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.
This chapter explores how documentary films represent the character and life experiences of others. Biographies and autobiographies have their counterparts in documentary cinema, but there are also profound differences between them. Rather than trying to convey a whole life, films more often focus on a narrow segment of their subjects’ lives, and they frequently involve close personal encounters between filmmaker and subject. The author discusses a number of film portraits and the means by which filmmakers portray others through observing their lives and interacting with them directly. A selection of documentary films provides examples for discussion, including several by the author.
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.
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.
Most documentary films must be approached with careful planning, since the potential for disaster is very great. The challenge is therefore to keep the percentage of disaster to a minimum. In some ways this approach is a salvage process, for a film is ultimately the outcome of what one hoped to do, what one discovered along the way and what one was actually able to film. Typically there are two main sorts of disaster. The first results from a failure of intelligence or bad luck and the unpredictability of events. The second results from breakdowns in filming technology, perhaps the most vulnerable point in the filmmaking process. With the detachment of hindsight, the author describes the various filmmaking disasters he has experienced and, as an encouragement to others in similar circumstances, how they were overcome.
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.
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.
This chapter examines the experience common to many documentary filmmakers of being both outside and inside their subjects. Relationships between filmmakers and subjects vary greatly but they are often close and sometimes all-consuming. In making portrait films, filmmakers frequently feel a strong desire for their work to embody the subject in some total sense, beyond the simple representation of appearance and personality. At the same time they may experience a sense of inadequacy in trying to express the immensity of another person’s life. In this chapter the author uses one of his own experiences of making a portrait film to examine the larger processes and imponderables involved in the attempt.
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.
There are many factors at work in the iconography of human remains. Some of those frequently discussed are aesthetic criteria, iconographic traditions and specific contingencies, whether political (for example in war paintings), symbolic (essential for transi images) or cultural. There is, however, one factor that is rarely mentioned, despite its centrality: the regime of value associated with corpses. Christ’s body is not painted in the same way as that of a departed relative or that used in a human dissection. Artists choose a suitable iconography depending on how the remains are perceived. This criterion became absolutely crucial in contexts such as nineteenth-century France, when attitudes to corpses underwent major changes.