Documentary Theorists

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MICHAEL RABIGER - Features of Documentary

Rabiger believes that documentaries:

  • Tell a good story
  • Have interesting characters, who are trying to achieve something
  • Develop knowledge of a character or situation
  • Are NOT objective (they are subjective)
  • Include contextual information
  • Convey person, critical perspective on human condition
  • Contain dramatic suspense and makes the audience judge/anticipate/wonder/despair
  • Show confrontation between two opposing forces with climax and resolution
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STUART HALL - Reception Theory

Stuart Hall categorised the way in which spectators read documentaries. 

These three categories are:

  • DOMINANT READING: (or hegemonic reading) When the reader fully accepts the preferred reading. i.e. does not question or challenge any elements of the documentary's messages or values. Basically how the producer wants the reader to interpret the text.
  • NEGOTIATED READING: The reader largely accepts the messages and values of the text but in certain parts/moments they may disagree/question the text. ("in a way which reflects their own position, experiences and interests")
  • OPPOSITIONAL READING: (or counter-hegemonic reading) When the reader understands the preferred reading of the text, but rejects it. Often due to social situation e.g. if a Labour supporter watched a Conservative political broadcast, they would immediately disagrees.

A way to remember the category names is 'DOMINO':

DOMI[nant] N[egotiated] O[ppositional]

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BILL NICHOLS - Modes of Documentary (PART 1)

Nichols identified 6 modes of documentary. They are:

EXPOSITORY MODE: Often has a narrator that is omnipresent, omniscient and objective. The documentary constructs a specific argument; the narrative voice and footage correspond together to do this. 

POETIC MODE: Focuses on the mood/tone of the text, so characters and events are usually underdeveloped. Often discontinuous, Nichols says they focus on "associations and patterns that involve temporal rhythms and spatial juxtapositions" rather than continuity or narrative. 

OBSERVATIONAL MODE: Appears as though no filmmakers were involved: no voice-over, no interviews etc. The camera captures uninfluenced behaviours and occurences (fly on the wall). 

PARTICIPATORY MODE: The filmmaker interacts with the subjects within the documentary (often through interviews). "what happens in front of the camera becomes an index of the nature of interaction between filmmaker and subject." - Nichols

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BILL NICHOLS - Modes of Documentary (PART 2)

Performative Mode: Not to be confused with the participatory mode! The filmmaker gets involved and interacts with the subject, but often with a more subjective frame of mind. Manipulates subject/viewer in order to "construct a truth".

Reflexive Mode: This mode focuses on the construction of the documentary and the relationship between the filmmaker and the viewer, rather than the filmmaker and the subject. e.g. In Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera(1929,) for example, he features footage of his brother and wife in the process of shooting footage and editing, respectively. The goal in including these images was, "to aid the audience in their understanding of the process of construction in film so that they could develop a sophisticated and critical attitude."

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