Sunday, March 15, 2009

Group #3 - Stephen, Adam, Will

This past week we studied documentaries, and their relationships, similarities, and differences to other film forms. Here are a few questions we came up with to help you think more about this subject:

What makes a film a documentary?

How and why does a documentary rely on conceptions of "reality," and how do they achieve this status?

What point is Kiarostami trying to make at the end of Close-Up with the whole "bad sound" scene (as they're trying to record Makhmalbaf and Sabzian)? Does this heighten the reality of the scene? Is it just an artistic show? Also, what effect does the music later in the scene add?

What does Dabashi mean when he says that "Kiarostami has opened the way to radical dismantling of the structural violence of 'meaning,' upon which is predicated such metaphysical surrogates as 'history,' "tradition,' 'identity,' and 'piety.'" (67) Do you agree with this statement? If so, how does Close-Up achieve this?

What does it mean when actors play themselves in a film? Does it make it more "real" or believable? Are they still even acting, or recreating?

In relation to The Thin Blue Line, do the stylized "recreations" cheapen the source material and factualness of the film, or do they help add to it? How also do the interviews affect us the viewer and the film at large?

What is the obsession with epistephilia that documentaries have? Does this differ from narrative films?

Is it truly impossible for a documentary (or any film) to show the objective truth and appeal to authenticity?

Does the fact that most of Battle of Algiers is obviously staged and made within the realm of classical film style impede its appeal to authenticity and realism, even though most of the sets used were authentic and many of the actors were actual participants in the revolution? Is this any more or less true than with Close-Up or The Thin Blue Line?

What does Nichols mean when he says that “Something is at stake. Namely, our very subjectivity within the social arena.” (194) Why do documentaries have this effect? How does this differ, or does it, from narrative film?


  1. I am interested in the last question of the post. It seems that Nichols uses the Lukacs's analysis of literary writing and applies it to the exploration of differences of documentaries and narrative films; particularly he explores the spectators' involvement with the film depending on the form that the story is presented in. Nichols discusses the fact that narration as opposed to description enables film directors to place the viewers from a subjective to an objective position. He implies that the narration of facts represents the story in the most authentic manner. Spectators become actively engaged with the action by observing and thus analyzing the narrative.

  2. In the Thin Blue Line, I believe that the recreations really add to the factual nature of the film. In order for an audience to buy into the stories that the film constructs, a narrative needs to be created. This narrative is illustrated through the various reenactments. The audience can appreciate the factuality of the film if they are invested in it by way of the narrative.Thus, we care more about the individuals involved and the "truth" surrounding the events.

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  4. In response to the question about authenticity and objective truth, I think it's pretty hard for anyone to argue that a documentary could capture the objective truth of anything: on the most basic level, what shots are included in the film are the result of a choice that the filmmaker must make. However, instead of striving for the journalistic standard of 'objective truth', a documentary could be more 'authentic' if it acknowledges the fact that the making of the documentary changed the events it depicted, even if slightly (the effect of the look of the camera at the actors). Also, to create a narrative, documentary makers often draw 'characters' out of a story, and by giving artificial emphasis to certain people and minor storylines, they create an artificial reality that no longer depicts the events objectively, as they really happened. It only captures a subjective segment of that reality.

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  6. i'm glad to see that thinking of your blog entries more casually has helped some of you want to pose sooner...but a *little* more length to the posts wouldn't hurt! stassia/adam/leslie, these are interesting, but so brief that the reasons/motivations behind what you've written remain sort of mysterious. i'd urge you all to continue to bring some rigor to what you post, give examples from the reading/films/other films you've seen, like you all did last week.

    also, re: this week's readings: if you feel compelled to skip something, skip leo bersani's long article on "godard's couples." we will probably spend most of our time in section tomorrow on the restivo/kaes/elsaesser articles, so don't miss those, whatever you do.

  7. To address the final question, what is at stake as the viewer moves from purely observer to participant as Nichols suggests. First, I would point to the risk of the viewer now taking the knowledge gained from the documentary as inherently and totally true. Few documentaries point to the pluralism and complications of the issues they address. As Nichols argues, the spectator's knowledge because it is received from a film, which offers the semblance of presence, is more experientially based. What is at risk is that the spectator will feel s/he truly KNOWS about the events, what is at stake in the events, and so on. This in turn, especially when dealing with current events, risks the CNN effect where the populace at large feels that because they know about global issues, that others do as well, and that those others are addressing the problems.
    As a result, do we encounter a more apathetic, unresponsive audience. I remember being struck by the ambivalence that followed the initial outcry after Hotel Rwanda became a national box office hit. Have we forgotten? Or more recently we encounter Darfur where documentaries of a genocide in action have been made and yet there is relatively little tangible response.
    However, does the spectator identify more or less with a "character" in a documentary vs. fictive narrative film? And is identification the goal of documentary film? Nichols mentions the coupling of "pleasure and recognition, involvement and awareness simultaneously." But is it the same type of pleasure? I think it clearly depends on the documentary for while some use the same techniques as narrative cinema to construct spectator identification others clearly do not (Battle of Algiers vs. Thin Blue Line). The pleasure we might derive from Thin Blue Line seems to follow more from an epistephilia than the character identification of narrative cinema. However if that is the case, than do we experience any sort of lack from our inability to identify with the characters on screen? Does knowing make up for the lack? In our earlier readings, spectatorial pleasure was derived from a knowledge gained by seeing, in straightforward documentaries that knowledge is presented to us in the form of interviews, on-screen text, etc...In short, we are obviously being handed the knowledge and not gaining it from spying through keyholes. Is this any less empowering or is it our expectation when we see a documentary?

  8. The question about actor's "playing themselves" caught my attention. I'm thinking about a recent movie, The Wrestler for which Mickey Rourke received a lot of acclaim for his performance as a washed-up pro wrestler. The life of the character in the film is said to mirror his own life very closely, and despite the power of the performance, some criticized Rourke for simply "playing himself" and therefore not really needing to "act." Obviously in Close-Up the characters are even more literally "playing themselves" and I while I do think the characters in Close-Up are largely "recreating", I think there is acting involved, namely in the need to draw upon past experiences and emotions and make them believable in the new moment. Being able to draw directly from your own life (Rourke in the wrestler, and the various characters of Close-Up) definitely leads to more honest and believable performances in my opinion, but I do think it can make the acting a little "easier" (if that even matters). In the case of Close-Up, having the actors play themselves definitely adds to the authenticity of the film, but I think the fact that there is an element of recreation makes the realism of the performances a little less impressive from an acting perspective, and consequently not overwhelmingly powerful.

  9. I'm going to address the question of "what makes a film a documentary" because that seems most difficult. gives us "based on or re-creating an actual event, era, life story, etc., that purports to be factually accurate and contains no fictional elements" which is pretty good, but then it also means we, like Documentary Film Festivals, must reject Morris' film. The whole recreated bit in "Thin Blue Line" is terribly cliched as an element of the documentary, to me anyway, but I guess I've been mistaken. We never see the actors' faces, there is no ambient sound, and there is an excess of close-ups on "important" objects and events. Anyway, if "Thin Blue Line" isn't a documentary, it's something like one, and might well be if we ignored all visual components. I think a documentary would be a collection of testimonials and any available source footage of the "incidents," which means the genre of documentary doesn't lend itself to film very well. However, even if we accept the recreation of events as documentary, Morris' film is very stylized, e.g. someone is talking about midnight, and we get a close-up of the minute hand on some random clock ticking to the 12 with an echo.

    In retrospect, "What makes a film a documentary?" isn't as hard a question as I thought.

    Also, on a separate note, I think at the very least, using "real people" to act their own parts in a documentary is a fantastic idea. Knowing that the person you are watching in a recreation is willfully representing their past-self produces a strange feeling of reflexivity. You know they know you are watching them and judging them both as actors and as people. It is an odd act, too, to have a group of people go to a given spot and reenact "word-for-word" something they really did there in the past. And then tape it on top of that, and use that to represent footage of the actual event.

    This strange awareness of representation reminds me of the 1970's cigarettes used in "Maria Braun." To use such anachronistic props, and willingly so, doubly enforces the intentionality of objects chosen for presentation on the screen, whether props, actors, or "real people."

  10. What intrigues me the most is your question about what is a documentary. A documentary does not necessarily follow a linear narrative, but rather, it uses a kind of narrative to convey information in the most persuasive way possible. Documentaries attempt to be objective by admitting their subjectivity. One of the most important distinctions of a documentary for me is that documentaries tend to acknowledge their biases and methods. Whereas most typical narrative films attempt to hide their discours, documentary films often accentuate this aspect. Ultimately documentaries use narrative to be more persuasive by presenting the spectator with a character, motif, or plotline with which to sympathize or follow. The most persuasive documentaries that I've seen always relate the information presented to real people in a narrative sense, unfolding information in a way that has a story arc, but tries to follow the truth.