Documentary films


A documentary film is a broad category of filmmaking practice that tries to document reality. It is a film genre that attempts to portray realism in the sense that it presents ‘actual’ people, places, activities and events. The fact that it documents ‘actual’ means that documentary films deal with fact and not fiction.

A documentary film primarily ‘documents’ some aspect of life and usually involves narration, interviews, and facts and figures. This is in contrast to narrative (fictional) cinema comprising film genre such as action, comedy, adventure, horror, drama etc which creates the events, phenomenon, human behavior or conditions utilizing scripts.

Encyclopedia Britannica defines a documentary as a ‘motion picture that shapes and interprets factual material for purposes of education or entertainment’.
Documentary films are by nature not scripted, even though the scenes are selected and arranged through after-shoot editing. The ‘cast’ in a documentary film are not actors. These films may or may not have voice-over narration, depending on whether there is a need to describe what is happening in the film.
A documentary will also include interviews with the people in the film. Another tenet is that a documentary must be objective and should not have a point of view although critics now argue that all forms of exposition do have a point of view. There is also no place for reenactments in a documentary film.
The word ‘documentary’ was first coined in 1926 when documentarian John Grierson reviewed Robert Flaherty’s film ‘Moana’ and wrote that it had ‘documentary value’. Grierson's view of documentary was that it provided a new way of observing life by way of casting ‘original’ actors and ‘original’ scenes vis-a-vis fictional films and considered that materials taken from the raw ‘actual’ footage were better than the acted ones. Grierson’s definition of documentary as a ‘creative treatment of actuality’ has generally formed the basis of depicting documentary films.

In a nutshell, we can describe a documentary film as one that attempts to tell the truth realistically, by presenting factual evidence in its originality, with no reenactments and in an objective manner.

Documentary films comprise a broad and diverse category of films. These include biographical films, expose films, a concert or rock festival, live performances, sports documentary, compilation films and ‘making of’ films of feature films.

Documentary filmmaking has evolved over the decades. Early films such as Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, used cumbersome equipment to produce rather imperfect images while today’s digital technology allows filmmakers to capture instant perfect images that objectively reveal the truth about subjects who may not be aware that they are being filmed.

The cinema verite (literal French translation of ‘cinema truth’) or direct cinema (as it is known in the US) approach was the mode of documentary filmmaking in the late 1950s and 1960s. It took advantage of technological advances by using hand-held cameras and synchronized sound to capture their subjects and record events as they happened. It is a style of documentary filmmaking where there is no narration, and the filmmaker follows the happenings, shows authentic dialogues, natural action and minimum of rearrangements. It used the least directive approach to collecting film footage. The whole idea was to make the camera less of an intruder and allow the subject to behave more normally, though it must be borne in mind that the subject is aware of the recording.

But really, the notion of documentary films has evolved since its inception to take many controversial facets. In the past 20 years, in particular, the nature of documentary films has extended upon the cinema verite or direct cinema tradition of the 1960s. Films incorporating reenactments as in The Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris and directorial manipulation by Michael Moore in Roger and Me has led critics to question whether they are truly documentaries although they are classified as one. The point of view has also become increasingly visible in documentaries as in Michael Moore’s controversial Fahrenheit 9/11.

Don’t Look Back is a 1967 black and white documentary which covered Bob Dylan’s concert tour of England in April –May 1965. The subject is the man behind the music, one who was to become the father of modern folk rock. The film shows viewers a glimpse of Dylan, who has been labelled as an anarchist, poet, folk singer, and other names. It educates viewers as to the philosophy of Dylan, why he writes the songs the way he does, how he views the world. It also shows how his friends, colleagues, and even fans expose his personality.

The author (auteur in French) of this acclaimed film was D. A. Pennebaker, who used his creative personal vision to direct and shoot the film in cinema verite style. Pennebaker had said that ‘nothing was staged or arranged for the purposes of the film’. It played out in hotel rooms, limousines, backstage rooms and concert halls. The film explored Dylan through public media interviews and concert footage, and private exchanges with his entourage.

At the time of its production, Don’t Look Back was the first of its kind, an in-the-moment documentary rather than a constructed one. It was a ‘fly on the wall’ genre, a major tenet of cinema verite or direct cinema, utilizing hand-held camera, long takes, no lighting equipment, shaky camerawork and occasional loss of focus, thereby displaying authenticity and bringing to the viewer a picture of reality. This is especially so, as throughout the film, we see the camera frantically following the events as they happen. Some scenes show how the camera needs to refocus on an object of interest, be it Dylan, his manager Albert Grossman, Joan Baez or an adoring fan inviting him for a holiday.

While other music films of the 1960s which dealt with fantasy have become irrelevant, Don’t Look Back still retains its sense of relevance into its fifth decade as it is considered to depict the most objective portrait of Bob Dylan ever made.

The objective of the film, as with all documentaries, is to show truth. It is a raw presentation of press conferences and interviews, business negotiations, backstage and hotel room happenings. There was no narrator involved and no script. As Chris Buck said, ‘Shoot and discover the story within’. It filmed only what happened as it happened, reflecting objective truth. Pennebaker, the author himself remarked, ‘My first serious film…I felt in the end that I hadn’t had to compromise anything, that it was as rough and raw and mean as it had to be’. Essentially, Pennebaker and his camera followed Dylan across his tour of England to get the raw footage.

Don’t Look Back is not a rock documentary. It is also not a concert documentary as there were only a few live numbers and more than half the film focused on the person. It is really an expose of a personality of the day. It is a portrayal of Dylan as an arrogant, intriguing person. Don’t Look Back captures the moment with spontaneity, in true cinema verite fashion. As Mark Nichols said, ‘Instead the camera acts solely as a fly on the wall and for 96 minutes the viewer watches Dylan’s ongoing evolution as performer and personality’. It is quite a revealing take on the mind of Dylan, to educate people about Dylan. It shows him being confrontational and direct and openly critical and aggressive.

It justifiably laid claims to bringing to audiences a raw picture of reality backed by the style of filming by Pennebaker. It was an exploratory form of documentary with no script, just shoot and see the story as you see it. This is evident for instance in the relationship between Dylan and Joan Baez. With no text or commentary, their relationship is shown but not told. Hence, the viewer has to deduce the significance of Baez’s disappearance half way through the film that there was a strain in their relationship.

While the highlights of the documentary were indeed the many press conferences and interviews, Pennebaker’s film shows the true self of Dylan – an angry, awkward, sarcastic, and confrontational man as when he asks, ‘Who threw the glass in the street? Who threw it?’ and his relentless heaping of scorn on the journalists. When a female reporter asked,’What is your real message?, Dylan responded awkwardly, ‘Keep a good head and always carry a light bulb’.

That Don’t Look Back is a true documentary is attested to in this remark made by Michael Rowin, ‘Part of what makes Don’t Look Back so incredible is that it might be the first public record of a celebrity openly, and with full knowledge of how his behavior might be perceived, acting like a complete jerk even when a camera is right there documenting his every movement for the world’. This was the first time ever the cinema verite or direct cinema technique was employed to project a raw, revealing insight into a well-known musician’s mindset and backstage at that. As Michael Rowan put it, ‘… Don’t Look Back remains the first and only essential one for keeping Dylan in its sights with an almost obsessive intensity and letting the man perform the truth…’.

But one can also question whether it is a documentary in the truest sense of the word. In a span of three-and-a-half weeks during Dylan’s concert tour of England, Pennebaker shot some 20 hours of film. But after editing, the ready for viewing footage was reduced to just 96 minutes. Also, virtually absent are the standard documentary rules of archival or interview footage.

It appears as though Pennebaker was an unobtrusive observer, impartial and outside the happenings through the notion of ‘fly on the wall’, which has been considered as an ideal in documentary filmmaking. This was in keeping with the cinema verite goal of excluding the filmmaker from the film, the idea being that ‘the intrusions of the direct would detract from the reality of the subject’.

However, some critics are of the view that impartial observation while filming is not achievable. Hence questions have been raised as to whether the mere presence of the filmaker will still make it possible to get a true picture of reality. Some are of the view that his presence means he cannot be an objective observer which is a key tenet of a documentary being perceived as an accurate portrayal of events. As Chris Buck says, “You have a set of values of ‘looking glasses’ the moment you interact with a subject and the selection of a subject is value laden”. But then there have been documentaries made, such as the Paul Anka biography, Lonely Boy (1962) where the film footage included Anka interacting with the filmmakers, which was acceptable to another school of thought as being part of the reality of filmmaking process.

The direct cinema philosophy by which Don’t Look Back was produced drew plenty of flak. Critics Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael touched on the notion of objectivity, specifically citing the performative elements of the film, the influence of the camera on the actions of the subjects and the impact of editing, montage and shooting decisions. Sarris viewed the film as contrived documentary.

Although direct cinema professes objectivity, Don’t Look Back was edited and structured and combined an observational approach with a personal perspective and biased editing. Documentary directors select the shots they feel will tell the story, edit those that are not needed and build an entire film on his personal bias.

Through editing, the director can latch on a single aspect such as frustration on the part of the subject and proceed to show how the subject behaves or acts in such a way. For instance, Pennebaker wanted to show Dylan’s frustrations about how he is protrayed in the news. He included Dylan’s encounter with the Time reporter and also showed how he questions the interpretation of the other journalists regarding his music and performance. For the most part, the Time reporter’s comments are omitted while Dylan’s is retained, ending with Dylan saying, ‘I know more about what you do, and you don’t have to ask me how or why or anything, just by looking, than you’ll ever know about me, ever’. Hence, we can argue that there is a presence of bias as in narrative cinema. The selection of content elements reflects the director’s personal choices, philosophy, logic and reasoning. As the author, the actual content will be determined by him.

Also, if we analyze the infamous opening sequence showing Dylan displaying the cue cards as the song ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ is played, with poet Allen Ginsberg lurking in the background, we can interpret this as staged and constructed with both of them clearly ‘acting’ the part. If we consider this as a ‘posed’ shot, we can question its true documentary status although the rest of the film can indeed pass off as a documentary.

We can say that Don’t Look Back extended the category of documentary films to music and MTV videos as we know today. The opening simple sequence showing Dylan discarding a series of cue cards with phrases of some of the lyrics of the song , ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ as though trying to put the message across, is certainly an early reflection of the more sophisticated music videos we see today of the sound, image and the performer synchronized. This is one of the most imitated sequences in the history of rock/music documentary. Although it was not intended to be broadcast as a music video, Subterranean Homesick Blues’ can be seen on MTV today as a video of a single album from Don’t Look Back. The opening sequence in Don’t Look Back and Pennebaker’s point-and-shoot handheld direction set the standard for future music documentaries to follow.

All said, Don’t Look Back is an excellent documentary which has allowed us a peek into the life of Bob Dylan. Through it, we understand the motivation, frustrations and aspirations of Dylan. While he is aware of the filming and that viewers would be peeking into his life, he allows it. It also gives us a degree of comfort that Dylan does not know who we are, or why we are even interested in knowing what he thinks or does.

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