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Redefining Cinema: other genres

John Izod and Richard Kilborn

Looking back on the achievements of a century of

moving images, critics often remark on two contrary
tendencies. On the one hand there is the tradition of
narrative, orfictional, film in which the primary object is
to divert or entertain, and, on the other, there is that of
documentary whose main aim, it has been said, is to
Instruct or inform (Kracauer 1960). Historically this divi
sion into fictional and factual modes of filmmaking is
seen to be classically exemplified in the work of the
early French film pioneers Georges Mlis and the
Lumire brothers. While the work of Mlis regularly
transported viewers Into mythic and fantastical realms
(Christie 1994), the main appeal of the actuality of the
Lumi4re brothers lay in the cameras ability to repro
duce scenes from everyday life that were instantly
recognizable by those who flocked to see them. In
the subsequent history of cinema, and later in televi
sion, this factualfictional typology has been main-

tamed, even though itis generally recognized that it

is over-simplistic, disguising the degree to which these
opposing tendencies coexist in practice.

Defining documentary
The term documentary itself seems to have been
coined in 1926 by John Grierson the man usually
considered to be the founding father of British docu
mentary. Grierson not only outlined what he saw as the
defining features of documentary, but also reflected on
the purposes to which documentary could be put. For
him, whilst every documentary is bound to present
evidence or information about the socio-historical
world, it must be more than a quasi-scientific recon
struction of reality. The documentarist must deploy a
whole range of creative skills to fashion the fragments

of reality into an artefact that has a specific social

impact: that is educationally instructive or, in some
measure, culturally enlightening. This account must
be, in Griersons phrase, a creative treatment of actu
ality, being aesthetically satisfying while also having a
clearly defined tocial purpose (Hardy 1979: 3546).

The term documentary itself seems to

have been coined in 1926 by John
Grierson, the man usually considered to
be the founding father of British
Many critics have regarded Grierson definition as a
useful starting-point for debating the form and func
tion of documentary, but his concept of creative treat
ment is by no means unproblematic. It attempts to
bring together two elements that are not easily recon
ciled: a commitment to construct an account based on
observable reality and, in contrast, the recognition that
to produce the desired impact on an audience always
requires a good deal of artifice (Nichols 19911. Arising
out of this dilemma, there has always been a lively
debate amongst documentarists and critics over the
legitimacy of certain techniques in the shaping of the
documentary account. What indeed is the status of
works bearing the documentary label, when so many
are structured in much the same way as the fictional
works to which they are said to be diametrically
opposed? Even some of the short actuality films of
the Lumire brothers are marked by conventional
storytelling procedures. Furthermore, doesnt the
fact that documentaries are made up of fragments of
reality which are carefully assembled and edited
according to established narrative principles make
them an essentially fictional construct? Doesnt the
declared or undeclared presence of the documentarist
during the recording process mean documentaries are
authored pieces much like any other feature film? And
do the commercial imperatives, which are so influential
in moving-image production, mean that documen
taries will always be assessed as much for their
entertainment value as for their educational or con
sciousness-raising potential? Especially in the last few
decades, with televisions increasing influence on the
form that documentary has taken, the debate has
remained alive, and ensured that it is impossible to

come up with a definition of the genre more watertight

than Griersons.
Recent theoretical work, particularly by Edward Bra
nigan (1992), draws a clear distinction between narra
tive, as a means used by journalists as well as feature
film writers for structuring information, and fiction, as a
way of describing the truth-claims of a text. For
instance, while it is widely agreed that narrative under
lies much documentary, there has been heated con
troversy over the legitimacy of certain types of
dramatic re-enactment (Kilborn 1 994b). In the early
days of cinema, documentarists were often forced to
use dramatic reconstruction. For example, in Night
Mail (Harry Watt and Basil Wright, GB, 1936) the
sequences in which postal workers sort the mail as
the train runs through the night were shot on a studio
set because the equipment then available was too
cumbersome to use on location. Todays generation
of filmmakers, with the help of lightweight, go-any
where cameras, have few such technical problems
and dramatic reconstructions tend to be used for dif
ferent reasons: to re-enacteventswhere camera access
has been denied las is usually the case in the British
courts of justice) or to enhance the films commercial
appeal by including a strong dramatic element. Pre
dictably enough, the disagreements have tended to
centre on the concern that this blurring of fact and
fiction might mislead audiences. Can they distinguish
sufficiently well those parts of a work which are based
on surmise from those which are more solidly substan
tiated? Could audiences be duped into taking some
thing to be factual which in fact has its origins in the
creative imagination of the drama-documentarist?
There is, however, one principal difference between
the reconstruction done Out of technical necessity and
todays drama-documentary that critics often seem to
forget: recOnstnjctions in drama-documentaries such
as Who Bombed Birmingham? (Granada for liv, 1990)
are explicitly signalled as such.
A further issue which has featured prominently in the
critical discourse surrounding documentaries centres
on questions of realism. Right from the Outset docu
mentarys special claim on an audiences attention has
been its capacity to provide a seemingly objective
window on the world. Much has been made, for
instance, of the so-called indexical bond which allows
viewersto make a clearconnection between on-screen
representations and events in the historical world.
Whilst there has been widespread acceptance of doc
umentarys referential or indexical qualities, there has

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a documentary camera team will influence the course

of events. Filming events in the public arena might
influence them only minimally, but, where the docu
mentarist is operating in a more confined domestic or
institutional setting, the impact of the cameras pres
ence can be quite considerable.

Modes of documentary

ClassIc British
documestaryNIght Mali

been far less agreement about the signifi

cance of this
defining feature: documentaries may well
give us pri
vileged access to empirically observable
reality, but
this is far from suggesting that they can
reveal impor
tant truths about that reality (Nichols
1991). Brechtwas
always keen to remind us, that to capture
what is going
on beneath the surface of empirically observ
able real
ity is far more challenging than accurately
to record the
surface itself (Brecht 1938/1980). By the
same token,
documentarists have always had to be careful
not to
make too grand a claim about how represe
ntative of
the wider reality is a specific detail they have
on film.
Critics of documentary have always been
aware that
all attempts to represent reality carry with them
tant ideological implications. The photog
raphic real
ism of the documentary, for instanc
e, can easily
conceal the extent to which it often activel
y constructs
a particular view of the world. This view is
among other things, by the filmmakers
own precon
ceptions, by the perspective from which
the events are
witnessed, and by the structuring princip
les according
to which the material is edited. In other
words, docu
mentaries can never be wholly objecti
ve; they will
always involve a greater or lesser degree
of interven
tion on the part of the documentarist.
This is always
painfully obvious when one looks
at documentaries

from eras gone by. For example, the narration of

trial Britain (GB, 1931) tells us that Robert Flaher
ty and
John Grierson meant to celebrate the craftsmanship
the shop-floor worker. To our ears, however,
the fruity
accent of the narrator and the heavily value-laden
guage of the script suggest the patronizing curiosi
ty of
the educated middle classesfacing an unfamiliarwo
ing-class culture.
The very act of documenting an event implie
s inter
vention, of course, and there has always been
ment about the extent to which the (mere)
presence of

The photographic realism of the

documentary, for instance, can easily
conceal the extent to which it often
actively constructs a particular view of
the world. This view is determined,
among other things, by the filmmakers
own preconceptions, by the
perspective from which the events are
witnessed, and by the structuring
principles according to which the
material is edited.

While advances in camera and microphone design

have made it possible for the documentarist to be
less obtrusive than in the past, the intervention issue
has remained a matter of intense debate. It might even
be said that distinct modes of filmmaking have devel
oped out of the manner in which documentarists mdi
cate their role in the filmmaking process: whetherthey
appear on camera in the presence of their documen
tary subjects; whether they tell their audience how the
documentary material has been gathered; or even
whether they go as far at to reflect on other ways in
which the project might have been handled.
Discussion of the various modes in which filmmakers
might work has been a feature of debates about doc
umentary since the mid-i 980s (see Nichols 1991), and
for the purposes of critical analysisthe ideaof modes is
attractive as a means of dividing the subject. (we think
of documentary as a vast genre as substantial as fiction
or journalism then it is tempting to see the modes as
representing the parts of that genre. However, unlike
subgenres, they differ from one from another primarily
in the manner in which they represent the historical
world, and only after that in the nature of their sub(ct-matter. At their most distinctive, the modes are
themselves so different in appearance that they make
it possible to conceive of a neat formula whereby the
many functions that documentary can fulfill are paral
leled by a variety of formats ri which they can be con
Unfortunately, the matter is not quite so simple. On
the one hand, discussion of the modes of filmmaking
practice has brought a measure of clarity of thought
concerning the various ways in which documentary can
construct its discourses and address its audiences; it
has thus also drawn attention to the discursive richness
of the genre. On the other hand, the debate has given
rise to expectations of critical precision where,
because of the very nature of the modes, precision is
not always to be found. Symptomatic of this is the
problem theorists have had in distinguishing one

mode from another. For the fact is that they are no

more tidily delineated than the genre in its entirety.
Just as we have had to learn to recognize that docu
mentary has permeable boundaries, with fiction on
one side and journalism on another, so we have to
understand that the modes are equally ill-defined.
What is more, some of them (the reflexive one,
described below, is an obvious case in point) readily
absorb some of the main characteristics of other
modes. Therefore, when observers of documentary
form refer to its modes, it is probably best to under
stand them as having in mind the dominant formal
characteristics that shape a film.
The evolution into mainstream practice of each of
the modes tends to be associated with technological
advance, which is usually said to lie in the improvement
and miniaturization of sound- and picture-recording
equipment. However, most theorists would not regard
technology as the sole determining factor; institutional
constraints and opportunities are also seen as highly
significant in the development of new modes, as
becomes clear when we look at the way they are
The expository mode addresses its audience
directly, usually through a narrator who interprets
what we see, in effect telling us what we should think
of the visual evidence before our eyes. Because the
limited sound-recording technology of the 19305
made it easier to dub in an unseen speaker narration
of this type became known as the voice-of-God
mode, which describes so well the implicit claim of
narrators in this mode to speak with authority. I have
already referred to the narration of the film Industrial
Britain, and itwas rare for a documentary of the 1 930s
and 1940s to be made in any other mode (see BsrnouW
1974; Ellis 1989). Television production technology
overcame these restrictions on sound long ago, and
it is now almost as easy to record the narratoron- as offscreen, but the expository mode is still in use (for
example, in almost all natural history and scientific
documentaries), but its innate tendency to authoritar
ianism is softened by using people with gentle voices
and by offsetting interviews against the commentary,
which seems to give the subjects of the film their own
The observational mode, or direct cinema, is often
referred toss a product of the new technology of the
late 1950s, and it is true thatwithout lightweight equip
ment, large magazines, and audiotape machines with


the facility for synchronous sound recording, it would

not have been possible to get extended footage of
people going about the routine business of their lives.
This is the single most obvious characteristic of obser
vational films lBarnouw 1974). However, the more sen
sitive historians of cinema have noted that even these
films, with their claim simply to observe reality as it
unfolds, are both the vehicles of a distinctive ideology
and the product of institutional pressures and oppor
tunities. Allen and Gomery (1985) show how the phi
losophical implications of direct cinema fitted the
dominant liberal values of the Kennedy era. Indeed,
Kennedy himself was ready to allow observational
camerasto accompany him on more than one occasion
(for example, on the campaign trail in the film Primary
(D. A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, USA, 1960).
Where these films provided insights into chronic social
problems, it was assumed they would be politically
effective: the state would be able to relieve social
malaise just so long as it had been recognized. Allen
and Gomery also demonstrate how, in its early days at
the start of the 1 960s, it was hoped thatthe newformat
would boost the audience for the US television net
work ABC, which at the time was trailing its competi
tors. When it failed to do this, the direct film was
dropped from the schedules.
Also dependent on the new equipment of the late
1 950s was the interactive mode. Partly because it can
also use long takes recorded in the field, itis sometimes
confused with the direct mode. However, at its most
distinct, the mode is characterized by the film crew
interacting with the people in front of the lens (see
Nichols 1991). In general this will occur via an oncamera interview, but sometimes it can be achieved
in the editing process, for instance by constructing the
facsimile of a dialogue from fragments of recorded
statements by people who have not actually met. In
this way the main procedures of the interactive mode
resemble those of the journalistic interview, which is
why interactive documentary has become routine tele
vision practice (Lockerbie 1991). Since it gets round
one of the disadvantages of the direct documentary
that the lattercan only eavesdrop on what is said in front
of the camerathe interactive mode suits that current
of television discourse that claims to get the truth from
the horses mouth (as itwere). It is a form shatfamiliarity
has rendered seemingly natural to viewers; but it too is
redolent with cultural associations, including the very
idea that truth can be uncovered in this way.
The reflexive mode is found where the manner in


which the historical world is represented itself

becomes the topic of cinematic representation. It
makes not only the films subjects, but also its own
formal qualities, the object of questioning and doubt.
Such films frequently discourage spectators from
accepting that a single point of view is an adequate
representation of the whole truth on any topic (see
Nichols 1991; Rer,ov 1993). The reflexive mode has
aroused greater interest among observers of docu
mentary than among most members of the public.
This is probably because reflexive films accommodate
theoretical goals of the kind that Brecht or Godard
might have advocated for documentary. To a whole
generation of critics and theorists weaned in the
1970s on Screen and the cultural debates of the left,
the reflexive documentary was a concept whose time
had come even before it had hit the screen. And,
indeed, in its re-visioning of the world, the reflexive
documentary often does have a political goal, under
mining the certainties ofa political leaderora business
executive by refusing the visible or epistemological
bases upon which certainty is founded. Nick Broomfields pursuit of Margaret Thatchet Tracking down
Maggie (Channel 4, GB, 1994), and Michael Moores
hunt for the Chief Executive of General Motors, Roger
and Me (USA, 1989), are good examples.
The political dimension of the reflexive project lies
partly in the way such films implythat peoples memory,
perception, and interpretation of events are distorted
by the stereotypes (largely screen-based) that circulate
in our culture. More emphatically, the deconstructive
methods these films deploy undermine realism, which
term, as we have seen, is usually taken by documentar
ists to refer to an unproblematic access to the world
through traditional mimetic representation. In reflexive
films such as The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, USA,
1987), the viewer begins to question whether the
images and sounds ofthe textcould possibly represent
the world adequately, since they are plainly a construc
tion of the filmmakers.

In reflexive films such as The Thin Blue

Line (Errol Morris, USA, 1987>, the
viewer begins to question whether the
images and sounds of the text could
possibly represent the world
adequately, since they are plainly a
construction of the filmmakers.

The Thin Blue Line (19S7ldeC0fl5trUct methods used to undermine realism

Whereas the norm in other forms of documentary is

to concentrate attention on the filmmakers encounter
with the world in the reflexive mode the encounter
between viewer and filmmaker is emphasized. The
viewer comes to expect the unexpected, designed
not so much to shock or surprise as to raise questions
about the films own status and that of documentary in
general (Nichols 1991; Renov 1993). As Lockerbie
argues, a text is likely to switch constantly between
different forms of representation in a typically Brech
tian fashion: Snatches of song or dance, clips from
other films, sequences of animation, and other film
forms, are mixed in with documentary material
(1991: 228).
Categorizing such a large corpus of work according
to particular documentary modes, as outlined above,
has proved to be a useful starting-point for discussing
some of documentarys characteristic forms of address.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that this

taxonomy is by no means exhaustive. Throughout the
history of documentary, for instance, there has been a
clearly discernible strand of work to which one might
attach the label poetic (Nichols 1991; LoizOs 1993).
Here the filmmaker will, typically, gather together
recorded sights and sounds of the natural or social
world and mould them in such a way as to evoke a
particular mood or atmosphere. Such documentaries
will more often than not eschew the guiding commen
tary or narration in favour of musical or diegetic sound
accompaniment. Often, as in the case of the city sym
phonies of the 1 930s, but also in the more recent work
of filmmakers like Werner Herzog, the documentarist
will use an incremental montage techniqueto evoke an
emotional rather than intellectual response from the
viewet These poetic accounts clearly bearthe marks of
a shaping and sensitive intelligence. For similar


reasons some critics have suggested that it might be

appropriate to establish a further category, that of
authored documentary to characterize work where
the individual creative input, and even personality, of
the filmmaker has manifestly becowe an important
factor in determining its appeal eNinston 1995; Craw
ford and Turton 1992).
In the 1 990s in the output of television channels yet
other forms of documentary have emerged which may
well warrant description as modes, although they have
not yet been identified as such in the critical literature.
They include the video diary, or first-person documen
tary. It is yet another product of the confluence of new
technology (especially the development of highquality camcorders) and institutional pressure lin this
case for novel and comparatively inexpensive pro
gramming material). It carries the documentary
inwards, being able to do directlythings atwhich other
documentaries have to labour. It can do this by reveal
ing an individuals personality both from the inside,
through interior monologue in which the filmmaker
reflects upon the nature of his or her own life, and
also from the outside, via the opinions and actions of
others directed towards the filmmaker. A compelling
example is Willa Woolstons My Demons: The Legacy
(Video Diaries, BBC, 1992), in which a journey back to
the land of her birth becomes both a recovery of auto
biographical history and a self-administered therapy.
Another emergent mode is that known as reality
programming, in which television packaging makes
the most sophisticated intervention in actuality-based
production, as it seeks to highlight the sense of shared
experience or lived reality. Such programming uses a
wide range of television techniques to enhance the
entertainment value of the material. Indeed, many
such programmes are entirely devoted to prime-time
entertainment bearing a close relationship to tabloid
journalism and having no meaningful connection with
documentary. But even where they do resemble doc
umentaries, the emphasis is on capturing the vibrancy
of real-life events in short packages, each with its
unmissable emotional climax. The whole is linked
into programme format by a celebrity presenter who
typically builds audience anticipation so as to focus it
on the sequence of emotional impactswhich arrive
regularly every three or four minutes. It follows that
each series has its own characteristic and tightly
defined themes, and these are usually identified by a
dramatic series title: 999 (BBC), Rescue 911 (CBS),
Crimewatch UK )BBC), Cops (Fox), and Americas


most Wanted (Fox). Reality programming has been

introduced to the schedules in response to institutional
pressure simply because it is popular and brings large
audiences (see Kilborn 1 994a).
When we add to these emergent modes another
well-established one that has already been men
tioned, namely drama-documentary, we have to
recognize that documentaries exist in many forms,
and may often be a hybrid of several of them. They
perform multiple functions which tend to change with
the passing of the years and as this brief look at their
history suggests, the rise and fall of grand new projects
accounts in partforthe way in which each mode risesto
prominence and is superseded by others.


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