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A personal view of documentary

The Art of the Observer is a personal guide to documentary filmmaking, based on the author’s years of experience as a writer on film and a maker of ethnographic and documentary films. It devotes particular attention to observational filmmaking and the distinctive philosophy and methodology of this approach. Each of its chapters addresses a different aspect of filmmaking practice, offering both practical insights and reflections on what it means, in both intellectual and emotional terms, to attempt to represent the lives of others. The book makes clear that documentary cinema is not simply a matter of recording reality, but also of analytically and artfully organising the filmmaker’s observations in ways that reveal the complex patterns of social life.

David MacDougall

In documentary films both the filmmaker and the viewer are observers, with the viewer observing the filmmaker’s observations. In observational cinema, to a greater extent than in other documentary forms, filmmakers attempt to give the audience access to their position as observers. The problem remains, however, of how to render the deeper significance of what is observed, and this may require filming strategies more commensurate with the complexity of life itself. The view that a simple camera recording gives the most accurate representation of social life is misleading in that it ignores this underlying complexity. Rather, it is the filmmaker’s structuring of his or her observations that allows a film to reveal more accurately the depth of human experience. This in turn requires certain arts on the part of the filmmaker, which can be called the arts of observation, adaptation, construction, allusion and performance. The chapter uses the example of the author’s film Gandhi’s Children (2008) to demonstrate how each of these arts may be employed.

in The art of the observer
A unique practice
David MacDougall

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.

in The art of the observer
David MacDougall

In ethnographic filmmaking, visual images, both singly and in combination, make sense in a variety of ways through their uses in description, analysis, interpretation and explanation. These uses rely on the ability of the filmmaker to guide the viewer’s understanding and the viewer’s ability to read the filmmaker’s intentions. This chapter uses an example from the author’s Tempus de Baristas (1993), a film on the life of shepherds in Sardinia, to examine the methods and ramifications of filming a single scene in an ethnographic film.

in The art of the observer
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Evolution of a concept
David MacDougall

This chapter discusses the varied historical and epistemological conceptions of ethnographic film, from the idea of films conceived as museum collections, to so-called ‘illustrated lectures’, to films made as visual equivalents of written ethnographies, and films that explore the performative, emotional and underlying cultural patterns of human societies. The pros and cons of several approaches are considered, along with their different methodologies. Among these are the various forms of observational cinema, ranging from films focusing on the filmmaker’s immediate observations, to those using narrative methods, to those creating more multi-level structures. The chapter describes how some films extend existing filmic possibilities in the temporal and sensory realms, in their uses of narrative, in emphasising thematic elements, and in combining several of these approaches in the same film. The author concludes that if ethnographic filmmaking is to develop its full potential, no single approach can be held up as the only legitimate one.

in The art of the observer
David MacDougall

Noting the shift from didactic films to new documentary forms in the 1960s, the author looks at the various strategies that filmmakers have devised to structure the new material that these forms produce. Although filmmakers generally consider the structure of their films while shooting them, the prospect of editing a large body of material can still seem daunting. Unlike fiction films, the contents of documentaries often emerge only during the filming, and their construction can take many forms, often without a strict chronology. This chapter examines a wide range of structural styles and modes of organisation, and goes on to describe the strategies the author employed in making a series of five films at a boarding school in India.

in The art of the observer
David MacDougall

Filmmakers are frequently called upon to film in small communities, where the objective may be as much to convey the unique character of the community as the individuals within it. Following on from the previous chapter, the author describes in detail the history of making the Doon School film series in India. He discusses the various approaches required to convey the intertwined personal, physical and social aspects of the subjects’ lives. In some cases this involved the simultaneous layering of several different cultural and social patterns. The author concludes that only through such complex structures can films represent social experience in ways that transcend those of written texts.

in The art of the observer
David MacDougall

Although there is a significant tradition of films made by one person, collaboration has long been the dominant practice in documentary film production, and further forms of co-creation are emerging with the advent of new media platforms. This poses the problem of how we should interpret films that combine different skills and different creative visions. What is the place of authorship in such a work? Drawing on a range of examples, including several from the author’s own films, this chapter describes seven types of collaboration in traditional documentary film practice: dispersed collaboration, co-authorship, creative assistance, subject collaboration, sponsorship, complicity, and symbiosis. In addition to these, it notes that the collaboration of the viewer is crucial to the final realisation of a film.

in The art of the observer
David MacDougall

This chapter considers the pragmatics and nuances of film editing, particularly in editing documentary films. Film editing is about arranging segments of film, beginning with the arrangement of individual shots into scenes and ending with the arrangement of scenes into entire films. These arrangements produce different meanings at both an emotional and an intellectual level. Here the author discusses the role of juxtaposition, linking, continuity, timing, rhythm, punctuation and other factors in film editing, drawing upon examples from his own films, those of other filmmakers, and the ideas and methods of the British film editor and writer Dai Vaughan.

in The art of the observer
Abstract only
David MacDougall

Films are born out of ideas and hard work, but also out of the energies and emotional lives of their makers. This chapter discusses the range of emotions experienced by filmmakers when making films, as they undergo sensations of pleasure, empathy, delight, worry, frustration and sometimes a divided consciousness. Documentary filmmaking also allows filmmakers to cross the borders of culture, class, age and gender as they record the lives of others. Referring to his own experiences and those of such filmmakers as Jean Rouch, Robert Gardner and Basil Wright, the author links the feelings of filmmakers to the films they produce, exploring the challenges they face along the way.

in The art of the observer