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DFP: Documentary Film

This unit talks about a Documentary Film giving its meaning and also the different types of Documentary films. It also talks about the different Documentary Film Formats.

Definition/Meaning of a Documentary Film.

The word, “documentary” was first coined by John Grierson, popularly known as the father of the British documentary. He used the word to describe Robert Flaherty’s film “Moana” produced in 1962. But the word, documentary, comes from a French word “documentaire”, which is a term used by the French to refer to “travel” (movie) pictures. John Grierson described documentary as the creative treatment of actuality. So basically speaking, documentary is a term that can be applied to all non-acted films. They are films based on actualities. Hence the earliest films which had no story lines were considered documentaries, (Kogah, 1999).

A documentary film, properly defined is a film hinged on actualities, and based on actual facts, (Anunike, 2003). As defined by Nworgu (2010),  a documentary is a non-fiction programme which suggest reality. It could, however, use dramas which provide fictional accounts of real events (docu-drama). This involves the dramatization of real events. A documentary could also be described as a creative treatment of actuality or creative interpretation of actuality. Some scholars describe documentaries as current historical accounts. A look at Nwanwenne’s definition of what a documentary is, shows that documentaries are not just historical accounts. This scholar defines documentary as:

All methods of recording on celluloid, any aspect of actuality interpreted either by factual shooting or by sincere and justifiable reconstruction so as to appeal either to reason or to emotion for the purpose of stimulating the desire for and the widening of human knowledge, and understanding and of truthfully posing problems and their solution in the spheres of economic, culture and human relations.

All documentaries, no doubt, have dramatic appeals. They also develop and reveal characters. They therefore offer insights and revelations about people and the world about us.

Differentiating a documentary from a feature film.

A feature film is primarily designed for entertainment purposes. This does not preclude in all entirety some elements or traces of information and education. The feature film runs for over seventy five minutes usually between ninety and one hundred and twenty minutes. They can also be distributed to cinema houses. All feature films are fictional in nature, using professional actors to drag home some points. Although feature films are relatively fictional in nature, they still may be based on real lives of people or an actual event, contemporary or historical. But a documentary film is basically based on facts. It uses ordinary people and real places and events. Staged events are not used in the story line. They are therefore, all non-acted films, (Kogah, 1999)

In documentaries, the filmmaker is attempting to interpret his/her subject for the viewers, rather than ordinarily showing a pictorial record of things, people or places of interest. The main object of a documentary is analysis. Such analysis is based on real events as recorded by the camera lens. Granted that a documentary presents a kind of truth, since it is said to be the presentation of actual events, such a truth is the one as shaped by the filmmaker. The professional film man does this job through his/her approach to photography, editing, sound recording, narration and all other skills of his/her trade.

Different Types of Documentary Films

Documentaries as emphasized by Owuamalam (2007) are artistic productions made for the consumption of broadcast audience. They are produced for the screen medium. Kogah (1999) give five classes of Documentaries as naturalist, realist, newsreel, propagandist and the cinema verite documentaries. A detailed discussion of these classes of documentaries is provided as follows:

  • The Naturalist Documentary

These are the documentaries that make use of their natural surroundings and everyday scenery. The naturalist film makers make drawings and symbols of the mountains, rivers, deserts, erosion gullies, sand dumes and forests of all kinds so as to tap natural emotional values. The essence of using these natural phenomena is simply to depict nature. Two of the most representative films in these category most representative films in this category are the “Nanook of the North” and “Man of Arah”.

The “Nanook of the North” was written and directed by Robert J. Flaherty in 1922. Flaherty used the film to capture the daily lifestyle of the people of Nanook. The film which was made in the rugged icy regions of Canada portrays a hardy nomadian and his family struggling against nature and travelling from place to place in search of food and shelter. They survived against all odds just like the cattle nomads of the Northern Nigeria and the fish settlers of the Niger Delta who follow the movement of the fish. Flaherty’s creative treatment of the film subject brought him fame and made the technical aspect of documentary film making very popular.

Two other personalities like John Grierson and Walter Ruttman, followed Flaherty’s lead in making films from naturally existing situations.

  • The Realist Documentary

The use of photographs to high light contradictions of life in the cities and rural areas produced the realist tradition in documentary film making. The film maker would show the poor and the rich, clean and dirty environments, as well as other points and counter-points which are prevalent in urban and rural areas, to drag home a point.

Albert Calvanti is one of the most recognized film directors in the realist tradition. Alberto’s “Rien que les Heures” (Nothing Passes time” produced in 1926, broke new ground as he attempted to show what the passing of time is like in the city of Paris. David Griffith and his other colleagues see the film as the first attempt to express creativity in the life of people in a city and urban environments.

  • The Newsreel Documentary

A film that presents the events of the day in a straight forward manner, with little or no elaboration for effect, is in the newsreel tradition. A typical newsreel filmmaker has no special viewpoint, an approach quite different from that of most documentary filmmakers who portray events for a special purpose. Whereas newsreel reportage does not take much time and may be accomplished without much thought, the documentary requires full contemplation.

The present day investigative or specialized reporting and the usual bare news reporting are typical examples of documentary film approach in the newsreel filmmaking. But the investigation reporting takes pretty time to accomplish while the normal bare news reporting can be done with minimum time and concentration.

  • The propagandist Documentary

The use of film as a persuasive instrument to elicit a particular effect on an audience is the key to the propagandist tradition. Propaganda, according to Harold Lasswell in Agbanu (2005) in this regard, refers to the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols such as clinched fist, elevated eye brow, sophisticated gestures, powerful words and body movements. The propagandist uses various strategies including arguments and persuasion.

Soviet filmmakers were among the first to use film for political propaganda. For instance, the rise of communist ideology in the Soviet Union coincided with the perfection of the documentary. It was therefore natural that the young nation used film to promote its special view of the world. Communist ideology has remained indelible in the minds of most Russian citizens despite the splitting of the former Soviet Union into different states.

Sergei M. Eisentein’s “October” produced in 1928 and V.I Pudvokin’s “Deserter” produced in 1939 are the two notable films that used familiar images and persons to create a unique propagandist impact. The propaganda film probably reached its peak during the Second World War. On one part, the German film makers were earger to influence the masses in support of the Third Reich. On the other hand, American and British filmmakers told the world of the exploits and heroics of the “Allied Troops” against the German war machine, (Kogah 1999: 36).

  • Cinema Verite Documentary

The rise of cinema verite brought a boom to documentary films. Films in this category reveal the power of an event to speak for itself. Frederick Wiseman is perhaps the most effective member of the cinema verite school. Wiseman’s fascination is with institutions and his emphasis was on editing rather than planning in order to document factually without intrusion of social and political narration.

The film maker dispenses with the narrator’s voice and allows the situation itself to tell the story.

Frederick wiseman achieves his objectives by allowing the camera to rove much as the human eye would naturally do with little or no preplanning. Wiseman’s “High school” produced in 1965, his “Titical Follies” of 1967, his “Law and Order” of 1969 and his “Hospital” produced in 1970, all explored every aspect of the functioning of traditional institutions. What makes cinema verite popular in recent times is the portability of camera equipment plus audiences distaste for the preaching films. In cinema verite, the film maker is able to gather all the evidence needed to communicate a message.

In the contemporary society, the documentary filmmaker continues with the tradition of presenting a viewpoint with a naturally occurring phenomenon.

Documentary Film Formats

This connotes the film’s physical characteristics such as the size, the packaging and whether it is silent or sound film. The size of film can be measured in millimaters (mm). This is the standard measurement. Film sizes range from 8mm, normally used for domestic purposes, to gigantic 70mm, which is used on some wide screen feature films. For television film production, only three sizes are used. They include 35mm, 16mm and super 8mm. 16mm is the most common among the three while 35mm is mainly for professional productions, (Kogah, 1999).

The 35mm is used in the prime time entertainment programmes. The size of this format produces exceptionally beautiful pictures. However, it is rarely used for most video film productions since only the network and a handful of television stations have 35mm projection capability.

The 16mm format is the industry standard for local television film production and projection. It is less expensive than 35mm, yet the various professional film stocks available in 35mm are also present in 16mm. Again, 16mm production equipment is completely professional and comparable to the quality of 35mm equipment. Finally the 16mm equipment is comparably lighter and more portable.

Super 8mm is increasingly becoming very popular in view of its low cost alternative to 16mm. Consequently, it is used by relatively smaller stations and production studios. Although the 16mm is less expensive than the 35mm films, it is no doubt an expensive and costly medium in comparism with the super 8mm film. Granted that the super 8mm does not in any way compare fovaourably with 16mm, both in picture quality and production flexibility, it does not however produce acceptable pictures as in the case of its superior 16mm film. In spite of this draw back, the super 8mm find good use with satisfactory results at smaller stations and production studios. This is based primarily on its simplicity and low cost of the equipment.