takaisin sisällysluetteloonSusanna Helke – Wider Screen 2/2004




Documentary filmmaking and documentary value


Time seemed to flow backwards at the 2002 Sheffield Documentary Film Festival where the "dogma thesis" for documentary filmmaking were introduced. These rules were composed by Lars Von Trier in accordance with his "Dogma 95" thesis. By following these "documentary dogmas", documentary filmmakers would produce more authentic, purer and more truthful films. According to von Trier, the addition of music or sound effects is an anathema. In order for the editing to be more visible to the spectator, six to twelve blank frames accompany every cut in these "dogumentaries". No direction or mise-en-scène is allowed, and hidden cameras or archival material are likewise forbidden.

The ideal of renouncing film aesthetics emerges repeatedly in the history of documentary film. According to this tradition, refraining from overt direction and maintaining instead a kind of aesthetic Puritanism in relation to the cinematic devices would guarantee a more authentic and ethical documentary expression. Someone participating in the audience discussion at the Sheffield festival captured the paradox inherent in this way of thinking. "What we’re talking about is how to make a meal without cooking, and how to cook without spices!"

In the history of the documentary genre, especially in the Anglo-American tradition, style and form have been seen as the opposites of content. It has been assumed that as cinematic style – the aesthetic, formal or narrative control of the filmmaker – increases, the content dissolves like gold into aqua regia. Bill Nichols’ definition of documentary film as a discourse of sobriety accurately expresses a hidden assumption at the core of the documentary genre, namely that documentary film is more about content, subject matter and information than form, style or pleasure. (Nichols 1991, p. 3)

It is assumed that documentaries express arguments, evidence and information about reality, and the more abstemious, reticent, invisible and modest the use of stylistic devices, the more likely we are to get pure content – without any unhealthy additives. As Nichols has noted: "The credo that a good documentary is one that draws attention to an issue and not itself follows from the documentary´s epistephilic foundations. Engagement is the aim more than pleasure." (Nichols 1991, p. 179)

In his 1942 essay "The Documentary Idea", John Grierson had already formulated this anti-aesthetic ideal of stylistic (self-)denial: "Documentary was from the beginning – when we first separated our public purpose theories from those of Flaherty – an ‘anti-aesthetic’ movement. We have all, I suppose, sacrificed some personal capacity in ‘art’ and the pleasant vanity that goes with it." Grierson wrote about the dangers of excessive aestheticism as the "bright-eyed enemy", which could at any moment outwit even the most principled documentary filmmaker. (Hardy (ed.) 1966, p. 112)

Grierson saw the aesthetics of film and art as downright harmful to documentary film, which aims to reveal social reality. As Philip Rosen has written, the starting point of Grierson’s project was related more to socio-politics and sociological debate than to film aesthetics. For Grierson, the mission of this new film form was to educate and enlighten individual citizens and render them capable of rational decision-making. (Rosen 1993, p. 78)

American direct cinema of the 1960’s was a decisive milestone in the history of the documentary genre. The ideal of observing spontaneous situations and eschewing filmmaker´s intervention were fundamental to this movement. The ideals of direct cinema became fundamental imperatives of the documentary expression.

In the core of what is now referred to as the observational mode of documentary film lies the definitional anchoring of documentary to the representation of immediacy. Hence, the so-called style of immediacy. The exclusion of mise-en-scène is the most important element in this mode of documentary, the presumption being that history and social reality reveal themselves only to the observing, non-participating, non-interventionist gaze. The epistemological foundation of the observational mode is a conception of reality as spontaneous incident and happenstance, as something that happens apart from and unrelated to the filmmakers intervention.

The interactive approach of the French cinéma vérité, by contrast, resulted in the notion of actors as spokespersons for themselves. In this tradition, the documentary becomes an arena for testifying and witnessing, in which social actors present their cases like witnesses in a courtroom. In expository documentary the world is explained rhetorically and discursively. It comes as no surprise, then, that documentary film is most often defined as the cinema of witnessing, explaining or observing.


Le documentaire joué

In the history of film, documentaries and fiction films have been persistently conceived of as two distinct and separate traditions, the cinema of reality and the cinema of fiction. It would be more helpful, however, to see documentaries and fiction films as part of a larger continuum. Instead of producing monolithic definitions and airtight categories of either documentary or fictional film, it would be more relevant to study the gamut of film genres as a gradual flow. To this way of thinking, photomechanical recording and cinematic representations of fantasy and imagination, for example, would represent extremes, but there would also be points at which the two traditions meet and overlap in terms of style, aesthetics, epistemology, ontology or ethics. There is a rich unexplored border zone of hybrid species where the strategies of documentary and fictional filmmaking intertwine.

François Niney describes le documentaire joué or le documentaire à la fiction as a mode of filmmaking that combines documentary material with mise-en-scène. Le documentaire joué – which I consider a profoundly distinctive strategy from reenactments of docudrama – is a point where two poles connect. In these poles the other "records unexpected sights" and in the other the performances are "reconstructed with the actors." (Niney 2000, p. 120) Films in which the "social actors" perform or reenact situations from their own lives within a more or less coherent story world, by contrast, are documentaires joués, or what I prefer to call the cinema of replayed reality. In these films, certain strategies and devices of fiction films have been borrowed and adapted to "avoid making a film about something in order to make it with someone." (Niney 2000, p. 121)

Robert Flaherty pioneered the cinema of replayed reality with his 1922 film Nanook of the North. He went astray from the straight and narrow path of the genre before it even existed. Flaherty had absorbed the mise-en-scene and montage techniques of fictional films of the era, and was not primarily concerned with recording, observing or explaining. On the contrary, he used mise-en-scène (or mise-en-cadre) techniques, montage, controlled compositions, third-person narratives, parallel editing etc. to set up scenes based on the experiences of historical characters. (Cook 1997, p. 222) The coherence of dramaturgy, in this case minimal or "slight narrative" as Rotha calls it, and reenacted scenes are used to create a mythical story. Discursive exposition, which certainly exists, is subordinated to the unfolding of this mythical narration. This is an entirely different strategy from present-day mainstream television documentaries, where the events shown are subordinated to their discursive exposition.

Nanook is the character of a mythical story world. He is played by Allakariallak, a North-Canadian inuit and native of the Baffin Island. Nevertheless, his performance is not based on the mimicry of being someone else. Rather, he bestows Nanook with his appearance, his corporeal existence. Nanook is, presumably, very much like Allakariallak, although Nanook is a mythological character created by the director. In the story world of the film, Allakariallak has withdrawn from his historical body and become another, Nanook, a mythological primitive man struggling against the forces of nature to provide food for his "family" which the director modelled on the nuclear family of the West.

In his ethnographic films, shot in West Africa in the 1950’s, Jean Rouch combines performance with spontaneous observation and fantasy with historical reality, thereby blurring the traditional distinctions between fiction and documentary film. Rouch’s approach can be described as improvised ethnography. Le Jaguar (1954/1962), Moi, un Noir (1958) and La Pyramide humaine (1957) were based on reenactments of incidents arising from actual situations in the lives of the protagonists. They improvised incidents both in front of the camera as well as when commenting on edited material in the sound studio. Rouch called his approach shared anthropology and his above-mentioned films ethnofictions. (Stoller 1992, p. 139)

The people being filmed were not simply the subjects of scientific observation, but active performers, narrators and co-workers. Francois Niney’s expression le documentaire joué is an especially apt and nuanced description of this type of film, as the French expression not only signifies performing and acting, but also playing. The central element of these ethnofictions is the action and improvisation that takes place in front of the camera – the play and the playing – in which ethnographic knowledge is embodied and made perceivable. The question however, is about embodied knowing within, embodied knowledge, which exceeds the boundaries of omniscient knowledge and challenges the fixed position (and stance) of the observer who sees and knows. (Nichols 1994, p. 2) Rouch is not primarily concerned with telling, explaining or modelling, but rather with creating – in cooperation with his characters – cinematic scenes, which embody his reflections on particular cultural constructions, social traditions and myths. These scenes are not based on a pre-existing reality in the manner of direct cinema. They happen for the purpose of the film. They are catalyzed by the process of filmmaking.


Performing and recording the historical real

Bill Nichols calls the subjects in documentary films "social actors." (Nichols 1991, p. 42) In the observational, expository or interactive mode – as well as in the conventions of documentary television formats that blend these three modes – social actors are mainly presented as objects of observation, subordinate to commentary as examples, informants or witnesses. In the works of Rouch, Flaherty and contemporary directors such as Ulrich Seidl, Michael Winterbottom, Abbas Kiarostami, Nicholas Barker or Donigan Cumming, a different idea of being in a film has been employed. The unambiguous claim of an indexical link between image and reality, story and history, the character of the story and the subject of history, does not exist. These films do not submit to an either-or dichotomy. They are fictional as well as documentary, and the social actors are characters as well as agents of history.

It is appropriate to distinguish between films of this type and films of other sub-genres which employ dramatizations, such as docudramas and for example films anticipating stylistic strategies of docudrama as for example The March of Time -series (1935–) or Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand’s Native Land (1942). In these films, dramatizations and reenactments serve as illustrations, which reinforce the subject matter presented through rhetorical and persuasive commentary. These fictional dramatizations are clearly separate and distinct from the documentary material. The majority of the didactic dramas of the British Documentary Film Movement conveyed a social message through the means of fictional dramas. The actors in these films are substitutes for the agents of history. As Nichols has noted, "fictional performance departs from the indexical compact grounding the reception of documentary." (Nichols 1991, p. 246) In the cinema of replayed reality, with directors like Jean Rouch, Robert Flaherty or Ulrich Seidl, the performing and recording of the historical real are inseparably intertwined.

In Michael Winterbottom’s film In This World (2003), two young Afghan men, Jamal and Enayat, leave a refugee camp and travel thousands of kilometres across Iran, Turkey, Italy and France to find the promise of a better life in London. The director and scriptwriter recruited as "actors" Anayatullah Jumaudin and 15 year-old Jamal Udin Torab from a real Pakistani refugee camp. Authorities allowed them to participate in the shooting, provided they be returned to the camp afterwards. Jamal, however, used the opportunity to flee. The end of the film is shot after he has returned to London – only this time he is a real illegal refugee.

In this World challenges the dichotomy of fiction and documentary film. The film is scripted and the flight is organized for filming, hence this is a fabricated story. The filmmakers got the idea for the story from a set of existing circumstances, and they recruited two real refugees as "models." The actors play in a story that intersects with their own reality and, as it were, represent imaginary refugees who could be them or anyone else sharing their destiny. They are not simply non-professional actors, like those who performed, for example, in early neo-realist films. Their historical destiny is intertwined with the destiny of the film’s characters. They act using their real names and real family members are introduced in the episodes filmed at the camp. Nichols has suggested that in documentaries, unlike in fiction films, social actors are more the agents of history than narration. (Nichols 1991, p. 230) However, the fate of Jamal the character and the real Jamal intersect. In the end, the character not only borrows the name and appearance of the real Jamal, but the two come to share an identical destiny, that of an illegal refugee immigrating without proper documents.

The film employs the stylistic strategies of observational documentaries. The documentary value of the film, however, is not strictly tied to certain stylistic strategies used by the director to give the impression of reality. For example, In This World makes use of spontaneous hand-held shooting, voice-over narration and graphics that resemble those used in the expository documentaries of the 1940’s. The film’s documentary value is more visceral, more ontologically challenging in nature. Although the film is indexed as fictional, it is bound to the orders of magnitude in the sense Nichols gives to the expression. (Nichols 1991, p. 229–266)

© The Sundance ChannelThere are fissures in the representation of imaginary, especially in regard to the character of Jamal. He is a phantom of historical reality in a fictionally constructed odyssey of two young men. As a viewer I am not able to dismiss the film merely as imagined, acted, or fabricated. When the film ends, "Jamal" of the story world continues his life as the real Jamal in London as an illegal refugee. In the last sequence of the film there is a turning point – and a point of no return – where the fabricated story is transformed into the observation of the flow of the actual and corporeal history. This is a moment when safeguarded categorical divisions between fictional and documentary dissolve.

Also in this film, to freely quote Nichols, some qualities of the moments and the presence of the characters persist outside the grip of textual organisation. (Nichols 1991, p. 231) The film does not happen only in the story world and the characters are not only agents of the narration. Hereby, documentary value is not simply a stylistic effect in this film. The film uses pre-existing physical reality, characters and events that await us outside the text as material. This reality exists despite the applied narrational strategies and the demands for the coherence and unity of the diegetic universe created for the film. The film is not a detailed one-to-one record of the profilmic reality that would have happened despite the filmmaking. This sort of "documentarity", in the context of a film indexed as fictional, gives a whole new meaning to the expression documentary value.

John Grierson used the expression documentary value when referring to Flaherty’s film Moana (1926) – consequently coming up with a name for a genre that later on became locked up in its puritanically guarded ghetto of sobriety. Documentary value can be seen as referring to the visceral sensation which develops when we see something in a film we know will continue existing beyond the diegesis of the film. When we see Jamal in the film, we recognize him as being just as vulnerable and mortal as our own bodies tied up with geographical, physical and political constraints of history. Would we look at him differently if he – or someone of his kind – would be presented by an actor in a professional body?


The cinematic practice of replayed reality

In our films White Sky (Valkoinen taivas, 1998), Soapdealer´s Sunday (Saippuakauppiaan sunnuntai, 1998) or The Idle Ones (Joutilaat, 2001) we have together with my co-director Virpi Suutari employed the method of the films discussed above in the context of our documentary films. More precisely, the re-arranging of situations in accordance to the actual experiences of the main characters and pre-existing conditions is the key element of our method.

Why not just to observe? As I mentioned before, the cornerstone of the observational mode is the notion of the historical and social reality as something that happens in front of the camera. But do social constructions always reveal themselves as incidents – or happenstance? As a documentary filmmaker you face the paradox of showing abstract through concrete, through something that can be seen and shown. But how, for example, can such abstract conceptions as adaptation to ecological devastation in the case of White Sky, or boredom as a result of unemployment in The Idle Ones be seen and shown? How does boredom happen in front of the camera? In classical direct cinema, the reliance was on the pre-existence of the course of events, which also revealed the concealed mechanisms of social reality. This resulted in understanding the events as more or less predestined crises structures. (Winston 1988, p. 274)

© Kinotar

Mythical constructions can be seen, not only as domains of biased ideological and cultural preconceptions as in the case of "Nanook/Allakariallak", but also as cultural strategies for crystallizing collective memory. Any kind of narration is giving form and unity to something which is hazardous and unpredictable – and, as Nichols has noted, narration is always a kind of allegory. (Nichols 1991, p. 244) In the "Flahertian method", this form is given by re-enacting reality-based cinematic scenes and through dramatic narration, in which mythical motifs and themes are crystallized. The organization (compositional or structural) of these re-enactments is not necessarily tied to one-to-one correspondence with the profilmic history or the flow of actual events. The importance of compositional accuracy, however, is not a mere aesthetical or formal (or formalist) question. When planning and choosing the scenes to be shot for White Sky or The Idle Ones (the latter consisting also of spontaneously shot scenes), it was necessary to find events that not only advance the narration but also give form to the thematic implications.

If Bill Nichols’ concepts on tension and relation between character, icon and social actor are applied, the representation of Natasha, Katya, Igor or Bodi, Lötkö and Hapa can be regarded as taking on the attributes of all three of these. (Nichols 1991, p. 264) Even though there are fractures in the indexical link between representation and the profilmic flow of history, they are social actors and agents of history whose historical existence exceeds the attributes given to them as agents of narration. Yet, they are also characters of the diegetic story world and conveyors of narrational motifs. Especially in The Idle Ones, a (slight) character development of classical narration may be recognised. Nevertheless, I would argue that the "Flahertian method" based on overtly compositional design tends to emphasize iconic dimensions of representation. This is because the observations of profilmic history are expressed in a condensed form and through cinematic scenes as certain kinds of crystallizations of the flow of historical events. In this approach, even the time span of represented moments can be condensed and occasionally representation exceeds the limits of present tense. In the mythical construction of Nanook, for example, the past is present in the reconstructions of already vanishing customs.

"The Flahertian method" does not, nevertheless, inevitably result in a distortion of historical reality or ideologically biased representation. There is a potential for ideological falsification or misrepresentation in any documentary approach. Documentary of any kind inevitably employs some formal strategies. Whatever methods, approaches, modes or devices of narration are employed, stylistic choices cannot be avoided, regardless if they are transparent or reflexive, defamiliarizing or conventional strategies. In this respect, documentary expression should not be considered a discourse of indifference, be it in terms of form or content.

text: © Susanna Helke
pictures: © The Sundance Channel (1) & © Kinotar (2)

takaisin sisällysluetteloon


Cook, David A: A History Of Narrative Film. W.W. Norton, New York 1997 (1981).

Hardy, Forsyth (ed.): Grierson on Documentary. Faber and Faber, London & Boston 1966.

Nichols, Bill: Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Indiana University Press, Bloomington 1991.

Nichols, Bill: Blurred Boundaries: Questions of Meaning in Contemporary Culture. Indiana University Press, Bloomington 1994.

Niney, François: L´Épreuve du Réel à l´Écran. De Boeck & Larcier s.a. 2000.

Rosen, Philip: Document and Documentary. In Renov, Michael (ed.): Theorizing Documentary. Routledge, New York 1993.

Winston, Brian: The Tradition of the Victim. In Rosenthal, Alan: New Challenges for Documentary. University of California Press, Berkeley 1988.

Stoller, P: The Cinematic Griot: The Ethnography of Jean Rouch. Univeristy of Chicago Press, Chicago 1992.


Additional bibliography

Barnouw, Erik: Documentary – A History of the Non-Fiction Film. Oxford University Press, New York 1974.

Barnsam, Richard M: Non-Fiction Film – A Critical History. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 1992.

Bordwell, David: On the History of Film Style. Harvard University Press; Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England 1997.

Bordwell, David: Narration in the Fiction Film. Routledge, London 1985.

Bordwell, David & Kristin Thompson: Film Art – An Introduction. McGraw-Hill, 1997 (1979).

Bruzzi, Stella: New Documentary: A Critical Introduction. Routledge, London 2000.

Gaines, Jane M. & Renov, Michael (eds.): Collecting Visible Evidence. University of Minnesota Press 1999.

Issari, M. Ali & Doris A. Paul: What is Cinéma Vérité? The Scarecrow Press; Metuchen, N.J. & London 1979.

MacDougall, David: Transcultural Cinema. Princeton University Press, New Jersey 1998.

Nichols, Bill: Introduction to Documentary. Indiana University Press, Bloomington 2001.

Plantinga, Carl R: Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film. Cambridge University Press 1997.

Winston, Brian: Claiming the Real: The Griersonian Documentary and its Limitations. BFI, London 1995.