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Focus of the unit

This unit contributes to synoptic assessment. Understanding will be fostered through:


• studying complex films from different contexts, extending knowledge of the diversity of film and its effects

• exploring spectatorship issues in relation to a particular type of film

• applying key concepts and critical approaches gained throughout the course

to explore one film in a synoptic manner.




Mrs Symons will be teaching


Spectatorship and Documentary

Which the Board define as:


The study of the impact on the spectator of different kinds of documentary –

for example, the overtly persuasive and the apparently observational film.


Examples may be taken from both historical (such as 30s and 40s British

Documentary or 60s Cinéma Verité) and contemporary examples, including

work on video.


A minimum of two feature-length documentaries should be

studied for this topic

Documentaries and  reality.


It is very important to state very clearly that the reality we all live in can never be accurately represented by any known media.

Life is lived in three or four dimensions and cannot be edited.


It is most important that you explain very clearly to the examiner that you understand the usual ideas surrounding representation.

The term constructed and construction should appear again and again in your essays.

Dyer's four notions regarding representation must be known by heart.

The idea of media codes and conventions is very important. Realism in film, as in  literature is ultimately a stylistic convention.


Documentaries have a number of signifiers of the real.


We recognise  documentary because we recognise the codes and conventions of the documentary.

Documentaries construct reality using a range of codes and conventions that are entirely familiar to most spectators. These codes and conventions we call generic signifiers.


In the documentaries on the Third Reich and the Holocaust  codes and conventions were always in play.


These were:


"actuality" or "documentary" footage,



filmed testimonies.


The convention of the "expository" documentary being a carefully structured argument or account was also present in all the documentaries we looked at.


As spectators  we are not  generally in the habit of doubting  documentaries as a genre and it is generally taken as a given that the makers of documentaries, particularly documentaries about the Holocaust, are sincere  and fundamentally honest people.

As spectators we  often lack the ability to check facts ourselves or to know  for certain  that any piece of archive footage is what it is claimed to be.

We have also come to accept the use of non diegetic  music in documentary. This ought to be thought a non realist convention as in the real world there is no generally a full symphony orchestra playing in the background. Despite this, again and again nondiegetic music is used to anchor and amplify the mood of the spectator.

Obviously documentaries have to select and we, none of us, know as spectators of a documentary,  just how much spoken testimony or interview testimony has been edited. We have grown used to cutaway shots which allow any such editing to be easily concealed.

Once again we trust to the honesty of the documentary film makers.

When viewing documentaries about the Third Reich and the Holocaust Dyer's question, who speaks for whom? becomes of immediate importance.


History, it is said, is written by the victors.


Is a documentary about the Holocaust constructed by  left-wing French film-makers likely to be different from a documentary made in Germany by Germans?

If  the documentary concerns the extermination of 6 million Jews should not the survivors from this hideous enterprise have their say?

And which of these three groups is more likely to tell the truth?

Is it likely that an event or a rather events of this magnitude taking place over a number of years in a vast geographical area can ever be realistically  documented on film with absolute authenticity?


The question is best answered by looking closely at each documentary on its own terms.

If we as spectators encounter what we feel is an obvious management of our responses intellectually and emotionally we might be wise up to examine the methods that documentary maker is using to manage us. This standing back from a film text is never easy to manage and in the case of a Holocaust documentary highly problematic.


Len Masterman's list of the ways in which the documentary film maker can stray or even must stray from the path of truth is most helpful here.


This is why Lanzman adopted his rather stark, simple testimony to camera approach. It makes his film almost a  manipulation  free zone. However lacking the conventions we are used to, it becomes painfully difficult to watch.

Few people will watch a nine-hour documentary out of the sense of duty. Lanzman's care for documentary authenticity loses him a wider mass audience.

Is it important that a documentary should appeal to a mass audience?

The nature of the television and  film industry would rather suggest that it is. Documentaries are expensive to make and companies that finance them require a return for their money in terms of box-office or viewing figures.

There is therefore an onus on documentary film-makers to entertain while not losing sight of the serious endeavour they are embarked upon.

The temptation to entertain above all else is always there and many current reality shows will manipulate people and situations for the greatest possible entertainment value.

The BFI documentary on the Holocaust and fiction film discusses very sensibly the necessary trade-off between entertainment values and historical authenticity.



To deliver audiences to advertisers. (and do it cheaply)

Even BBC docs have spin off books and may involve sponsorship deals  BBC Bitesize books, Ellen Mac Arthur's Kingfisher had BT Logos.

Commercial channels can use scheduling to pull an audience with a particular interest.  Dieting Doc followed by Perfect Breasts carried lots of health related advertising early on in the evening.  Clearly a particular doc might pull a niche audience just as an interest magazine does.

In that some documentaries might be expected to attract an educated audience.  They are also likely to be an affluent audience. (ABC1s)


To Entertain.


Documentaries are increasingly doing this.  It perhaps began with the Drama-Doc, then the Docu-soap hybrid and has continued with other hybrids (the Docu-gameshow Big Brother, Bare Necessities) 'experiments' (Castaway 2000) and other programmes now being referred to as Reality TV.  We are invited to observe people “improvising around the theme of being themselves (Andy Hamilton in the Hugh Weldon lecture) in carefully constructed, 'artificial' situations.


Other, more traditionally constructed docs have an element of entertainment.  Perfect Breasts was in invitation to look at women's breasts (a pleasure associated with tabloid journalism) squirm at the sight of surgery (a gratification not dissimilar to watching gory slasher fiction) and shout “Bimbo” at the screen - there was no reference to breast implants in older women, or reconstructive surgery after cancer.  There weren't even statistics about what percentage of 'teens' had implants, yet our first impulse might have been to categorise this doc as informative because it seems to be suggesting a worrying trend!


Even the good old expository mode Wildlife doc uses voice over to entertain with narrative conventions (suspense is an obvious one - will the lion get the baby deer? And 'the chase'.  Non-diegetic music is usually added to increase the excitement.  A lot of sex and violence!)


To Educate


Some educational docs have a niche audience (third year physics with the Open University,  GCSE BBC Bitesize) These often deliver parts of a study course with a recognised qualification at the end of it.  Generally they are scheduled in the middle of the night and videoed by their target audience.

Other docs also have educational elements but less well defined educational aims.  (Natural History Docs and Science Docs increase your 'general knowledge')  incidentally over a period of time they, to some extent, determine the hierarchy of knowledge / what is viewed as 'general knowledge.'  (Knowing the bus timetables of Britain makes you a 'sad geek', knowing football scores back to 1960 is more 'respectable', knowing kings and queens of England is 'academic' and respectable - all involve the same brain activity.)


These documentaries are usually referred to by the type of material they contain (just as non-fiction books might be) eg. Science, Medical, Natural History, Psychology, The Arts, History.


To provide a channel with 'quality' status  (TV documentaries)


Because documentaries are associated with 'reality', knowledge, 'serious' concerns they carry associations of 'quality' (like broadsheet newspapers) A channel hoping to be seen as 'quality' can signal this by buying, commissioning or making documentaries.  Remember, the BBC has to justify the Licence fee with quality and mass market appeal, and commercial channels have to deliver audiences to advertisers.)



To inform


Grierson began with this intention.  He hoped to inform the American public in order that they might be better able to make informed decisions when voting - democratic intentions?

This idea of information for citizenship or social responsibility in a 'global village' still exists.  

Docs are used for this, often Left wing purpose, of informing the public of social inequality.  Exposing social ills.   But do they sometimes confirm stereo-types of 'dole-dossers' or 'inept starving Africans'?  


Docs highlighting the state of British prisons might inform people about: conditions that affect the way they vote, prompt them to write to MPs or simply inform them how their taxes are spent.  

Docs like Holidays from Hell inform people of their consumer rights.

Of course this raises issues of representation.  Who is informing whom of what and why?  So, a doc seeming to expose the inept holiday providers may in effect raise the profile/social importance of holidays (acting like a promotion) so that ultimately more people take holidays and the leisure industry benefits (even the 'dodgy dealers' get their share of a larger market)


Docs on health/personal issues might inform people about illnesses and conditions which prompts greater levels of understanding but are they sometimes strengthening stereo-types of 'helpless disabled victims'?  Often these docs end with helpline contact details.  You could argue this aims to provide advice or that it makes producers seem responsible and detracts from potential criticisms that they are making cheap minutage, mass appeal TV out of people's misfortune.



To document 'significant' events


Again it is worth considering who/what determines the 'significant'.  Hitler had docs of his rallies shot - clearly the purpose here was propaganda, but the 'significant' might be determined by more insidious, institutional issues  eg. The BBC has lost the right to show football matches so it is looking for other sporting events.  They send Ellen Mac Arthur to sea with seven cameras knowing that the footage she collects can be used on the news to make her race seem like a significant event (self-fulfilling stuff ie. it must be important because it's on the news) and once they have created an interest they can trailer their doc on the news and guarantee an audience for it.  They don't have to pay researcher, a journalist, a film crew.  They collect a couple of aerial shots in a helicopter fly by, do the editing, add a bit of Dido's 'Until you're resting here with me' and Ellen delivers forty hours of footage to edit down to fifty mins - very cheap and the footage is used on both the BBC News and the Doc - a bargain. (and an exclusive.)


The making of a Media text can lead to a documentary spin-off which, while educating about the Media, also acts as a promotional vehicle for the film/album/festival./documentary even!  

Likewise, the easy availability of existing news footage/ 'authentic' or period footage may mean that cheap documentaries can quickly be constructed by adding a voice-over, a few interviews with: eye-witnesses or 'experts', or the 'man on the street'. Eg. There are lots of Docs about the Nazi Holocaust not only because the Jewish community is influential and wants us to remember, but also because there's lots of easily available footage (more recent mass genocides involve paying researchers to go to dangerous places and investigate - not cheap)


To be a window on the world/ documenting ordinary events

This clearly raises issues of representation.  Even with fly on the wall techniques, or the more recent, 'live' webcam, decisions are made about where to put the camera.  Selection of subject and 'characters' are important and in edited texts the selection of images and cutting of sound and addition of non-diegetic sound are all important issues.

Who is being represented by whom?  How representative are the selections that have been made?  (statistically?)  How might audiences read these representations?  Representation is arguably more important in documentary than it is in fictional texts because audiences assume they are seeing representations of 'reality'.  It is difficult for such documentaries to challenge our cultural expectations because in order for them to be received as 'windows on the world' the documentary must match its constructed 'reality' to the 'reality' which is taken for granted.


Docs of ordinary lives might: celebrate the working lives of 'ordinary people'; provide audiences with a sense of community or a measure of their own lives: identities and values; and/or provide escape (like wildlife docs, if narrative is provided then the uses and gratifications associated with fictional narratives will also apply)



To provide one person's view

Authored docs


(most commonly making use of a voice over and therefore expository in mode) provide a document of one person's view of 'reality' This is sometimes an 'expert' opinion.  It is ironic that while authored docs are partly free from the constraints of impartiality, it could be argued that this is the most reliable of documentary forms because it doesn't purport to be anything other than subjective.  In the hands of a powerful political leader however, this can become propaganda.


To document one person's life


These include: a biography of a celebrity or public figure (often expository or drama-doc in mode and sometimes 'historical'); one person's 'heroic struggle with' a debilitating disease; an expose of a corrupt public figure (often, but not necessarily, expository mode, sometimes involving the use of hidden cameras).

Of course we have already done searching analyses of a variety of documentaries. We, or rather you, will summarise our findings in this area. Meanwhile here's some opinionated stuff on documentary aims, cynicism like mine takes years to brew:



Documentaries, their problems with "reality"

according to Len Masterman



Norbert see if TS Eliot can send us Ecstatic in VanCouver is, of course, your mnemonic,

Your easy way to remember what follows;




The human mind likes to make sense of the world through use of narratives.  Ask Paddy what his day was like and he'll start telling you stories, but "reality" (if it's out there) doesn't happen in nicely constructed narratives.  It is chaotic and unstructured.

Documentary makers impose narratives on the material they show to help us to make sense of the world they're creating, but in doing so they are tinkering with 'reality'.  Examples of this might be 'A Day in the life of…' formats which imply that what you are seeing is both typical and cyclical (and indeed it may be - but what you are seeing was almost certainly shot over three months not one day)




Len Masterman suggests that the minute producers select a certain subject for a documentary (and reject countless others) they are implying a hierarchy of values.  Having a documentary made about a subject suggests it is important.  Likewise a lot of material gets rejected while making a documentary (often the non-confrontational stuff)  this can give us a biased representation of the world.


Interpretive Framework


Even before you start watching a documentary the Media has started framing your reading of what you are about to see.  The Radio Times has told you it is 'hard hitting' or the voice introducing it warns of 'strong language.'  Sometimes there'll be shameless promotion of the documentary during the News.  All this serves to suggest that the construction you are seeing in a documentary is more 'important', more 'serious', more 'real' than other constructions of reality on TV.




watch out for the use of words on screen to anchor images in time and space.  Labels, dates etc tend to be believed unquestioningly and are a quick and cheap way of conveying information.




Listen out for the use of non-diegetic sound.  Has music been added?  Why what effects does it have?  Is sound used as a bridge between scenes and if so what meanings are made?  


Effects of Crew


There are two things to remember here.  One, that the placement of cameras and mics. Has an effect on the materials collected (eg a microphone at the back of a classroom picks up chair scraping and restless whispering whereas a microphone pinned to the teacher's tie gets his words of wisdom and a silent class…)  the second point is that no matter how invisible a camera crew try to be knowing you are being filmed means the most any of us can do is 'improvise around the theme of being ourselves'.


Set ups  


Not just reconstructions of events that happened in the past but also setting up 'typical' scenes.  So if you want to quickly convey 'classroom' you might ask a class to put their hands up like there's a lesson going on and the teacher's just asked a question.  Strictly speaking what you're showing is not 'true' the teacher didn't ask a question, but it is a way of cheaply getting footage a crew might have had to wait fifteen minutes for if they had just waited for it to happen 'naturally'.  

There is an issue here however because if crews make a habit of using set ups they will only be using images of 'reality' that audiences already recognise (confirming stereotypes perhaps) and producing fresh images/ ideas about 'reality' will be impossible.  There's a sort of vicious cycle here.  If I show you radically different images from inside a school you may reject them as atypical or 'unreal' but if I can only offer you a 'reality' you already know about how can I change your opinions?




Not just a matter of selection, but the whole business of juxtaposing one image with another to create an argument/arguments or a meaning/meanings.  




Ah…. The rhetoric of images.  How are images being used to persuade you?


Visual Coding


Things like mise en scene and props.  Is that doctor any less a doctor if she's not in a white coat and wearing a stethoscope?  Has someone been ambushed in the street to make them look shifty?




Documentaries, their problems with "reality"

according to Len Masterman

Norbert see if TS Eliot can send us Ecstatic in VanCouver



The Aims of Documentary??

1. Why is the problem of honest representation such a vexed problem in the area of the documentary?



2. Representation is a complex concept and applying notions of representation to documentary forms makes for very real difficulties.





3.The "real", "reality", "the truth" are all highly problematic terms especially when used about  documentary forms.






4. Realism, in literature and in film, is essentially a matter of style. Documentaries come in a range of cinematic styles. Is it possible to say which of these styles is most likely to be honest and truthful.?



5. Is selection the single most problematic area for honest representation in the genre of the documentary?


Some scary exam questions

Ultimately our response as spectators to any documentary is subjective so as media students we need always think in terms of our response to the  REPRESENTATION offered. Good media students always use “offered” as it is never a given that any representation will be accepted by an audience.

The different questions one might ask of representation have been usefully set out by Richard Dyer in "TV and Schooling"  Put simply:


1    What sense do representations make of the world?  What are they representing to us and how? Semiotics, codes, conventions, discourses, language itself, both semantic and iconic, ideology, messages overt and covert, propaganda, bias, agendas, newsworthiness, censorship.


2    What are typical representations of groups in society? Gender, race, age, religion Stereotypes? Statistically correct?


3    Who is speaking, for whom?  White middle-aged men with degrees, The role of Institutions?  Individuals?  Democracy?



4    What does this example represent to me.  What does it mean to others who see it? Audience   reception theory?   Aberrant  decoding?



Truth in documentary film, then, might be approached as a way of creating meaning from a filmic text.


Thus the search for documentary truth, a search for an understanding of what we are presented with, can be seen as a phenomenological undertaking.


Explaining phenomenology’s main interest as “attempting to describe what is in front of us” (19), Brian McIlroy suggests that a phenomenological approach to understanding documentary film allows for a guide through the spaces between the textual elements that must be navigated in order to construct meaning.


He notes that “documentaries via phenomenology guide us…to the real world.

We, as viewers, accept the contract, implicit or otherwise, that what we see is about the real, not the real” (20).


Thus the impossibility of documentary to present us with reality is dealt with through film’s ability to allow us to understand the real within it.


McIlroy sees this phenomenological approach to documentary as being a middle road between two extreme theoretical positions. On the one hand, he describes Bazin and Kracauer’s focus on the transparency potential of film,” and on the other he posits contemporary poststructuralist theorists who regard the film screening as referring only to itself and/or created by the viewer’s reception of it (21).


McIlroy’s interest in taking the middle road between extreme positions in order to arrive at the truth of documentary is another example of truth being found in the mind’s navigation through what it is presented with in order to find coherence.


McIlroy’s approach could also be used to highlight the difficulties that exist between the notions of author, text, and receiver if one thinks of the text as a middle ground between auteur and reception theories. So it would seem that truth in documentary exists in the heart of competing arenas that need to be collated and assessed in the same fashion as the mind deals with the realm of the everyday.


Mrs Symons thinks that what is being described here is not unakin to the experience of hearing a mate describe an evening’s experience with a boy/girlfriend.


We negotiate a TRUTH from what is said,who is saying it and what we as RECEIVERS assess as TRUTHFUL likelihoods.

The Gap: Documentary Truth between Reality and Perception

Randolph Jordan

A extract (below) from a difficult but interesting essay by Randolph Jordan which can be found HERE



1. A philosophy or method of inquiry based on the premise that reality consists of objects and events as they are perceived or understood in human consciousness and not of anything independent of human consciousness.