Friday, November 13, 2009

Redefining Cinema: The Documentary

Since the beginning of film, there are two greater categories of division that separate all productions: fictional and factual. Sure, cinematic experiences have been divided by genres, sub-genres, categorical movements, and historical movements, but the primary breakdown of films is into two categories. This is according to John Izod and Richard Kilborn's article, "The Documentary". For most, it is obvious what films fall into the fictional category, for they are typically mainstream features with success to some scale that are meant to entertain. Documentaries, however, are often underappreciated pieces of film meant to instruct or inform. As John Grierson, the man credited as being the forerunner of British documentaries, put it, documentaries are "a creative treatment of actuality." In other words, documentaries need to be more than just raw film of real life, for they must uniquely educate or be culturally enlightening. Critics do not necessarily agree with Grierson's as a whole, though, because they believe that it is hard to present reality with the intentions of moving an audience's thought process in a specific direction without the use of artifice. Where does storytelling meet actuality, and if it does, then is the film still a factual account? Many key technological developments and changes in the general audience's mindset have led into a more refined documentary style.

One point of debate for the accuracy of realism in documentaries is dramatic reconstructions, or scenes recreated because footage of the original event could not be obtained. The development of cameras that were hand-held and lightweight allowed documentarists to film on location for nearly any event, which helped lessen the use of re-enacted scenes. However, dramatic reconstructions are still used because cameras are not allowed access in all locations. For instance, scenes involving courtroom events must be re-created because cameras are not allowed in the court of law. The problem with dramatic reconstructions is that they are sometimes not used for an accurate portrayal of an occurrence, but rather to increase the dramatic appeal of a scene to an audience. This is where the question of credibility comes into play with documentaries.

Documentarists must also keep in mind perspective when attempting to stress the importance of a lesser known truth about a generally known reality. A documentary becomes spectacular when it uncovers or captures facts that lye underneath the surface of the obvious, but authors must be careful not to skew reality because of their own preconceptions. For instance, Michael Moore is technically called a documentarist, but his work is specifically made to expose weaknesses or faults in the Republican party, so his films are based on preconceived ideas favored by the filmmaker. It is often easy to get swept away by the strong narration and "value-laden language" of documentaries that coincide with strong selective imagery, but a viewer must inquisitively approach documentaries. Spike Lee is another prominent documentarist of modern times. Most of his films are meant to uncover and educate masses about race relations, urban life, and political issues. His films appeal to a wide audience because he exudes relation to his subject matter.

Documentaries are a quizzical form of film and raise many questions from critics and audiences alike. However, they are effective because they have no limitations on theme or topic. People sometimes look down upon the invasive methods used by documentarists to uncover "the truth" or the unknown, but it is an effective style of film that will evolve and exist in many forms.

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