Lecture12 - Week 12 Documentary What is documentary...

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Week 12. Documentary
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What is documentary? Documentary may seem like an obvious thing, but the category actually is subject to considerable debate. John Grierson: “Creative treatment of actuality” Working definition of documentary: A structured film using actual recording of real persons or events to make an argument about a real-world phenomenon
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Actuality Film and Actuality Footage After Grierson, documentary has classically been distinguished from actuality. Actuality is a synonym of “news.” Early cinema was dominated by short, unstructured nonfiction films called actuality films . Example: Lumière films The indexical recording that documentary films use is called actuality footage . Example: historical archival footage, interviews, B-roll
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The Paradox of Documentary The paradox of documentary is that - Actuality footage indexically records an event, but - the footage in and of itself is meaningless, and - it needs a greater structure to provide significance. Example: Letter from Siberia (Chris Marker)
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Documentary as Construction of Truth Another way of stating the paradox: documentaries have a closer relation to reality than fiction films, yet their “truth” is as much a construction as fiction.
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Documentary as Intellectual Meaning Narrative and experimental films will deal with abstract ideas, but documentaries particularly employ abstract reasoning to address something larger: a historical development, a cultural movement, a political stance, or a social trend. Many documentaries mobilize their imagery around these abstract ideas and even build up to a central argument (i.e. nonfiction theme)
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Documentary as Intellectual Meaning Often the very treatment as a documentary asks us to view the subject matter abstractly. For instance, the spelling bee in Spellbound or the basketball careers in Hoop Dreams stand in for the ideas of social class or upward mobility. C.f. Example of Helvetica Grierson even sees this meaning as central to what documentary does and for this reason dismisses the newsreel, the actuality, and the city symphony film
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Giving Meaning to Actuality Footage In order to create this meaning, documentary films have a narration , a way of structuring image and sound to give meaning to actuality: Overall structure: order of presentation, or how the argument is built up Editing: intellectual montage, or how shot relations determine meaning Sound: music, and particularly spoken word, or how the image is contextualized
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Music can provide emotional cues in much the same way as in fiction film What is distinctive in documentary is the use of spoken word: voice of God ” narration Talking head commentary Social actor testimony Paradox of documentary: Even though the image indexically records an event, it needs sound to provide significance. Example:
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This note was uploaded on 04/11/2011 for the course FILM FMA1172 taught by Professor Chriscagle during the Spring '10 term at Temple.

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Lecture12 - Week 12 Documentary What is documentary...

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