David MacDougall
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Observational filmmaking
A unique practice
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Documentary filmmaking and ethnographic filmmaking have spawned a wide range of practices, but until fairly recently most documentaries have relied on techniques used in making fiction films, with each scene acted out for the camera. Observational filmmaking has diverged from this in its attempts to film spontaneous human behaviour rather than re-enactments of it. It also emphasises the role of the filmmaker as an observer, sharing this perspective with the viewer. Taking the example of the author’s filming at a boarding school in India, this chapter outlines the observational filmmaker’s approach to filming others, beginning with the initial motivation, entry into a community, the finding of protagonists, the filmmaker’s behaviour while filming and the practical and human difficulties that arise in the process.

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The art of the observer

A personal view of documentary


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