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Witness and Self-Revelation

John Ellis

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Witness and Self-Revelation

John Ellis

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About This Book

Digital technologies have transformed documentary for both filmmakers and audiences.

Documentary: Witness and Self-Revelation takes an audience-centred approach to documentary, arguing that everyday experiences of what it feels like to film and to be filmed have developed a new sophistication and skepticism in today's viewers. The book argues that documentary has developed a new third phase of its century long history: films now tend to document the encounters between filmers and the filmed. But what do we really know about those encounters?

The author's extensive experience of documentary production practice also enables him to examine technological changes in detail. Innovations in technology can seem to offer greater realism but can at the same time frustrate attempts to achieve it. John Ellis therefore proposes the idea of 'Slow Film' as an antidote to the problems of increasing speed brought about by easy digital editing.

This book is ideal for students studying film, media studies and visual culture.

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DOI: 10.4324/9780203808467-1
Documentary is easy to identify but difficult to define. Anyone can tell that a particular film or TV programme is a documentary, but the range of documentary styles is vast. A film like An Inconvenient Truth argues passionately for a particular view; Primary is content to observe without comment; Chris Marker's Sunless knits together seemingly unconnected thoughts into a highly personal essay; Capturing the Friedmans tells a compelling story … yet all of these films are called documentaries. Some film-makers are rigorous in their belief in simply letting events unroll in front of their cameras; others will organise full-scale reconstructions of events, or see no problem in directing their subjects to behave in particular ways. Both methods have resulted in films that are called ‘documentaries’. Uniting all these approaches is a need to get at ‘facts’; to translate the realities of the world onto the screen; to portray the world as it is and – usually – to offer it up for critical scrutiny or to look at it anew. Documentaries insist ‘these are the facts’; ‘this is how things are’; ‘this is what happened’; ‘this is what I believe’; ‘this is how they behave and why’. At the heart of documentary film- and programme-making lies an urgency to communicate. Documentary is about showing and telling.
Yet this does not get us much closer to a definition of documentary. It simply says what the aspirations of the filmmakers were, and, perhaps, what the consumers of documentaries might be expecting as well. This book takes a different approach. It looks closely at the documentary process and asks at each stage ‘what exactly is it that is going on here?’ If documentary is about showing and telling, then a definition of documentary should start from Lasswell's (1948) fundamental questions for communication studies (‘Who says What to Whom through Which channel With What effect?’), together with what I take to be the fundamental question for visual studies (‘what is the status of the image and how is it apprehended?’). There is a certain friction between these two approaches: Lasswell assumed a channel of communication that allows ‘messages’ to get through; visual studies assumes no such clarity. Images, even more than words, are open to multiple interpretations. And even words have their problems. Repeatedly, in writing this book, I have come up against the inadequacy or bias of the words we have for discussing documentary. We still talk of ‘film’, when the overwhelming majority of documentaries are made and delivered using digital video. We talk of ‘viewing’ or ‘watching’ documentaries, when what we hear is equally important in our understanding of them. My frustration with the language sometimes creates terms that might seem overloaded. Sometimes it seems better to write ‘recorded sound and image’ rather than ‘film’ to stress the importance of sound in documentary. At other times, I have discovered a useful shorter term_ the idea of a ‘filmer’, to mean anyone who films, whether within the film and TV industries or for other uses, seems particularly useful.
Despite the problems of ‘communication’ as a model, it is still useful to ask Lasswell's question of documentary because the answers are by no means simple. Documentaries involve the attempted communications of both people and agencies: for example, the filmmaker, the filmed and the broadcasting agency. All are trying to communicate differing ideas and values through their participation in the documentary. It is also important to ask who is receiving the documentary ‘messages’: a key contention of this book is that the viewers of documentaries have changed. Easy access to digital photography and video technologies has brought a new sense of familiarity with the basics of filming and being filmed, and this new sensitivity is brought to the viewing of documentaries. Attitudes to documentary have changed, and documentaries have changed to accommodate these new attitudes. The history of documentary is a dynamic one as the documentary process involves a two-way traffic. Filmmakers begin with events which they film and subsequently incorporate into a film text. The film's viewers come in the opposite direction: they start with the film and move towards an understanding of what the original events may have been. On each side, assumptions are made: the filmmaker will have an imaginary audience in mind when making the film (and so might the people being filmed as well). The eventual viewer will make assumptions about how the film came to be made in the first place, and what went on during the filming. The assumptions made by each side may be mistaken – one of the aims of this book is to help clarify the bases of these assumptions.
Documentary is passing through a major period of change brought about not by digital technology itself, but by how it is being used. This book argues that we are moving into a third phase in the development of documentary: the first being that of the cinema documentary, which made heavy use of reconstruction; the second that of observational documentary, which responded to the new opportunities and demands of television. This third phase is the result of new attitudes to photography in general, which have developed since the 1990s. The growth in all forms of photographic activity, enabled by digital technologies, seems to have reawoken long-held anxieties about photography.
Photography allows all kinds of activity in relation to individuals, from the creation of memories, through a constant requirement to ‘look one's best’, to the pervasive presence of surveillance cameras. Photography has produced a heightened awareness of being watched, evidenced in phenomena as diverse as an abiding fascination with celebrities caught unawares, and the real public concern about surveillance cameras in public, business and institutional spaces. We are increasingly aware of being watched, and the fact that watching requires particular forms of performance of the self. We have learned what cameras require and how to provide it. Early TV gameshows involving ‘ordinary’ members of the public and early news ‘vox pops’ tend to show that such an awareness of the need for performance, and of the necessary modalities of performance, were much rarer than they are in contemporary society (Ellis 2011). To know these skills for oneself is also to be aware of them in the behaviour of others. From this familiarity emerges the frequent perception that individuals in documentaries are ‘playing up’ for the camera, or are behaving in ways that are somehow ‘not true’ to themselves.
We also know that, however good our performances may be, the camera can still catch us unawares. From the unconscious blink as the image is captured to transient grimaces frozen for ever, almost everyone has experienced the feeling of photography traducing how they might wish to appear. This feeling is as old as Kodak itself. Newer is its extension to the domain of the moving image and recorded sound. We may be able to come to terms with the strange sound of our own recorded voice compared with the sounds that resonate in our head as we speak. But the strangeness and awkward fascination that we experience on seeing our own videoed image is far harder to dispel. Photography appears to us as a treacherous activity: it produces both good and bad images, desired and undesirable images, of ourselves. In revealing our self as an other, it destabilises our perceptions of our self. Our attempts to manage this process involve forms of performance, negotiation and even pretence. Our increasing everyday encounters with photography and recording now involve far more than simply ‘saying cheese’ in a formal photographic setting. Photography, and particularly moving image recording, has developed at such a rate that different generations have contrasting attitudes and approaches to it. Where middle-aged people are still concerned with the possibility of being shamed by a TV appearance, younger generations have a more acute sense that any such appearance will be ephemeral and that any embarrassment will consequently be temporary: so why not ‘go for it’?
Digital camera technologies have made the experience of being ‘the other side of the camera’ more routinely available. Kodak made the experience of being photographed commonplace; the Handycam and its successors brought the experience of being a filmer into everyday life. So most people now know about the delicate negotiations that take place to persuade someone to appear on camera; how difficult it is to get them to do what you want; how uncomfortable it sometimes feels to point a camera at someone, to ask them intrusive questions, to catch them unawares. Picking up a moving-image camera is a transformative experience: it catapults the individual into a role that often they feel unprepared to take up. No longer involved in the flow of events as a simple participant, the individual becomes something else as well. The camera gives the power to comment; it becomes an extra participant in the events, a focus for all kinds of hitherto submerged interpersonal dynamics. Amateur footage usually appears intensely ritualised as a result. It is easier to adopt standard roles than to work through the emotions stirred up by the presence of the camera in the hands of a family member (or an interloper). The film Capturing the Friedmans captures much of this dynamic, from the adoption of TV modes as a communal family disguise to the decision of David Friedman to document the process of the family breaking down during the trial of the father and younger brother Jesse (Austin).
We now are familiar with what it feels like both to photograph and to be photographed. We know the processes of performance and the difficulties of adopting the position of the filmer. We know the problems and vagaries, too, of the subsequent uses of the material. Indeed, many of our anxieties relate to the subsequent uses of photos and recordings. They can easily be made ‘just for fun’, but they are a record, and a physical entity that can have a career of its own. The evidence of this is everywhere, unavoidable. Local newspaper users in the UK have developed a curious habit of taking out display adverts for relatives’ birthdays illustrated with ‘embarrassing’ childhood pictures. Parents checking Facebook for their children's backpacking whereabouts sometimes come across photos not intended for their eyes. Sex tapes exposed on the internet sometimes break (or indeed make) the career of a celebrity or politician. Photographs and recordings are born in an intimate moment, but grow up quickly and take on a life of their own.
Anxieties haunt photography and recording, anxieties about the moment of making recordings and the subsequent uses to which they can be put. As recording becomes more commonplace, these anxieties have developed into a more sophisticated public attitude towards the consumption and use of recordings. The public for TV and internet moving images has become more sceptical around any material that claims to be ‘factual’, and more appreciative of the skills involved in manufacturing the modern fictional spectacle. A connoisseurship has developed, which asks ‘how did they do that?’ In relation to fiction, this enables the extension of the fiction itself into ‘making of’ materials. In relation to factual footage (documentary and news), it has produced a more sceptical viewing public, to which professional filmmakers and broadcasters have adapted their practices. Many of the ethical concerns that were once the subject of abstruse debates between journalists and documentary filmmakers now have a much wider currency. A public that is aware of the processes of obtaining footage now routinely ponders the nature of the shooting relationship. They assess what each side wanted from the filming, and in the case of documentaries like Molly Dineen's Geri (1999; about the former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell as she reinvents her career), the film actively concerns itself with the same question (Bruzzi 2006). Viewers will speculate amongst themselves about the nature of the editing and possible omissions of important material. When the issue is sufficiently important, they will scan the footage closely for tell-tale details in the background, which might indicate that an alternative version of events could be constructed. All this activity is essentially the same as that undertaken by professional organisations concerned with the truthfulness of the footage: whether journalists wanting to catch out their documentarists, or broadcasters trying to assess the nature of the ‘user-generated content’ that comes their way. In the new, third phase of documentary, the two-way street between filmmakers and their eventual viewers is congested with traffic.

The chapters

Chapter 2 sketches a history of documentary, from its origins in cinema to the crucial changes that took place as a result of the opportunities presented by television. It shows that reconstruction was a basic technique for filmmakers using the technology of entertainment cinema, especially after the introduction of sound recording. But reconstruction became anathema in the second phase of documentary, which instead emphasised the possibilities of observational camera and sound recording. Chapter 3 explores the roots of a sustained questioning of the idea of photography as evidence, the assumption that underlies much observational documentary work. It identifies the beginnings of this questioning in relation to still photography and the seeming ease with which still photos could be digitally altered and manipulated. This led to a more measured attitude to the role of photography as evidence (its ability to ‘show and tell’) rather than, as was predicted by some, a wholesale rejection of photography, and with it the possibility of documentary filming.
Chapter 4 begins a sustained examination of ‘what is it that is going on’ in the activity of documentary filming itself. This chapter traces the development of the filming and recording technologies available to filmmakers, from the development of lightweight 16mm film with synchronised sound at the end of the 1950s, through the ambiguous possibilities offered by analogue videotape, to the recent development of digital and then tapeless cameras. This account stresses the potentials that have been offered to filmmakers, and is drawn principally from my own experience as a documentary producer. The role of the documentary producer (in British TV at least) is one of assessing and obtaining the most appropriate resources for a project, so the accounts in the chapters devoted to technologies (chapters four and eight) rely on memory as much as written sources, which, it must be said, are scarce. Often the only accounts I have been able to find of particularly influential items of equipment have been the manufacturers’ own websites and Wikipedia entries by enthusiasts.
Chapter 5 introduces the crucial methodology that I have drawn from the work of Erving Goffman, whose guiding notion about human interactions in concrete situations (‘what is it that is going on here?’) I have adopted to explore the documentary process. His ideas about the performance of self, about the framing and keying of personal interactions, are introduced here. Chapter 6 then applies them to the documentary situation, and particularly to the most deceptively simple of exchanges: the interview. Interviews are a special form of interaction, drawing on conversation, but with crucial differences in that the interviewer will not perform the usual part of the interlocutor. In addition, both parties are not only speaking to each other: they are addressing an eventual viewer, who exists at that moment only in their imagination, yet adds another framing to the exchange.
Chapter 7 explores the subsequent phase of editing, but as a further set of personal interactions. The director has to reassess the filmed encounter as a piece of film, as a document or text, rather than as a situation involving individuals. This crucial change of perspective is enabled by the editor. It also tends to leave the filmed subjects in something of a limbo: they do not go on the same journey of reassessment as the director. Instead, they wait to see how their attempted communication with the eventual viewer will ‘come across’. The director, in other words, is engaged in a new act of communication, moulding their footage into a film, where the filmed subjects are left with an incomplete communication. This has many practical and ethical consequences for the conduct of documentary filmmaking.
Chapter 8 examines the changing technologies of audiovisual editing, from 16mm film to digital video editing. It shows how the potentials for filmmakers have altered, and also how the relations of power and responsibility in the cutting room have changed. Digital technologies have made it easier to cut material and to circulate it to more parties, especially the financiers or commissioning editors, allowing more people to influence the final film. A further consequence, explored in chapter 9, is the increasing speed of editing that has been enabled by digital editing packages.
Chapter 9 introduces the idea of Slow Film as a counter to the increased speed of cutting. The chapter explores the cutting speed of both fiction and news, and shows that the idea of montage, still thought by some today to be radical, was radical only in an earlier phase of filmmaking. Montage has become commonplace and has lost its revelatory power. Slow Film provides a more radical gesture in the current circumstances, and it has been adopted as a technique by a wide range of documentary filmers.
Chapter 10 inaugurates a sustained examination of contemporary viewing attitudes to match those of the chapters devoted to the processes of documentary filmmaking. Chapter 10 begins to explore the idea of the ‘eventual viewer’: a major component of the filmmaking process, present in the minds of both filmers and filmed. It shows that the contemporary audience has developed a critical awareness, which finds ready expression through the many forms of electronic communication that are now available. The meaning of any documentary is not sealed by the editing of it. This is merely the first stage of a process of negotiation, which exposes the many different interpretations that can be made of any documentary text.
Chapters 11 and 12 explore the bases of these different interpretations. Chapter 11 looks at the fears about photography that underlie many of the attitudes that we spontaneously adopt: an unease about how we ourselves appear in sound and image; concerns about the ability of photographs to take on a life of their own beyond our control; and fears about the issue of surveillance. All of these feed into the current questioning of documentary films. Chapter 12 examines the nature of the experience of watching itself. It uses the concept of ‘witness’ to explore the specific nature of audiovisual watching and listening. The chapter establishes the simi...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Documentary
APA 6 Citation
Ellis, J. (2011). Documentary (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2011)
Chicago Citation
Ellis, John. (2011) 2011. Documentary. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Ellis, J. (2011) Documentary. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Ellis, John. Documentary. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.