There are six distinct documentary filmmaking modes, each with its unique style and qualities. Expository mode, participatory mode, observational mode, performative mode, poetic mode, and reflexive mode are the modes defined by American cinema critic Bill Nichols for these documentaries. Observational mode is used by documentary filmmakers to seek the ultimate truth of their subject by observing the subject's real-life activities without interruption.
What Is Observational Documentary?
Observational documentary is a style of documentary film that tries to capture real-life situations without interfering with them. The observational documentary mode, often known as cinéma vérité, direct cinema, or fly-on-the-wall filmmaking, falls between lyrical and explanatory documentary. Documentary theorist Bill Nichols invented the term "observational documentary" in his book Introduction to Documentary, published in 2001.
The observational form occupies a middle ground between the poetry and expository modes, offering actual stories about real people but avoiding moralizing narratives.
Observational Documentary's 5 Characteristics
1. Immediacy and realism are two words that come to mind when thinking about this topic. True stories are told through observational filmmaking. (While realism may appear to be the goal of all films, several documentary types, such as reflexive documentary, warn viewers that what they're seeing has been meticulously crafted.) An observational documentary follows people or events in real-time, frequently detailing everyday life, to create a sense of realism. The film's crew spontaneously follows the event, giving it a sense of immediacy and freshness.
2. Filmmakers were able to film from their shoulders instead of using tripods after the development of portable film cameras in the 1950s. An observational documentary makes the most of handheld cameras by following subjects or scenarios that would otherwise be impossible to follow.
3. Lengthy takes: Because filmmakers watch the action as it unfolds, long takes with no editing are frequently used in observational documentaries to increase realism and immerse viewers in the scenario.
4. Little to no narration: Because observational documentary filmmakers are more concerned with objectivity than with conveying a clear message, they let their footage speak for itself. Expository documentaries use heavy "voice of god" voice-over narration to inform viewers how to feel about what's happening onscreen, whereas observational films use minimal or no voice-over to avoid the filmmakers' invasive point of view.
5. There will be no reenactments: While other documentary styles use actors to re-enact situations that the camera missed, an observational documentary rejects this practice as it detracts from the film's reality.
7 Documentary Examples Based on Observation
The observant documentary mode was explored with and developed in these seven films:
1. High School (1968). The film High School by Frederick Wiseman depicts the daily life of a group of students at a Philadelphia high school. Wiseman's documentary, shot in black and white, gives viewers a continuous look at the power dynamics between administrators and pupils. Wiseman is widely regarded as the master of documentary filmmaking.
2. Public Housing (1997). Wiseman's later film Public Housing follows low-income residents of a public housing development on Chicago's south side. The video explores the residents' relationships with law enforcement and social workers, as well as the impact of addiction on the most vulnerable members of the housing community.
3. Primary (1960). Robert Drew put together a group of New York City filmmakers with the express purpose of improving their "pictorial journalism." Some of the first observational films were made by this group, known as the Drew Associates. Drew's most well-known film, Primary, which he co-directed with filmmaker Richard Leacock, is widely regarded as one of the most significant documentaries ever made. The video depicts the 1960 Wisconsin primary election, in which John F. Kennedy ran against Hubert H. Humphrey for the Democratic presidential nomination.
4. Salesmen (1969). Drew & Associates' Albert and David Maysles produced and directed this documentary in an attempt to be the first directors to release a full-length non-fiction film. The salesman is a documentary about a group of door-to-door Bible salesmen who have a bitter competition. The Maysles are noted for incorporating situations when their subjects interact with the camera crew into their observational films.
5. Grey Gardens is a fictionalized account of the fictional (1975). Grey Gardens, arguably one of the most well-known observational documentaries of the 1970s, follows two socialites who have fallen from grace (and fortune) as they go about their daily lives. The documentary's directors and producers, Albert and David Maysles, are also featured.
6. Don't Look Back (1967). Drew Associates' D.A. Pennebaker specialized in documentaries about the performing arts. Don't Look Back (1967), a film about Bob Dylan's 1965 performance tour of the United Kingdom, is his most important documentary film.
7. Chronicles of a Summer (1961). Jean Rouch is noted for combining observational and reflexive components in his films. Chronicle of a Summer (1961), which he co-directed with Edgar Morin, is a well-known example of this hybrid technique, which combines interviews and cinéma vérité.
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