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January 04, 2008
Glossary of Documentary Film Terms
From the Kinoeye Reference Section
Aleatory techniques. Aleatory technique is when the element of chance is incorporated into the film making process. Action and sound may not have been planned or scripted. The British film maker Humphrey Jennings was renowned for this. Even in fiction films this technique has been used. Jean-Luc Godard used improvisational interview techniques with his actors which questioned the distinction between acting and being and also the division between documentary and fiction.
Cinema Verite. A type of observational film which uses available light, fast film stock, handheld lightweight cameras, portable sound recording and a minimum of other equipment to record profilmic events. Aleatory techniques are very important to this style. The style became widely known after being introduced by the anthropologist / filmmaker Jean Rouch and sociologist Jean Morin in Chronicle of a Summer (1961). Rouch saw the camera as a participant in the unfolding of events which makes cinema verite quite different in approach to Direct Cinema. Rouch believed that the camera functioned as a psychological stimulant which although it altered behaviour in front of the camera arguably revealed deeper underlying truths about personalities. Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) can be understood as a precursor of this approach. The camera did boast of its own presence and influence upon the profilmic events. The Sorrow and the Pity (1970) by Marcel Ophuls can be seen as another example.
City Symphony film. This developed as a sub-genre of documentary film. They are often abstract films loosely structured around the theme of the day in the life of a city. The use of montage provides a sense of rhythm and movement. Rien que les heures (1926) Alberto Cavalcanti was shot on the streets of Paris. It was the first of the ‘City Symphony’ films made in Europe during the 1920s and preceded the better know Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) by Ruttman. It was very influential amongst the documentary movement at the time. Man With a Movie Camera: Dziga Vertov (1929) is far more than just an impressionistic view of the city. The film is an optimistic perspective on the importance of industrialisation and modernisation. Vertov also brings in a strong element of reflexivity in which the film is shown as being made as well as showing the audience and the place of exhibition.
Crown Film Unit. In August 1940 the GPO Film Unit was remaned the Crown film Unit directly under the Ministry of information thus becoming a directly propaganda organisation. Many of the films were made by Humphrey Jennings as well as Watt and Jackson. After the war documentaries were stil made but the energy, belief by government and and social consciousness had dissipated. The Unit was closed in 1951.
Direct Cinema. A type of observational documentary practice which developed in the USA during the 1960s. Profilmic events were recorded as they happened without rehearsal or reconstruction. Unlike cinema verite the practivce sought to be as unobtrusive as possible giving rise to the term ‘Fly on the wall’ coined by the film-maker Richard Leacock. Stylistically they feature long takes and minimal editing and try to keep a chronological structure to preserve profilmic events as effectively as possible. Subjects are allowed to speak for themselves and the camera observes ho0ping to record a privileged moment which will display the truth of the person behind the words.
Documentary. The term was invented by John Grierson when reviewing of Flaherty’s Moanna (1926). Any film practice that has as its subject persons events or situations that exist outside the film in the real world also referred to as non-fiction film. The first films ever shown to the public were documentaries exhibited by the Lumiere Brothers in 1895. They were very popular for some some with travelogues being especially popular. As editing techniques developed fictional narrative films gradually eclipsed documentaries. Documentary then survived inside the institution of cinema as newsreels. Pathe News began these in 1910 and soon other major companies began making them. Nanook of the North: Robert Flaherty (1922) was the first ever full length feature documentary. It demonstrated that fictional techniques could be used in a documentary.
Few full length documentaries have ever been made. Woodstock : Michael Wadleigh (1970) was one that managed to be distributed in mainstream cinemas. Documentaries differ from fiction because they refer to the historical real. The documentary theorist Bill Nichols describes the pleasure derived from watching documentary as ‘epistephilia’ or knowing about the real world. Fiction film cannot substitute for the hooror of an on-screen assassination or the explosion of the space shuttle challenger or the planes flying into the world trade centre. There is no need to suspend disbelief. Initially for many the fact that real events were caught on camera meant that documentaries were somehow unbiased. Nowadays it is widely accepted that documentaries are biased, as a result those seeking more objectivity take more concern with how the subjects of the documentary represent themselves. Blandford, Grant and Hillier (2001) argue that documentary isn’t a genre citing Nichols who comments that:
Documentary as a concept or practice occupies no fixed territory. It mobilises no finite inventory of techniques, adresses no completly known taxonomy of forms, styles, or modes’.
Nevertheless on the arguments that Neale uses to describe 'Art Cinema' as a 'genre' by virtue of its exhibitionary and distribution target audience, documentary with all the sub-generic forms has a more powerful case to be described as a genre. Interestingly Bill Nichols himself has included two articles on documentary including one by himself under 'Genre Criticism' in his seminal Movies and Methods Vol 2 (1985).
Empire Marketing Board (Film Unit). Existed to market the British Empire. John grierson headed the film unit between 1928 - 1933 when the whole board was wound up. It produced nearly 100 short films including The Drifters (1929) by Grierson himself and also Industrial Britain 1932) by Robert Flaherty. The Public Relations head Tallents went to the GPO and took Grierson and the film unit with him.
Ethnographic Film. Anthropological documentary that seeks to present and describe other cultures with a minimum of interpretation and ideological distortion. The first feature film usually considered as a foundational ethnographic film was Nanook of the North: Robert Flaherty (1922). However it romanticised the Inuit people. This type of approach to documentary film making can often be seen as condescending by representing indigenous people as ‘exotic others’.
Fast Film Stock. This describes how sensitive the emulsion is to light. Fast film stock is more sensitive to light and is rated at 400 ASA and above. Slower film stock can start as low as 50 ASA. Fast film was very useful in low light conditions and shooting could take place without artificial lighting. The disadvantage of this was that the film would look grainy compared to slower speed films.
Free Cinema Movement. This was a short lived movement in the late 1950s in Britain which tried to develop a different approvoach to documentary cinema. It had a powerful effect upon the British New Wave feature films which emereged soon afterwards. It was founded by Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson. The term was used to designate a number of documentary films they made during the 1950s. The ideals held in common were that documentary films should be made free of all commercial pressures. That they should be inflected with a humanistic and poetic approach. This gave the work of Humphrey Jennings over that of John Grierson. Both anderson and Reisz were critics for the film magazine Sequence . The magazine criticisd British documentary for being conformist and feature filmmaking for its lack of aesthetic innovation. They also criticised the monopoly practices of British cinema. They also criticised the predominant genres of war films -which seemed to glorify war and avoid the horrors - and weak comedies. Their own shorts were largely self-funded although some grant money from the BFI was forthcoming. Ford UK was also a significant source of funding. Ford commissioned a series of documentaries ‘Look at Britain’. Free Cinema was responsible for Every Day Except Christmas : Anderson (1957) and Karel Reisz’s We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959). These filmmakers believed in representing working class culture as it was lived. The editing was very rhythmic dliberately connoting Jazz which had become an important part of working class subculture. Stylistically these 3 directors were smilar and 4 out of the 6 films they made had Walter Lasally as the cinematographer. The directors they were influenced by included John Ford, Marcel Carne, Jean Cocteau, Jean Gremillon, Humprey Jennings, Jean Renoir, Vittorio de Sica and Jean Vigo.
GPO Film Unit. This started under Grierson in 1933 after the Empire Marketing Board was wound up. It became the main institution to be associated with documentary film in the 1930s. It had a wide brief only some being linked directly to the Post Office. The films were heavily influenced by montage alongside a committment to representing ordinary people. It was propagandist in so far as it existed to serve the needs and purposes of the state. After Cavalcanti joined the unit there was also experiment with sound montage. Tensions arose between exponents of developing new forms and those who emphasised a more straightforward aproach. Later 1930s films tend to be less experimental than the earlier ones. There was also the development of drama documentaries. Many of the Unit’s conceptions were based around a similar public service principle to the BBC. In 1937 Cavalcanti took over the unit. In 1940 the unit was renamed the Crown Film Unit under the Ministry of Information.
Handheld Camera. Rather than using a tripod, dolly or crane the camera operator had far more flexibility and mobility. Images produced handheld weren't stable before the development of the steadicam. This created a certain look and feel usually associated with cinema verite and Direct Cinema both of which sought to follow profilmic events as they happened.
This Steadicam system allows film makers to significantly reduce the unstable feeling of handheld cinematography. Handheld photography can now be used as an artistic device to impart a feeling of reality for the viewer. A good example of this is the sequence in Saving Private Ryan where the American troops are pinned down on the beach by Nazi gunfire as they launch the invasion of France.
Observational Cinema. This is a type of cinema in which the camera follows the profilmic events as they happen intending to reveal truths about these events. Ethnographic film, cinema Verite and Direct Cinema are all types of observational cinema. The question of whether and how much the film exploits, manipulates or documents the social actors are central. The films are seen as relatively truthful as they aren’t constrained by the technological limitations of older equipment which required dramatic reconstruction and a voice of god narrator.
Portable Sound Recording. Sound recording of location sound remained a problem until the 1950s when the break through in electronics which saw the development of the transistor meant that locational synchronised sound and filming was possible. This encoured styles such as cinema verite and Direct Cinema. The Swiss Nagra sound recorder was very popular with the French New Wave.
Profilmic Event. This is a theoretical term for the reality in front of the camera which is photographed. In observational documentary such as Direct Cinema / Ethnographic Cinema / Cinema Verite film makers aim to preserve the spatial and temporal integrity of these events (what is filmed) as much as possible
Voice of God Narration. The term has developed to describe the use of voice-over in documentary films. It is often used to describe the voice-over style used in Grierson produced documentaries. The voice is usually male, disembodied and omniscient. This style has been rejected by documentary makers in recent times as it is considered as being patriarchal, ethnocentric and manipulative. Personal voice-over is often used as in Roger and Me (Michael Moore, 1989)
Other Kinoeye glossaries include: