This is a very long post as it includes the essay (5000ish words) which I wrote as research for my graduate film Lift. I think it is very interesting and worth reading but only read it if you are interested in documentary or want to hear my opinions on Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock and other high profile Documentary Film makers.
I think the research represented in this essay is one of the reasons why Lift is such a good film. Other people think so too (eg. my lecturers) and it seems to have paid off as I'm off to the Royal Television Society Awards tonight...
How does a director’s choice to appear on screen and participate in a documentary affect the message, story and purpose of the film?
As a documentary filmmaker I want to effectively and ethically tell interesting and entertaining stories about the people I meet and give them a chance to tell their own. For my graduate film I am planning to move out from behind the camera to openly become a part of the story telling process and I want my presence to add to the audiences experience, and to take as little away from it as possible. But how can I best do this and what lessons can I learn from the filmmakers who have gone before me?
In this essay I will examine the films of three documentary filmmakers, Nick Broomfield, Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, and see how their presence on screen affects the message, story and feel of the documentary. I will also explore some specific issues, both practically and ethically, raised by the different approaches they use.
Before I look at specific filmmakers and how their work relates to my own, I will place the mode of documentary I am discussing in its theoretical context. Many terms have been used to describe examples of the approach, from “Activist Filmmaking” to “Travel Documentary” but in most cases these are describing the style or aim of the film, not the mode. I have chosen to examine three terms that have been used to define the core characteristic of this documentary form: Interactive, Participatory and Performative.
Interactive, Participatory or Performative?
In “Representing Reality” (1991) Bill Nichols discusses the different modes of documentary as he saw them at the time. He argues that “Expository Documentary” “arose from a dissatisfaction with the distracting, entertainment qualities of the fiction film.” Technological innovations enabling synchronous sound recording allowed “Observational Documentaries” to be made by filmmakers with “a dissatisfaction with the moralizing quality of expository documentation.”
Nichols then introduces the “Interactive Documentary” mode, which is the term he gives to films based around the filmmakers interaction with the subjects, normally in the form of interviews. Examples include “In The Year Of The Pig” Emile de Antonio (1969) and “Not A Love Story” Bonnie Sherr Klein (1982). In “Not A Love Story” the director Klein goes on a journey with Linda Lee Tracy, an ex-stripper, to uncover their views and feelings about pornography through interviews in different locations. He sees the interaction between Klein the filmmaker, and Tracy the subject, as the distinctive feature of the documentary.
As documentary filmmakers pushed the limits of the interactive mode their involvement as a character and player in the action of the film grew. In “Introduction to Documentary” (2001) Bill Nichols accepts that it is the filmmakers’ full participation in the action that is now the defining aspect of this mode. He sums up the essence of what he means by writing:
“When we view participatory documentaries we expect to witness the historical world as represented by someone who actively engages with, rather than unobtrusively observes, poetically reconfigures, or argumentatively assembles that world. The filmmaker steps out from behind the cloak of voice-over commentary, steps away from poetic meditation, steps down from a fly-on-the-wall perch, and becomes a social actor (almost) like any other.”
Nichols is arguing that the filmmaker’s role has expanded to include becoming social actors themselves. Therefore, the film is not only documenting the action in a purely observational way (if that was ever possible) it now documents the actions of the filmmaking process as well. He revisits “Not A Love Story” again and reinterprets the film through this slightly different lens. He recasts Linda Lee Tracy as a partner in the filmmaking process and concludes:
“The act of making the film plays a cathartic, redemptive role in their own lives, it is less the world of their subjects that changes than their own.”
Nichols has emphasised that participating in the action not only changes the situation and the subjects but also the reverse is true. The situation and subjects have an effect on the filmmaker herself and changes her but whether participatory filmmakers acknowledge this is another question. I agree with Nichols that the change in filmmakers approach does warrant the change of terminology and find that “participatory” best describes this.
Stella Bruzzi writing in New Documentary (2000) sees the participatory mode differently and defines it as only one half of a broader category of films which she calls Performative Documentary:
“Films that feature performative subjects and the films that are inherently performative and feature the intrusive presence of the filmmaker.”
Performative subjects can range from people who are consciously acting differently purely because the camera is there, to interviews or reconstructions where the subjects are actually performing pre-rehearsed lines or actions. In this case it is the subject who is performing and the subjects point of view or story that is focused on.
Bruzzi then argues that the filmmakers’ intrusion into the film is also a performance. For example Bruzzi argues that Nick Broomfield’s films from “The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife” (1991) onward and in the car adverts which feature him, he is playing the character of “Nick Broomfield” to greater or lesser degrees. She describes Broomfield as a “Star Director” who consciously plays the caricature of himself to get the reaction he wants from his subjects and runs the risk of becoming the lead character in his own films.
Although Broomfield is used as the extreme example of the performative director Bruzzi argues that this definition still applies to some of the less intrusive aspects of participatory documentaries. For example, when Michael Moore confronts a politician on camera he is acting the part of the rebel or even when a filmmaker is conducting an interview off camera, they are playing the part of the interviewer. The fact that the performing side of the filmmaking process is revealed and used in the documentary is key:
“The traditional concept of documentary as striving to represent reality as faithfully as possible is predicated upon the realist assumption that the production process must be disguised, as was the case with direct cinema. Conversely, the new performative documentaries herald a different notion of documentary ‘truth’ that acknowledges the construction and artificiality of even the non-fiction film.”
Although I agree with Bruzzi that many documentary filmmakers do literally “perform” in their own films, I disagree with her conclusion that this is true for all filmmakers who are seen to interact or participate on screen. I think that if a filmmaker consciously changes and acts as a different character then the term performative can be used. On the other hand a filmmaker could subconsciously be acting differently when they are on camera, but only to the same extent that any person would when they are aware of being filmed. The problem I see with my own view is that it is almost impossible to judge, unless the filmmaker openly reveals it, whether they are genuinely trying to be themselves or are acting. This leads me to the question of whether this is any different to judging whether their subject is acting and if it is ethically different?
I find myself agreeing more with Nichols’ point of view when he says:
“If there is a truth here it is the truth of a form of interaction that would not exist were it not for the camera. In this sense it is the opposite of the observational premise that what we see is what we would have seen had we been there in lieu of the camera. In participatory documentary, what we see is what we can see only when a camera, or filmmaker, is there instead of ourselves.”
Although, I accept that performance on the part of the filmmaker may be involved as they become a social actor in their own films, from this point I will exclusively use the term participatory to refer to the mode of documentary I am discussing.
Two approaches of director Nick Broomfield
The two films directed by Nick Broomfield I have chosen to study are “Soldier Girls” (directed with Joan Churchill, 1981) and “The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife” (1991).
The first follows the female recruits of Fort Georgia as they complete their basic training. It is shot in the observational mode (with some key exceptional moments) and uses long, lingering shots to highlight the physical, emotional and mental hardships the girls are put through. I would like to pick out various exceptions to the observational mode, which raise some interesting questions.
In the barracks, after some singing and dancing, one of the girls looks at the camera and shouts, “Hey look at us, we’re going to be movie stars!” Up to this point there have been a number of conversations and exchanges which seem to be playing out differently because the camera is there, but it is left up to the viewer to judge but at this point in the film the game changes. Broomfield could have easily cut away before the comment was made, but he chose to leave it in. He has now admitted that he is no longer able or willing to pretend that the camera is somehow not there. Stella Bruzzi comments on this change of perspective with the following;
“… the ethos behind the modern performative documentaries is to present subjects in such a way as to accentuate the fact that the camera and crew are an inevitable intrusion that alter any situation they enter.”
Although the film still remains in the observational mode he is moving away from it towards something grounded in this new and different ethos.
Another scene in the film seems to raise the same concerns, but on closer inspection it challenges the viewer to ask another question. It is the scene after Pt Alves has broken down and is being cruelly reprimanded and bullied by Sgt Abing and Pt Hall. At first appearances it seems that Pt Hall, now an acting sergeant, is performing for the camera but is this so? Stella Bruzzi would agree as she says that Pt Hall is:
“… striving to seem unaware of the filmmakers’ presence but finding this impossible.”
This may be the full explanation of her behavior though I think there is a more subtle explanation. I have often observed how children become bullies and as bullying is not an inherent skill in most children, it has to be learned. One of the best ways is for a couple of established bullies to “capture” a victim, hold them, and give their student time to practice being nasty away from the gaze of other people. At first a child’s comments are clumsy and mostly ineffectual but over time they learn. They are also acutely aware of their new peers and are being cruel mainly to impress them or even to avoid becoming victims themselves. Could this be the dynamic of the relationship between Abing, Hall and Alves? If it is, then the sergeants are giving the space for Hall to develop her reprimanding techniques in a safe environment, and Hall is performing more to them than the camera.
A lesson I can learn from this encounter that will help me as a director is to be careful not to assume that it is the camera, and not someone else, that the subject is primarily performing for. This is likely to be more of a problem in situations where young people or teenagers are aware of their peers or teachers present at the time but it may also apply to adults in work or family environments.
In one of the final scenes of the “Soldier Girls” where Pt. Johnson is leaving and is saying her goodbyes to her friends, she suddenly turns to the camera and says “Good bye Nick, Good bye Joan.” In turn she is kissed by Nick on the cheek and (I presume) is hugged by Joan Churchill who is operating the camera. For a moment the camera captures a young Nick Broomfield, not the character but the real person, responding to someone in a real way. For me this is one of the most “real” and touching moments in the film as all the stress and pretence of the army way of life is left behind for a moment and normal relationships come to the fore. This event raises the question of what Broomfield is trying to say with the film. He could have easily edited this moment out but again he chose to leave it in. Now not only has he shown that a camera will change a situation by the very fact it is there, but the relationship of the filmmaker with the subject is not something that can be easily ignored. This moment of spontaneity, where the filmmaker’s relationship with his subject becomes as interesting as the subject alone, foreshadows the rest of Nick Broomfield’s career.
Broomfield’s second film I have chosen to discuss is “The Leader, His Driver and the Drivers Wife” which follows Broomfield as he tries to build a portrait of the Afrikaner paramilitary leader Eugene Terre’Blanche, but spends most of his time with J.P. Meyer (the driver) and his wife Anita. Although I believe this to be one of the best examples of participatory documentary I have seen, I think it also raises some important ethical issues.
“The Leader” is a highly subjective film, but openly so as by the end the real motives of the filmmaker are clear. For a while the viewer is lead to believe that the interview with the Leader is the important thing, but we soon see that it is the process of getting past all the obstacles placed in the way of the interview, and how the filmmaker and the subjects react to them, is the heart of the real story. No doubt is left when Broomfield purposely arrives late for the interview with Terre’Blanche and it almost doesn’t happen. When it eventually does, the Leader is so angry that he is unable or unwilling to listen to the one interview question we hear. As he is repeatedly asked the question and he struggles to answer we are shown Terre’Blanche exactly how Broomfield wants him to appear; as someone deserving to be laughed at and mocked, not respected.
This approach to directing raises the question of whether it is ethical to intentionally provoke someone into an angry state and then make them look bad because of it. In most situations the balance of power is held by the director and they can choose to either abuse that position of power or not. In this way they are like a comedian on stage who can either rip into an audience member making them look bad just to entertain the crowd. Or they could use their position to lay into a politician with genuine influence, not just to entertain, but to make a political statement as well. The jokes could be exactly the same but the outcome is not because in the latter case, the target holds the power, not the comedian. In the same way, if filmmakers take this approach they must continually make judgments about where the power balance lies and be aware of the ethical implications. In the case of Broomfield and Terre’Blanche I think power starts with the leader at the begining of the film, but by the end, as his organisation starts to fade around him, we see that he is not really able to hold his own against Broomfield and the power balance has shifted.
Is the fact that a filmmaker actively “performs” a different character different to a subject “performing” and what are the ethical implications? In “The Leader” Broomfield plays the part of “Nick Broomfield” to great effect and gets the results he looking for. If like Broomfield I consciously choose to act as a character in my film, by definition I would intentionally be misleading my subjects. Of course a subject can choose to mislead me as a filmmaker but I can make a judgment about that leave it out of the film entirely. The misled subject does not have the same ability and is disempowered because of it. So although both are able to be false, the balance of power shifts farther into the filmmaker’s hands if they chooses to be so.
I think the answer to this ethical issue again comes down to the balance of power and what the purpose of the encounter is. If the encounter is filmed to entertain, make the filmmaker look clever or the subject look bad, I don’t think that the ends justifies the means. If however the balance of power lies with the subject and the encounter is included in the film to make a political point, to show inconsistencies in their arguments or to trap them into admitting criminal intentions, etc, I think it is fair to use the performance technique.
The key lessons I can learn from these Nick Broomfield documentaries are as follows:
Firstly I must be aware that I should not hide the fact the camera is there and a film is being made. Shooting half a film as observational and the other half as participatory means that neither mode will be done well. I need to commit fully to one of them.
Secondly, I need to be aware that although a subject may be performing, it may not be for the camera or myself, but for someone else entirely.
I must always be aware of, and be sensitive to, where the balance of power lies in my relationship with the people I am filming. I should continue to ask myself if there is any way I can even up the balance in their favour and to help put them more at ease.
Finally, before any encounter I must ask myself if the end justifies the means. For example, is mocking this person with power and influence justified by the entertainment value only, or should there be a wider political or social message?
Other “Star Directors”
As the participatory mode of documentary filmmaking has developed and matured in the last decade, two other notable “star directors” have emerged. “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) directed by Michael Moore and “Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?” (2008) directed by Morgan Spurlock are the other two films I will discuss. The subject matter in each is similar, they share many themes and are both participatory, but they have been executed in very different ways.
Michael Moore: As Participatory As We Think?
In “Faherheit 9/11” Moore uses archive footage, interviews and confrontations to build an argument about how President Bush failed to deal properly with the terrorist attacks in 2001 and then later used them to manipulate the public into supporting the second Iraq war.
I watched the film when it was first released so on researching it I was surprised to find that it is not a typical Moore documentary. I had the vague impression that it was full of the confrontations and stunts which he is famous for, but apart from the interviews, the only participation is in the form of two short sections filmed in Washington D.C. The first is a response to hearing that members of congress didn’t read the Patriots Act before voting on it. Moore decides to drive around Capital Hill in an ice cream van reading out the Patriots Act over the public address system to the congressmen who happen to be walking by.
In “Bowling For Columbine” Michael Moore (2002) goes to a K-Mart store with two of the victims of the Columbine shooting to buy all the ammunition they can. They then take it to the head office of K-Mart to show the company that bullets they had sold years earlier were still inside the victims bodies. This was a powerful and effective intervention that changed the policy of K-Mart, which now no longer sells ammunition. Compared to this, the ice cream van stunt seems a bit lame. We see a couple of reactions of people on the streets but there is no follow up and it doesn’t make any difference. The concept is amusing but it seems that Moore has run out of interviews or informed opinions on the Patriots Act so he turns to his gorilla filmmaking techniques that have served him so well in the past, but in this case it falls flat.
The other participation is when Moore hits the streets of D.C. again, this time with a soldier and gives himself a challenge:
“How many members of congress could we get to enlist their own children?
What follows is one short interview with a congressman who gives Moore some time, then it just descends into a montage of people avoiding him and even running away. Although I think these exchanges are much more interesting and enlightening than the ice cream van stunt, it was still just a stunt. Moore even admits that it was.
The lesson to learn from these sections is not to include any interactions, stunts or set pieces that don’t add anything to the message, story or meaning of the film just because they are amusing. Though they may add an impression that the film is more edgy or daring than it actually is, the distraction and interruption to the pacing means it probably wont pay off in the long run.
Early on in “Fahrenheit 9/11” Moore uses archive footage of himself campaigning against President Bush to introduce himself and is aware that his status has changed from the days when he couldn’t get an interview with Roger Smith in “Roger and Me” (1989). He also includes a clip of the President and himself almost coming face to face at a large event. President Bush actually recognises Moore and tells him to keep out of trouble and all the congressmen who Moore meets on the streets also recogise him and either shake his hand or try to avoid him. From this we can clearly see that everyone now knows Moore and his tactics, can deal with them but for some reason Moore still uses them anyway.
I think this is the main problem “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Ironically, Moore himself has become too well known to be an effective participatory filmmaker in this context, and his interventions have become so stylized and ineffectual that they no longer serve much purpose. Add this to the fact that most of the interviews in the film do not feature Moore on screen, and although his questions and comments are occasionally heard, they are not shot in the normal “Michael Moore” confrontational style. It is also obvious that he didn’t conduct all the interviews, e.g. in Iraq, though they don’t suffer because of his absence.
These factors lead me to the conclusion that “Faherheit 9/11” is actually a classical expository film with some good interviews added but bad participatory interventions also included. It is clearly biased and is unfair at times but has a strong political message that I find hard to disagree with. If only Moore had left himself out of the film entirely, it could have been a much more internally consistent and powerful film.
Morgan Spurlock: Changing the World A Smile At A Time?
In the introduction to“Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden” Morgan Spurlock sets himself the challenge of finding Bin Laden to make the world a better and safer place before his first child is born. In the introduction he sends up Hollywood by saying:
“Because if I’ve learnt anything from big budget action movies, it’s that complicated global problems are best solved by one lonely guy, crazy enough to think that he can fix everything before the final credits role!”
After a short but very entertaining history lesson about who Bin Laden is and where he came from Spurlock prepares to travel to Egypt, Morocco, Israel and Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and finally Pakistan before returning to New York for the birth of his son.
Setting this semi-arbitrary time limit of eight(ish) months to travel the world and shoot the entire film automatically gives it a structure that a more open ended production would not have created. It forces Spurlock to keep moving, looking and talking to new and interesting people. From a production perspective he also chooses to travel very light with a crew of only four people; himself as director, Daniel Marracino as D.P. who operates both the camera and the sound and “James” a security expert. Finally, in each country he also uses a local journalist whose roles include translator, fixer, map-reader and assistant producer. These decisions gave Spurlock a great level of flexibility and meant he could respond quickly to security issues, travel in only one vehicle and, most importantly, follow leads as and when they came up.
As I am planning to shoot my graduate film on the move I need to learn from Spurlock and try to travel as light as possible. Working to find solutions to practical problems before production starts could mean the difference between capturing a significant moment on film or missing it entirely. Setting other limits such as time, budget or distance restrictions may help the final structure of the film and would provide focus in the filmmaking process.
Although “Where in the World” is focused on large political themes it was a more personal film than his first feature documentary “Supersize Me” (2004), which followed Spurlock as he went on a month long Macdonald only, low exercise binge to see how it affected him. In that film the only important thing he really invested in the project was his health and as his life was never at any significant risk, it was only a short term risk at that. So although “Supersize Me” was very entertaining and informative, as a viewer I felt that the stakes were quite low and I didn’t find myself investing my own feelings and emotions in it. In contrast making “Where in the World” was risky business and the fact that Spurlock often talked about his wife and unborn child back home only highlight it. He even mentions them to some people he meets on the journey and once he asks for their advice. We also see footage of his wife back home talking to Spurlock on the phone about her fears and hopes for the future. Spurlock is open about how his experiences are affecting him personally, whether it is the culture shock he feels in Saudi Arabia or the thrill of shooting a rocket launcher with the troops in Afghanistan. Although he has set out with a plan Spurlock is learning a lot about the world around him and the message of the film develops naturally as he comes to see it in a different way. Like Broomfield, Spurlock is documenting the journey to meet with a political leader, in this case the leader of Al Qaeda. But unlike Broomfield’s film, instead of seeing the change in the leader we see a change in the director. In an interview on his return Spurlock says:
“Oh, of course. I went in with all my preconceived notions that there was going to be a lot of hostility, there was going to be a lot of resentment. And we did encounter some, everywhere we went. We did find people who didn’t like Americans, but the majority of people wanted to talk to us. The majority of people wanted to sit down and have a conversation and tell us how they felt.”
The fact that he turns back in Pakistan before finding Bin Laden is key to the message of the film. Spurlock comes to the conclusion that it is, not the man himself but the idea and issues that Bin Laden embodies, which are the things that are wrong with the world. To make the world better and safer place for his son he concludes that we all need to see people from different religions and cultures as people first, and the differences as a distant second. To start the process of implementing his conclusions, over the end credits he shows all subjects included in the film (and many more) smiling at the camera so the film ends focused on other people, not himself.
I think the main lesson I can learn from Spurlock is that if the audience engages with the director, he can lead them to places that they wouldn’t normally go and to consider things they may have never thought about before. I will try to follow Spurlock’s example; to be open and honest, make a personal film that is also interesting and entertaining, but the question of whether I can be even half as engaging as he is remains. The only way I can think of to develop this aspect of my participatory directing practice is to experiment with a cameraperson, constantly reviewing the footage, until I find out what works for me.
As I have studied participatory documentary filmmaking by reading up on the theory, watching the films and analysing them closely, I have teased out specific lessons to be learnt from the directors and their films. These lessons have already been discussed in the conclusions to each section and will not be covered again here. Instead I want to discuss a much broader set of ideas which no one film or example can explain.
In the course of my research I have attempted to develop an organised system to help to bring a lot of my thoughts and ideas about participatory filmmaking together. Although this is an ongoing process, so far I have based my ideas around a series of scales (or spectrums or continuums) that illustrate the principles I am attempting to define. I find that they are helpful guides which enable to systematically think through issues arising from my graduate film and will help me make creative decisions for this and future projects.
All participatory documentary filmmakers, myself included, need to find the places on this series of scales that define the “sweet spot” where their own approach can work most effectively. These three scales are in no particular order, are not meant to be comprehensive and will vary from film to film as subjects and issues change.
1. No Participation Wholly involved in story and structure.
First is simply the amount of participation the filmmaker chooses to have in the film.
On one end of this scale with very little we would find Michael Moore in “Roger And Me” (1989) who only added the participatory aspect of the film towards the end of the production process, which is why the film is mostly observational. At the other end of the scale would be Spurlock in “Where in the World” and Broomfield in “The Leader” where the whole structure of the film is built around the filmmakers participation.
2. No Pretense A completely different character
The second scale defines the level pretense in the directors approach; from choosing to just “be yourself” or to take on another character altogether.
On one end of this scale would be Spurlock in “Supersize Me” who is extremely open and honest about all sorts of intimate details. On the other end would be Broomfield in “The Leader”, with Moore playing “Himself” somewhere in between. An extreme would be Sacha Baron Cohen in “Borat: Cultural Learnings…” directed by Larry Charles (2006), which goes as far as to feature a fake producer as well. Here the film has taken the participatory (and performative) mode so far that it is no longer classed as a documentary but as a comedy.
3. No Intervention Intervention for Maximum Effect
The third scale shows the extent a filmmaker intervenes and influences the events in the film. By events I don’t mean interviews, but moments that subjects and filmmakers can respond to and make decisions which then changes the direction of following events.
At first glance you would think that purely observational documentaries would lay right at the extreme No Intervention end but in reality there are some situations where no intervention would be completely unethical. In the observational “Soldier Girls” Broomfield stands by while Pt Alves is being bullied by her superiors after breaking down, but would he have intervened if it were a child who was being bullied and abused instead? The other end of the scale is not “Maximum Intervention” as this only means that the filmmaker is constantly stepping in. Instead it is “Intervention for Maximum Effect” which is subtly different. For example, Broomfield, by turning up for an interview late in “The Leader” has made only the smallest of interventions but judges it brilliantly so achieves a great effect. On the other hand in “Fahrenheit 9/11” Moore tries to intervene with his ice cream van stunt but it has little or no effect on his either his subjects or the direction of the documentary from that point onwards. This means we should judge an intervention by the effect it has, not on the apparent size of the specific action.
I have not yet found the ideal location for my own approach on any of these scales but with more thought, experimentation and practice I should find it or get close enough by the time I produce my graduate film. Add to this the specific lessons I can learn from the historical and contemporary films and directors I have studied and I believe I will be able to direct a participatory documentary which is interesting, engaging and entertaining.