A documentary is a film that attempts to "document" some aspect of real life. They're often wrongly assumed to be unbiased; in fact, the opposite is true: documentaries are the most biased form of film, because they incorporate not just the subject matter, but intrinsically the director's attitude towards the subject matter as well. My first film professor, who was a documentarian, said there are two main points to a documentary:
  • Elevation of the ordinary.
    Whereas feature films tend to showcase outlandish or fantastic stories and characters, documentaries find the exceptional in everyday life.
  • Giving a voice to those who have not had one.
    Everyone in Hollywood is good-looking, rich, talented, nauseating, etc. Documentaries seek out those who are not, or who at least may appear ordinary, but are just as real and distinguished as any actors.
Documentary as a film genre tends to get a bad rap as being too "intellectual" or just flat-out boring. Yes, there are a lot of bad documentaries, but there is also a plethora of utterly crappy Hollywood feature films as well. For a sampler of good feature-film documentaries, check out Four Little Girls, When We Were Kings, Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, Gettysburg, Better Living Through Circuitry, and for a prime example of heavily-biased-documentary-with-attitude, anything by Michael Moore.
This was an essay I wrote about six months ago in english class.

The topic was:
The use of film language can help to determine the audience’s response to the ideas, people and issues presented in the film.
Explain in reference to one documentary.

My response:
The major purpose of documentaries is to present information to the viewers about real people, places and various issues while foregrounding the producer’s point of view. Documentary producers use a wide range of film language to foreground their own values and attitudes towards the issues presented in their film. The terms film language refers directly to the techniques producers use to foreground or marginalise people or issues. Such techniques include cinema verite, camera angles, news footage and selection of detail. A producer who utilises all these techniques to his maximum advantage would be Leon Gast who created When We Were Kings.

When We Were Kings is a documentary that sends the audience back in time to the 1970’s to when Muhammad Ali’s ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ took place. Set primarily in Zaire, the documentary provides a historical account of Muhammad Ali's life and highlights many of the struggles that black people have had to face. The fight between George Forman and Ali in itself was very symbolic of the problems that America faced during that time. The major issue portrayed in When We Were Kings was the social injustices faced by the African Americans in the 1960’s and 70’s.

Camera angles are undoubtedly the most commonly used film technique used in documentaries because without the camera, there is no documentary. There are many different camera angles, ranging from high and low shots to close ups and extreme long shots. Each angle has its own individual properties that allow for different perspectives. For example, a high shot refers to the camera positioned higher than the subject, looking down at it, giving the subject an air of insignificance or weakness. Whereas a low shot has the camera positioned close to the ground, elevating the subject to a position of supremacy or power. Throughout the documentary, Gast uses many different camera angles to influence the way the audience reacts to the particular subject. A good example of this is when Ali is at a press conference. The camera is situated below the podium in a low shot, making the viewer ‘look up’ at Ali, giving him the appearance of being supreme and dominant. Juxtaposing this is when Forman is at a different press conference. Like Ali, he was sitting behind the podium, but unlike the low shot that the producer let the audience view Ali from, Forman was viewed in a high shot, with the camera up above him, giving the audience a feeling of supremacy over him. This automatically positioned the audience to give Ali, and therefore his ideas, higher consideration than they would Foreman's.

Distinctly related to camera angles is the usage of cinema verite. Cinema verite is used throughout many documentaries, providing an “on the scene' position for the audience. This provokes the viewer into believing he/she is seeing real, unscripted footage. In When We Were Kings the producer used cinema verite many times to create this feeling of reality. This technique enabled Gast to manouver the audience into a position where they saw Ali as an easygoing, fun loving man, by having the camera actually interacting with him. A few times in the documentary, Ali would be punching the air near the camera, and it would actually move with him, as if giving the camera itself a certain persona of being a boxing partner. This gave the audience a feeling of being included in what they were watching, and therefore providing certain empathy towards Ali.

Music is a very commonly used technique in documentaries. It nearly always relates in some way to the imagery on the screen at the time and sets the mood for the visuals. The music used in When We Were Kings is a combination of African tribal and Modern American music of the 1970’s. What we as the audience hear is the clashing of the two cultures- African and American. Throughout the documentary, the viewers hear many excerpts of African American music such as blues and jazz, as well as African tribal music. At one point, BB King states that, although they have been living apart for so long, the differences between African American music and African music are very slim. The basic drum beats and techniques were still the same, and that it was a strong link between the two separated cultures. BB King, who was an icon to Ali, believed this, and as he was often mentioned in the documentary, his attitudes towards that issue were conveyed to the audience.

Critical to constructing the ideas and people in When We Were Kings is selection of detail. Through selection of detail, the producer control]s everything the audience sees and hears, and so is able to convince the audience into believing anything he wants them to believe. Through out the documentary, Ali is portrayed as a charismatic, fun, and kind man. He is always with friends, family and the people of Zaire who see him almost as a hero. Yet we only know this because of the footage the producer was chosen to include in the documentary. Gast would be unlikely to include such footage that would disprove or go against the character he is trying to make Ali into. Contrary to Ali’s character, we see Foreman as a solitary man, usually on with one or two people with him. He became almost the antagonist, being the complete opposite of Ali, and what he stood for. This also is due to the producer’s selection of information - for all we know, Forman is a family man, who is simply withdrawn and shy. But because of the information presented to us, we cannot really be assured of how true the information is compared to reality.

When We Were Kings is a documentary that provides the viewer with not only a passing knowledge of the ‘Rumble In The Jungle’ between Muhammad Ali and George Forman, it also gives the audience an understanding of the plights of the African American people and the turmoil they have faced due to the oppression of their race by white man. By using techniques such as camera angles, cinema verite, music and selection of detail, the producer can evoke various responses from the viewer.

Doc`u*men"ta*ry (?), a.

Pertaining to written evidence; contained or certified in writing.

"Documentary evidence."



© Webster 1913.

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