Wednesday, January 19, 2011

GENRE: Documentary



Any schmuck with a camera
can make a documentary.

Non-fiction, as a form of entertainment, is sort of a tough pill to swallow. It presents no real form of escapism for the audience because it is completely grounded in reality. The only chance the medium has is to present stories that are beyond the mundane; to showcase extraordinary accomplishments, or offer detailed insights into a particular group or area. However, it is very difficult to maintain an objective balance. There are usually ulterior motives at work when presenting any kind of information, especially when it is costing someone money to produce that message. Filmmakers tend to put a subjective spin on their subject to influence the audience to agree with their point of view. Whether it is through manipulation with the editing, or lack of comprehensive research; just because it is real doesn’t make it true.

This practice first became prevalent in propaganda films, an idea of combining two documentary style films for presenting suggestive information. The first style was the daily news, chronicling local and world events. The second was instructional films, used to explain complex tasks to large groups of people. Using actual footage and applying carefully tailored narration, one could withhold specific elements of reality, allowing them to sway an audience into believing whatever they wanted. The practice is still used today by such famed “documentarians” as Michael Moore and Al Gore. Through the use of scare tactics and humanitarian exploitation they have managed to convince millions of people around the world that their shit smells better than the rest. They are masquerading as crusaders of the truth, but only presenting one side of the facts. Not that they don’t make convincing arguments, but a one sided presentation is not a debate, its a lecture. Despite the fact that their hearts might be in the right place, they are still manipulating the public, thereby degrading any nobility their cause may have had in the beginning.
What's wrong with this picture?

Who knew becoming "Mr. Universe"
was so dramatic?
Out of propaganda came an evolution of satirizing the facts with the mockumentary. As previously explored in “Five Musicals to suit anyone’s taste,” this form is quite popular, especially at blurring the lines. A good mockumentary will leave the audience believing everything they have just witnessed, despite the fact that it is clearly false, and usually upfront about it. Sometimes a film won't be outright satirical, but it won't deter the focus of it's intent either. For the benefit of the audience the filmmakers will add an extra element of drama, or storyline to the piece, making it a little more engaging for a broader audience. This form of documentary film is known as a docudrama, which is a blanket term for actual documentary films and scripted films based upon real events. From Nanook of the North (1922), to The Endless Summer (1966), to Pumping Iron (1977), audiences have been enjoying their reality with a splash of drama. Any film that is, “based on a true story,” is also considered to be a docudrama, although historical narrative seems a more appropriate title, given the content and presentation. Even the television series Dragnet (1951-59 & 1967-70) falls under the category of docudrama, with the names being changed to protect the innocent

Arguably the most successful, or at least the most engaging and unbiased form of documentary filmmaking is the educational documentary. These include programs such as Planet Earth (2006), Mythbusters (2003), and others produced by the Discovery Channel and National Geographic. Insightful programs such as VH1’s rockumentary series, Behind the Music (1997) also present pieces of true non-fiction that deal strictly with the facts. Of course these networks do produce speculative entertainment as well, but it is clear during the presentation that the most factual element is the unknown.


However, television doesn’t always get it right. Multiple channels have slowly converted to the reality television show format, which, depending on the program, borders on straight documentary, mockumentary, rockumentary, docudrama, and absurdist trash. It almost seems like fiction to think that there was a time when The Learning Channel (TLC) actually had educational programming instead of "Keeping up with John and Kate, who are trading spouses, because they can’t clean their houses." To even classify these programs as documentary is an insult to the entire genre and art form, unless it is understood that the recording of these shows are a part of a global venture to document the demise of our own civilization.

Any of this look familiar?
In terms of technical execution, documentary filmmaking is much simpler than shooting a traditional narrative. There is little to no need for actors or a large crew. Also, in most cases the story is already written by history, one just has to be able to present it. Depending on the content of their particular piece and the preparation they are willing to put in ahead of time, one will only need their subjects for one day of interview filming. Of course if they are trying to capture nature it could take days, or even months of waiting with the camera, but at the same time, they don’t have to pay the animals either. At that point it boils down to a labor of love, the true essence of filmmaking: passion.

This is not news, though. Over the last decade there has been an influx in documentary filmmaking on a wide range of subjects. Everything from politics and science, to popular culture and history, to personal crusades and ambitions has been documented on film. Sometimes they are straightforward and factual. Sometimes they are comedic or dramatic. Sometimes they are trying to impress an idea, or ideal on the viewer. Sometimes they even want to make fun of the state of things. The only thing for sure is just because it is real doesn’t make it true.

If you are interested in documentary films and would like to see an original, objective, unbiased, factual, engaging, intriguing, insightful, passionate, extraordinary, unpretentious, heartfelt, comedic, dramatic, rockumentary then please check out RIPHOUSE 151: Could’ve Been’s & Wanna Be’s (2008). 


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