to a predetermined role. In other words, a person does not present in exactly the same way to a companion on a date, a doctor in a hospital, his or her children at home, and a filmmaker in an interview. Nor do people continue to present the same way as an interaction develops; they modify their behavior as the situation evolves. Friendliness prompts a friendly presentation, but the introduction of a sarcastic remark may prompt guardedness.

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    Introduction to Documentary, Second Edition

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