Perspective/Truth in Documentary Film

The book touched on truth in documentary film and if it was even possible to convey absolute truth when the filmmakers perspective is inevitably part of the documentary process.

I had originally toyed with writing my research paper on the city symphony phenomenon and if or how a documentary can capture the essence of a city in a way that is easily digestibly by an audience that is not familiar with that geographic location, but as I’ve kept watching more and more documentaries over the course of the semester I’ve become more interested in how the filmmakers perspective plays into the outcome of the documentary and how it is received. I suppose it’s not much different from how the director of a fictional movie becomes part of his work and as a result is an influence on the work itself and the way the audience perceives it.

Is there something there to try to explore the origin of a documentary film into where it is most popular and why? Maybe something along the lines of trying to define how the perspective of the production company and filmmaker inevitably have an impact on how the subject is perceived by the audience.

I know I’m way too late in the semester to still be toying with documentary research topic ideas but I haven’t been able to nail down something I’m passionately interested in. Hopefully my brain will spit something good out soon.

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Perspective/Truth in Documentary Film

Mademoiselle C

This trailer really doesn’t do the heart and soul of this documentary justice, but to give you guys a feel for what I’m writing about I stuck it up there. This documentary follows Carine Roitfeld as she embarks on creating her own personal magazine after leaving her post as editor in chief of Vogue Paris.

The film feels deeply personal and light. Carine’s interviews are never stiff, boring, or strictly business. It could be because she’s very Parisienne but she’s always talking about what inspires her and art in any and every form is a huge part of her daily life. She’s a beautifully interesting person and her work I think is a direct reflection of what matters to her.

The narrator throughout the documentary is primarily Carine herself, but interspersed every so often are short interviews from her family, friends, and colleagues. Every word spoken about her is glowing and she is held in the highest regard by the majority of the fashion world. The only small blip of negativity throughout most of the documentary revolves around her difficulties getting her new magazine venture off the ground. Otherwise she is painted as the angel of the fashion world.

It was produced by a French film company that is dedicated to unearthing and exploring global enterprise in every capacity, but what struck me most about this documentary was the total lack of presence from the filmmakers in any way. It made me think about how a filmmakers perspective still shines through despite them being entirely absent from the screen. Because I don’t believe that any documentary can be entirely unbiased, just like no photograph can truly show the entire picture. Do documentary filmmakers every try to be entirely unbiased or are they always proving or exploring an agenda? Because I think a documentary filmmaker is just as much an artist as they are a journalist when they go after particular subjects. I suppose I’m wondering where exactly the line between art and fact is drawn. And this query comes up in the reading as well. The question of truth in documentary and how truth can be played out when it’s being shown through a typically artistic and expressionistic medium. Can any documentary be considered hard truth when whatever the subject is is always being shown through someone’s perspective? Questions to be answered as I continuing watching more documentaries I guess.

Anways, if you are interested in publication or fashion or even just art and the passion for it this is a really interesting documentary and Carine Roitfeld sounds like a truly extraordinary woman. The kind of effortlessly cool French woman that everyone wishes they could be.

Mademoiselle C

The Imposter (2012)

MIND. BLOWN. I have never seen something so equally fascinating and terrifying. The documentary covers the case of Frederic Bourdin and his impersonation of a missing Texas child from three years prior. Basically Frederic poses as missing or abandoned children and bounces from shelter to shelter until he decides to try to find himself a family. There’s a brief back story of Frederic having a very troubled childhood and never feeling loved hence the need to be loved by another family. He spends an entire night researching missing children trying to find one he can become that would be plausible. He lands upon the Nicholas Barclay file and decides to assume his identity. All the while Frederic is narrating the documentary and you get to hear and see him as he reminisces about his choices and the things he did that got him to where he was going.

The morning after his investigative work he receives a more fully formed image of Nicholas Barclay only to discover that Nicholas has three tattoos, and blond hair and blue eyes while Frederic is a 23 year old Frenchman with dark hair and eyes. But it’s too late. Now he has to assume Nicolas’s identity. He’s already told the people running the shelter he’s at in SPAIN that he is most definitely Nicholas Barclay.

And while this story is being told from Frederic’s perspective, various family members of the missing boys family are remembering what it was like when Nicolas disappeared and what it was like to hear from a foreign country that he had been found. The film also totally pulls you in with the framing and the sound. It’s like a compelling crime story that you can’t stop watching.

Frederic ends up being able to convince the family that he is their missing child and he stays with them for half a year until a private investigator starts picking up on clues that Frederic is not actually Nicholas.

Now this is where the documentary got a little hairy and I really don’t want to ruin the end of it because if any of you get the chance to watch this (and you should) you NEED to experience it the way I just did. My jaw literally dropped.

So without giving too much away, this has definitely been my favorite documentary viewing to date. Such a compelling subject and an interesting human and character study. Who would do such a crazy thing? Assuming the identity of a missing child and convincing the family that it’s real. But at the same time, it’s hard to believe that the family doesn’t see anything suspicious or strange. Victim blaming, I know. But still.

I’m definitely going to be thinking about this one for awhile. Highly recommended for anyone who a Criminal Minds geek, this is totally up your alley.

And obviously the subject is crazy interesting but it’s also the way it’s filmed. Every major scene is reenacted with Frederic playing himself and in some scenes he fictionally plays himself and Nicholas Barclay to illustrate the complexity of his real life acting. This intertwined with interviews with the family members and the FBI investigator truly bring the story to life and honestly left me breathlessly waiting for events to unfold.

So now someone go please watch it now so I can talk about the crazy plot twist of an ending.

The Imposter (2012)

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011)

The_Greatest_Movie_Ever_Sold_Poster

This documentary was created by the same man who did Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock, and in a similar way he uses himself and his lifestyle choices to communicate a point to his audience. This particular documentary focused on product placement in the media and he funded this entire project through partnerships with large brand names in exchange for plugging product and product placement within his film. And I only know about this because this morning in my Marketing Strategies class this is what we did. So thanks Business Department. I’ve got that two birds one stone thing going with this one.

Anyways, he goes through the process of identifying what his own personal brand is most compatible with by meeting with psychology experts within the marketing field who’s job it is to determine compact ways to describe personal, professional, and corporate brands so as to better market them to specific consumers. Spurlock then exposes himself to as much branding as possible, because for his documentary about product placement, he wishes to partner with brands he is similar to or believes in at some level. It starts off slow and many corporations are wary to be a part of a documentary film project that specifically targets branding and product placement. And understandably so from the corporate perspective putting your brand name and as a result your reputation at risk with a man who’s known for demolishing the credibility of McDonalds is daunting. However as the film progresses more and more companies are intrigued and decided to participate with Spurlock as a way to promote their respective companies and products.

In typical Spurlcock fashion he continually uses humor, irony, and hyperbole to get his point across about marketing and product placement. And as the film evolves it becomes more and more about the consumer relationship to the advertising around them and less about just product placement. He redefines product placement from the business definition that only includes literally placing products in television or film and expands it to include the placement of products in any and all media in relation to the consumer.

It was also an interesting project to watch because ironically the majority of the film is him pitching his idea to a variety of company executives about a movie he’d like to make, but the movie he’d like to make is what is being filmed currently. I suppose he needed the funding from all these companies for promotion and post production of the documentary? Again ironic. He seeks funding from companies he’s going to advertise for in an effort to have enough funding to market another endeavor.

Anyways it was very interesting to watch him use marketing and product placement in his own way. Another bit that I really liked was when he gained interview access to some of my favorite directors to hear their take on product placement. In particular he speaks to Quentin Tarantino (pretty sure I was the only one in my class who actually knew who he was and thought he was funny) about product placement in his movies. Tarantino mentions that he has had the opposite communication with corporations in that they want to stay as far away from being associated with Tarantino films as possible. Because Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction both open in a Denny’s, Tarantino talked to Denny’s executives about having the logos in the films and they straight refused. I mean it makes sense, from a marketers perspective you don’t want your restaurant associated with a crazy couple robbing the place. Denny’s is supposed to be about pancakes, not guns.

For me, it felt like the purpose of Spurlock’s documentary was to draw attention to the prevalence of branding and marketing in not just media but every day life. But if you are like me, or probably all of us, since we’re all in the communications/marketing field, we’ve all already been aware of the media and advertising world. But it was cool to take a look at specifically how product placement and advertising affect the filmmaking process in pre and post production.

I’m attaching the trailer if anyone is interested!

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011)

The Thin Blue Line (1988)

Watching this felt like it took 4 hours. In truth it was only half of that, but the pace of this documentary really had me almost falling asleep. The content is exciting and the story is intriguing but the format of the documentary kept making me feel like I was trying to hard to force my concentration and continue watching.

The other thing I really didn’t enjoy about the documentary was how incredibly slow but dramatic it was. It was so dramatized that the content started to feel silly and unimportant. But it’s interesting to read about the impact this documentary had on the future of Randall Adam’s conviction. He was given the death penalty but as a result of a reevaluation of the evidence and the public push this documentary may have induced he was proven innocent instead of being wrongfully accused of the murder of a police officer. I haven’t researched enough to fully know, but I realize that documentaries inciting public enthusiasm and eventual change is a trend in filmmaking that is if anything a growing and emerging power. This type of film has so much more power to make things move than any fictional movie. Movies can induce emotions and feelings but documentaries are so much more likely to incite action. They have the power to persuade through a familiar medium a market of people who may not have otherwise acted on their emotions.

But anyways, back to the documentary. I did like that so many of the framing shots were disembodied in a way. The camera focuses on the cigarettes in the hands of an unknown man, hands on the steering wheel or holding a pistol while a voiceover explains the actions. It was an intriguing way to layout the scenes and establish who is who and what is happening in a way that doesn’t make the audience watch a severely staged reenactment. In a way I suppose those shots establish that the reenactments are just that, and reinforce to the viewer that the scenes they are about to watch are rendered from written and heard evidence, and cannot ever mirror a perfect truth.

I was actually really disappointed by this documentary because the subject line sounds so much more intriguing and interesting than the actual documentary turns out to be. But this could be because the documentary comes at a time in documentary filmmaking history where the documentary film still feels like a slow biopic and doesn’t reflect the nature of the content being documented. From what I’ve experienced of older documentaries, they tend to be slower and more History Channel-esque wherein the modern documentary film has begun to express more creativity and complexity in form in a way that mirrors content. In closing, I had high hopes for this documentary. I really thought my brain would love tackling the he said she said mystery of who killed the police officer, but the format was much too slow and entirely killed the story for me. Now below I’m including my favorite ¬†overdramatized scene. There is nothing quite so sad as the moment when your chocolate milkshake hits the ground. And I love that this was important in the investigation.

Picture007

The Thin Blue Line (1988)

Somm (2012)

vinealvixen_somm4

The 2012 documentary Somm chronicles the plight of 4 advanced Sommeliers as they attempt to take what sounds like essentially the hardest test you can possibly take. I knew that wine tasting and the world of wine was complicated and detailed, but I had no idea exactly how crazy and almost impossible the industry is. This film started with the introductions of all the sommeliers being followed and moved on to explain the test itself, intricacies of the industry and the wine world and while doing so weaved in personal stories, anecdotes, and words of wisdom from the four sommeliers who had been studying their butts off to try to pass an essentially impossible test.

To add some context, the Master Sommelier exam is made up of three parts.

1. Theory

2. Service

3. Blind Tasting

Theory is a sit down test where the candidates are rigorously tested on their knowledge of wine regions and districts, wine making process, and particulars of wine history. That alone sounds impossible. And each candidate had stacks on stacks of notecards full of information that they could be tested on. I mean they had to know which 8 wineries reside in a particular valley of the Ukraine. And it wasn’t just those wineries. They had to be familiar with every winery on the planet and what kinds of wine they produced and from what kind of grapes. And then along with this they had to be able to identify why certain years were better than others in terms of harvest and be able to identify geographic influence in the winemaking industry. This alone is truly incredible.

The service portion is a mock up of what a Master Sommelier would be doing as a career after finally passing this crazy test. They are put into a restaurant situation and have to in action recommend a wine for a customer based on customer preference and food choice. The documentary didn’t really focus on this too much and I got the feeling that this part of the test is the “easiest”? I suppose after the rest of the things you have to learn this part comes naturally and involves more correct social skills than strict knowledge.

The final (and I think hardest) portion of the exam is the blind tasting. The sommelier candidate is given 6 wines, 3 red and 3 white, and they must identify from what region, district, and valley the grapes comes from and ultimately what kind of wine it is and what year it was made. They do so by describing the hints and notes in the wine that they taste and smell. Things like crushed grapefruit and apple smoked bacon. Things people who aren’t overanalyzing their beverage would never notice, but I have to admit this part of the test was especially intriguing to me. Not because of the outrageous smells the sommelier candidates were sensing (one of them smelled freshly opened tennis ball can?), but because the sommeliers had to find ways to describe smell through words. They had to unpack and explore a wine made of taste and smell and explain it in plain English. It reminded me of reading a poem and trying to explain the meaning to someone who doesn’t understand the same language.

I think the documentary did a fine job of capturing the obsession and passion that a person has to have in order to even think about trying to pass this exam. It also presented a “Why would you even do this” towards the end of the film. It nicely wrapped up the documentary when as a viewer you’re sitting here wondering the whole 90 minutes while on earth someone would torture themselves like this when there are only a little under 200 certified Master Sommeliers in the ENTIRE WORLD, when this test has been in existence since the 1960s. Although this also begs the question, who decided to try and make people figure out what wine they’re drinking right down to the year it was made and where the grapes grew? The film offered the idea that after one has passed the Master Sommelier exam, offers come flooding in from all over the world to work at top tier restaurants or with top tier wine/beverage corporations as an expert in all things wine. Apparently being an MS really opens doors for people in the restaurant and beverage industry.

The documentary has no voiceover from an outside or third party narrator. All of the speaking comes from the candidates or previous Master Sommeliers that are advising the current applicants. I think this allows the viewer the opportunity to digest the content as they see fit and ask their own questions about it. Though I found that the documentary often flowed into the questions I had in mind. Maybe an indication that the producers positioned the content just so as to direct the audiences mind and keep the narrative and the information structured. And despite the overbearing nature of the content and the huge emphasis on just how impossible this test is, the documentary never feels defeatist. It is inspiring to watch four men study for days on end, and literally all through the night because they are so driven to be crowned the best of the best. The book mentions, in reference to My Winnipeg, the “struggle against documentary as prosaic, narrow, drab and ultimately pessimistic and restricting” being the motivation to make an interesting documentary to capture an otherwise seemingly bland subject. I think this documentary does this well. It is light filled and visually interesting with obviously a lot of play on liquid and glass as a kind of B roll.

And I think this film did well to capture the wine industry and the wine world along with the type of people who so enjoy and admire a subject that they strive to be the best at it simply for the sake of being the best, only for their own satisfaction.

In all, I was very intrigued, and not just because I enjoy wine tasting. It was an interesting world to be introduced to and very moving to watch so many people struggle against almost impossible odds all to receive a title of greatness. I can’t imagine ever having the intense motivation to dive so fully into the wine world, but I like to think that maybe some day now that I’ve gotten a taste (haha) I too will notice the hints of freshly opened tennis ball can and fresh cut garden hose in my next glass of Pinot Grigio.

Somm (2012)

Behind the Hedgerow: Eileen Slocum & The Meaning of Newport Society

Eileen Slocum
Eileen Slocum

This documentary chronicled the life of Eileen Slocum, starting with her Gilded Age childhood and ending with her social esteem and popularity at her death. Eileen was born in 1915 to a wealthy family part of the elite of New York and hence Newport society. The film shows her life through voiceover from Eileen herself, interviews with her family members and close friends, and up close still shots of photographs, letters, and articles of historic value.

Eileen shares a unique story because she grew up in a rare time for women and she says so. She was very well educated and very revered in society. She had the power to induce change and her voice was strongly heard. I think originally going into this documentary I expected a Gatsby-esque compilation of sparkling parties and the typical accoutrements of the Gilded Age in Newport. This had a more human feel to it and stressed the importance of family lines and ancestry. Eileen herself felt very connected to her family and her ancestors and placed great respect within the realm of family. And for her, family was not limited to only blood ties. Close family friends or member of the elite upper crust that would have been regulars at Eileen’s parties were also considered “family.”

Slocum Family House
Slocum Family House

The filmmakers did a beautiful job capturing a feeling of a time period but also I think justly chronicling what Eileen’s life had been like and how she and the world around her had changed with time. She remained popular and influential in society until her death, made apparent by the stacks and stacks of personal letters she kept. I would kill to go through those. The documentary made a point to recognize that Eileen kept every single letter she ever received in her lifetime. She couldn’t bear to part with them. So as a result her family has letters from Gerald Ford and the Kennedys. There are letters from Vanderbilts and Astors and all of the big names of the time. She is considered the grand dame of Newport society and a central hub for all communication within that inner circle. This documentary does more than just observe. The beginning of Saunder’s chapter 3 opens with Flaherty’s story about losing all of his footage to a fire. He doesn’t care because he claims that the footage was a waste anyways.

“I had learned to explore, I had not learned to reveal.” – Flaherty

This applies I think in that the documentary about Eileen could have been strictly based on the historical material the filmmakers had access to. With the plethora of video footage, photographs, and letters they had at their disposal the film could have been very observational. But they did well to reveal the character of Eileen Slocum and her family and to synthesize their place in Newport society in a way that includes the audience. As a viewer you don’t feel like an outsider looking in, so much as a friend who has been invited to explore.

In all I thought this was a beautifully done documentary that did a fine job of presenting a huge amount of historical material in a digestible manner. And it was really cool to get such an intimate and personal look into the world of the upper crust of Newport.

Just look at how perfectly Newport they are. I need a time machine to travel back to this Newport
Just look at how perfectly Newport they are. I need a time machine to travel back to this Newport
Behind the Hedgerow: Eileen Slocum & The Meaning of Newport Society