John Grierson was a British Social Scientist well known for his interest in film-making and for being the initial person to call and popularize factual film-making as a documentary. However, a majority of historians concur that Robert Flaherty was the initial true author of the first documentary which entailed a camera recording of his journey in the Canadian Arctic. Documentary film refers to a genre of the film which tries to document a person, event, or issue through a non-fictional presentation. There are numerous sub-genres contained in documentary films i.e. biographical, travel, historical, political, nature & wildlife and science among others. Early documentary film can be categorized into four strands i.e. newsreel, naturalistic (romantic), continental realist and propaganda. Newsreel documentary entailed utilizing film, to inform the public on current events, while naturalistic documentary usually had human culture as its subject, and talked about anthropological concerns. Continental realist documentary employed avant-garde realistic film to investigate ideas of space, time and the subconscious. Propaganda documentary, on the other hand, was utilized to explain political ideas. Documentary film has undergone several distinct periods of popularity and style. Contemporary documentaries have put greater interpretive control within the director’s hands, and consequently, questions have been raised as to whether such films can be considered as true documentaries.
In “First Principles of Documentary”, Grierson presented his two arguments regarding a documentary. First, he said that a documentary ought to be realistic and serve a socio-political function. In addition, a documentary should also be dramatic. To illustrate this point, Grierson compared a documentary to fiction, referring to the documentary plot as the living story, and the subject featuring in the documentary as the actor. This conception of documentary by Grierson as a combination of creativity, social purpose and realism has remained significant in the film industry to date. This paper looks into Grierson’s definition of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality.”
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“The Creative Treatment of Actuality”
In 1926, Grierson described a documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality.” Grierson hypothesized that via documentary film, the potential of a cinema for viewing life could be utilized within a new form of art i.e. the original actor and scene are comparatively better leads for interpreting the modern world than their fiction counterparts. In addition, he conceived that materials emanating from the raw are capable of making real films compared to the acted articles. The expression, “Griersonian Documentary” has often been utilized to describe films that blend both creativity and actuality. Therefore, through the phrase, “the creative treatment of actuality”, Grierson referred to the nature of documentary as a reality and a form of art, meaning that documentarians must be capable of working with real sources, as well as, materials and edit them so as to portray a practical image that is remarkably close to reality. Even though, Grierson regularly emphasized on a documentary’s social objectives, as opposed to its aesthetics he was aware of the necessity for creative techniques in order to develop a credible interpretation of actuality.
Examples of Documentary Films Depicting Creativity and Reality
The Children of Leningradsky
The Children of Leningradsky is a 2005 film directed by Andrzej Celinski along with Hanna Polak. The documentary calls for attention of the public to Russian children without homes whose predicaments have been ignored. This documentary not only helps to highlight the urgency and magnitude of the issue, but also makes it known widely. For instance, when Tanya, the fourteen-year old, destitute girl dies from glue addiction, the subject of homelessness of children becomes exceedingly real to the audience, thus inciting the need for action to be taken to help the children. From the film, it appears that the lives of the children featured are not those of regular children, but of beggars. We see them begging for money on the streets, escaping from the police officers and searching for a warm, safe place to shelter for the night. In these shelters, they sniff glues, drink vodka in order to escape from the cruel realities of life. It is worth mentioning that if the directors of this documentary would have just taken shots of the children’s predicaments, the film’s impact would be less. After watching this film, I could not help but feel an inner urge to assist these children in whatever way I can. This documentary is indeed intensely real and creative; hence it is in line with Grierson’s definition of a documentary.
Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom
Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom was written by Gillian Slovo and Victoria Brittain, and performed by Timeline Theatre Company. The documentary is based on real interviews and letters from inmates at Camp X-Ray (Guantanamo Bay, Cuba), and press conferences with government officials of the United States government. The film documents the experiences of the innocent men who are held within the legal black hole. It reenacts the horrifying happenings within the Camp and their effect on the inmates and their loved ones. Included in the documentary are real-life characters like Wahab al-Rawi, Moazzam Begg, as well as Jamal al-Harith, whose arrest stories through illegal kidnappings and falsified reports by government officials are interconnected with opposing testimonials by political officials, for example, Mr. Lee and Mark Jennings, who argue that the inmates are dangerous. The intention of this film is to prove to its audience that Guantanamo military personnel act not only as interrogators, prosecutors, judges, and defence counsel, but also as executioners. It also intends to encourage protest all over the globe to push for change of the unfair and unjust practices. The letters and interviews of the inmates included in the documentary help, to incite the desire of the audience to take action against the beastly practices taking place in the prison. It is clear that this documentary utilizes creativity and reality to bring its audience plus its inhabitants extremely close to the prison camp, without being there in reality, and manages to attain a dramatic impact by putting an artistic twist on the material. Through revealing the oppression and brutality that the prisoners at the prison camp endure in actuality, this documentary manages to paint the picture of the situation at the camp as it is to the audience in order to incite protest against the unjust acts that the prisoners are undergoing.
What Constitutes “Creative Treatment”
Mise en Scene and Montage
The three key directional choices that face a documentary film-maker include “what to shoot, how to shoot it, and how to present the shot.” According to Monaco, Mise en Scene relates to the questions; what to shoot, and how to shoot it. Documentary makers, just like film makers directing fictional stories, should make choices regarding shot composition, lighting, length and framing. The choices made have a significant impact on the eventual outcome of the documentary, thus forms a component of the creative treatment. On the other hand, Montage refers to the art of editing and the way a sequence of shots is constructed. Directors and editors of documentaries are compelled to make choices in relation to rate of cuts, length of shots, relationship between shots and type of cuts. These decisions are vital because they contribute to the overall creative process of the documentary, and affect how the television or film audience perceives real events within the documentary.
The Creative Use of Sound
Documentary films in the past, belonged to the quiet era, and utilized intertitles to provide them with a narrative voice. However, following the domination of the film industry by talkies, documentarists felt they needed to be competitive, hence included soundtracks to their films. Most of the times, sound tracking equipment was inappropriate to location recording, and this made documentary film makers record soundtracks in the studio, then add them later to the films. Soundtracks consist of four key elements below.
Flaherty’s written intertitles were sometimes replaced via a narrative voice over that complemented the images revealed. The voice-over narrative differed in style with some relying on explicit educational statements while others exhibiting a creative style. The most known documentary voice over was the narrative poem by W. H. Auden that accompanied the film, Night Mail.
On a regular basis, documentary films utilized recorded music as a complement to the images. Some documentaries employed pre-written scores, while others commissioned pieces particularly for use in their individual films, to emphasize the effect of the images with sound.
Because of the challenges of location sound recording, early documentary films never depended on recorded dialogue. Some films had dialogues which were recorded in the studio and included in post-production. Rather than being a narrative device, the dialogue was intended to add to the overall atmospheric sound. An example of a documentary where dialogue was used to enhance the atmospheric sound was Granton Trawler (1934) by John Grierson.
Atmospheric sound is the natural sound that is heard on a location. Natural sound can be manipulated for creative purposes, and this is called musique concrete. Ellis and McClane argued that this element was present in many early documentary films. Granton Trawler by Grierson is a marvellous example of a documentary film where atmospheric sound has been manipulated to enhance creativity.
Using Flaherty as an example, Grierson argued in “First Principles of Documentary” that a documentary narrative ought to “be taken from the location and that it should be the essential story of the location.” According to Grierson, documentaries should tell accurate stories regarding their subjects, and that is why he criticized Hollywood for trying to "impose a ready-made dramatic shape on the raw material. Nonetheless, Grierson still recognized the role of documentary makers as the tellers of the story. To Grierson, documentary entails arranging, rearranging and creating shapes of natural material.
How a documentary film maker organizes his narrative plays a vital role in the way he or she will tell the story. Films in the past had a tendency of having a traditional linear narrative, which showed the passing of time. For example, Nanook of the North by Robert Flaherty occurred over most part of the year, and it shows changes in seasons. Flaherty managed to create a narrative structure that is artificial by choosing when to commence and end the shot, as well as, which shots, scenes and sequences to incorporate in the completed film. The artificial narrative structure is best witnessed in Flaherty’s film Moana, which revolved around the title character’s initiation rites. It is vital to mention that when a film is based on one significant act, it provides it with a simple start, middle and conclusion that may not have been existent in real life. Nonetheless, not every documentary film follows the sequence of a linear narrative. Some films opted to show actual happenings within a dissimilar order to which they occurred.Through the manipulation of actual happenings to create a narrative, the film maker once more exercises his creative power over actuality.
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