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Essay documentary filmmaking



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In this paper, a mechanism is given to differentiate documentary from fiction filmmaking. An argument is given to support the assertion that documentary films differ from fictional films through the plot, production modes and appearance of the films. During the course, it will be noted that the word nonfiction will both ambiguously and non-ambiguously be used refer to documentary films.

The arguments brought forth will be supported through academic writings and referenced sources. A brief historical background to the evolution of filmmaking will be provided to help guide the scope of the paper. A clear distinction towards traditional and modern filmmaking will be given with an objective of offering an explanation to warrant the topic concept being discussed. It will be argued that despite a modern norm that almost seems to merge the two film art genres, documentary films seem to depart form fictional films through application of application of traditional concepts of realism, truth and backing evidence in the plot.

I will then analyze documentary films, with the hope that understanding this will create a distinguishing paradigm between fiction and non-fictional works. At the risk of sounding ambiguous, I will mention that modern day filmmaking employs the use of fiction to develop the plot and achieve positive audience reception. At this point it will be important to mention that the modern day audience seems to have evolved towards having individual perceptions towards fiction and non-fiction.

I will conclude the paper's argument by offering a foresight that current developments in technology and an ever present evolution of filmmaking will make distinguishing documentary (nonfiction) and fiction films difficult.

Filmmaking employs the use of both imagery and realism to create a motion picture that may depict either (or both) a fictitious or non-fictitious event. Distinguishing which part of this is applicable to a particular film seems to depend on prior knowledge of the film and individual audience perception.

Every since the invention of motion pictures in the media and entertainment industry, various filmmakers have adopted the use of films as powerful tools to impact social and political change in the population. Traditional filmmakers chose to have a common theme of realism and truth guide the production of their motion pictures to in turn provide rational products to an otherwise “undeveloped” film audience. It is noted that the use of fiction and non-fiction tools was warranted as long as a common theme of reality was observed (Barnouw, 1993).

Recognized traditional filmmakers such as Robert Flaherty and John Grierson are accredited with providing a platform to base documentaries on and in turn distinguishing the fiction films (Barnouw, 1993). Their input however (whether knowingly or unknowingly) created the ambiguity towards describing a documentary as a fictional or non-fictional work; and later differentiating this from a fiction film.

Robert Flaherty completed his studies in Northern Canada and became a prospector. Flaherty's contribution towards filmmaking seems to stem from his description of documentary as a form of film genre that “adapted imagery and thought to match reality and truth”. While filming the movie Nanook of the North, Flaherty chose to vary living and social habits of the Inuit to match traditional depictions he learnt on their history. It would later appear that his film depiction was a fictional creation based on imagination (Barnouw, 1993).

John Grierson, a University of Glasgow graduate, is accredited with providing documentaries that effected democratic and social change through impacting political and educational reforms. Greison asserted that documentaries were “a creative treatment of actuality”: a description that created a whether use of fiction to develop a film's plot will still warrant it being called a documentary. His assertion seems to concur with that of Flaherty being that a historical event can be altered in a documentary, if only to emphasize the theme the motion picture may want to portray and achieve audience appreciation (Barnouw, 1993).

Critics argue that progressively, it would seem that traditional filmmakers; with a rather limited definition to filmmaking and documentary, created a paradigm that would define film genre distinction through viewer perception. Barnouw (1993) notes that traditional films were confined towards thematic representation and observes that they served to reinforce the concept of realism, evidence and historical fact through the use of imagery: implying that a documentary is more of a record of past historical events and hence a present dramatization of the same. They represent an era of films that relied heavily on non-fiction tools and elements to mould their plots.

Traditional films seem to offer a clear distinction between fiction and non-fiction. They appear to base objectivity on explaining reality and developing plots through evidence rather that imagination. It is argued that traditional film themes that focused more on social recognition and politics may have made non-fictional documentary filming applicable to the audience then. Character and character role perceptions seemed to be geared towards reflecting reality to the viewers as opposed to soliciting perceptions from the viewers. This may seem ambiguous citing an earlier statement that seemed to allude to the fact that traditional film making did at some instances employ the use of fiction and adapt it to match the motion picture's theme and the perception of the audience (Barnouw, 1993). This then brings in the concept of viewers as a tool to discerning the fiction and non-fiction distinction.

Barnouw (1993) notes that traditional filmmakers created motion pictures to match the viewer taste of a rather undeveloped audience. Modern day films seem to transcend the description of fiction as being different from non-fiction and employ the use of both fictional and non-fictional tools to develop their plots and enhance thematic portrayal (Stone, 2004). It would be true to then assert that modern day filmmakers seem to adapt films to match the expectation of an evolved film audience. It is arguably true that a highly critical modern day audience would immediately distinguish fictional from non-fictional works in an unknown traditional motion picture. It may then seem apparent that modern day viewers view fiction and non-fiction traditional films as having a clear difference between them. Arguments on distinguishing fiction and documentary works were therefore warranted through history and the development of the film industry have only further brought the argument into context (Stone, 2004).

Stone (2004) asserts that modern films employ a mix of both fiction and non-fiction tools to such extents that it is at most difficult to discern any difference. They seem to take advantage of the modern day perception to fiction not necessarily being created through the film but through viewer perception. A trend is the developed in which filmmakers such as Moore Michael and Errol Morris attempt to create films that exceed expected viewer perception while still attempting to maintain the intended theme (Stone, 2004).

Pramaggiore & Wallis (2005) argue that fiction can be implied on a film through a spectator's perception on whether the film was created and based on reality or whether it was in turn created contrary to this; the latter serving as a defining paradigm to fiction. Such depictions to filmmaking according to Stone (2004), create a problem in distinguishing fiction and documentary works; citing reference from the fact that in any modern day motion picture, there is the likelihood of an almost perfect ‘merge' between reality and fiction through imagery. It is then obvious that conflict arises when attempting to recognize filmmaking as a form of art in which case imagination is an applicable concept to developing it.

Present day filmmaking techniques involve dissolving the boundary that may exist between documentary and fiction, through the utilization of both fiction and non-fiction tools to build a motion picture. Modern filmmakers use latest technological innovations to include animation in “real” films hence confirming a present reality on an almost seamless union between fiction and reality. How then can one critically distinguish fiction and documentary films?

Pramaggiore & Wallis (2005) propose a three part paradigm of differentiating documentary from fiction filmmaking. They entail analyzing plot and purpose, mode of production and the target audience.

Documentaries and non-fictional filmmaking often have a plot that is based on current or historical events. Some documentaries may be about a person or a particular event. They seem to be somewhat confined towards bringing into light socio-political issues through analyzing important characters or events present today or in history. Herrmann (2002) argues that documentaries seem to conform to traditional depictions of the same with emphasis being made to John Greirson's definition of documentary: “a creative treatment to reality” (Barnouw, 1993).

Pramaggiore & Wallis (2005) write that documentaries present concepts akin to those of the “real world” and differ from fiction films that relate objectivity to “a world”. While ‘the world' seems to reflect a central object that everything in the film revolves around, ‘a world' in fiction films depicts a background that develops the characters and plot of the motion picture. Non-fiction films are a depiction of a real world in picture, confirming Barnouw's (1993) assertion on documentaries representing ‘life as it is' (Barnouw, 1993). Documentaries are tuned towards making message the key ingredient towards building the film's theme. Fiction films can therefore be developed to adopt a future concept as opposed to documentaries which seem to be confined to the past and present.

Barnouw's (1993) depiction of documentary does allow for the use of relative ‘levels' of fiction to achieve the intended objective. According to Barnouw (1993) documentary filmmakers can choose to shape material to match reality. Realism (and/or reality) appears to be the primary focus in documentary filmmaking. This gives a general implication of documentary filmmaking laying focus on events rather than the character approach assumed in fiction filmmaking. Pramaggiore & Wallis (2005) argue that approaching filmmaking through the character concept,

As implied in fiction, means that the characters in such films have their actions built and justified

The eventual goal of the films offers a distinguishing paradigm between the film art genres through reflecting purpose as a guiding factor. Stone (2004) asserts that there are two guiding principles that define purpose and in turn serve as a distinguishing factor to the aforementioned film art genres. The first is defining relevance of the film and entailsrejecting traditional connotations to filmmaking as being a theatre to tell stories. Production will focus more on film authenticity through highlighting aspects such as scene selection, lighting and sound. Fiction films fall under this category since they are geared towards creating viewer appreciation. Documentary films fall under the second category which describes films that emphasize more on thematic representation as opposed to film authenticity. Stone (2004)agrees that documentaries emphasize more on pertinent socio-political themes such as culture, gender and governance. They deem recognition towards recognizing social and cultural issues.

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