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.
In 1988, prior to making the film Photo Wallahs (1991), the filmmakers David and Judith MacDougall had to import their filming equipment into India. This chapter provides a narrative account of the process of clearing the equipment through Indian customs, written immediately after the event. The importation involved numerous documents to be tendered and signed by officials, as well as the inspection of the equipment, carried out in the heat of an Indian summer, all this in competition with other people trying to get similar clearances for their goods. The hero of the piece is the clearing agent, Mr Gandhi, who has been doing this sort of thing for years.
This chapter describes a meeting of filmmaker Robert Gardner with students in a graduate seminar at Harvard University. In a discussion Gardner responded to questions from the students about the making of Forest of Bliss (1985), his film about Hindu rituals of death in Varanasi (formerly Benares), which the students had just seen. He tells how he was inspired by the films of the Italian Neorealist directors, the themes he had in mind in making the film, the convergence in it of poetic elements, and the practical problems he encountered in making it. Other topics covered include overcoming the ethnocentrism of viewers, the role of chance and circumstance in documentary filmmaking, and why he is attracted to making films in other cultures as a way of addressing universal aspects of human experience.
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.
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.
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.
This chapter discusses the potential of children to use filmmaking to explore aspects of their communities from their own unique perspective as children. Based on the ‘Childhood and Modernity’ video workshop project in India, the author (who directed the project) describes how children responded to the opportunity to film the subjects they had chosen, and the unusual films that resulted from it. With no previous experience of documentary filmmaking, they often invented new ways of using the camera, producing films and filming styles clearly marked by their own personalities. An unexpected aspect of the project was the extent to which some children identified with their cameras as confidants and friends.
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.