Feedback: Assignment One

An interesting quote from Liam Ward to get all those documentary makers out there thinking, and going that extra mile:

“On the one hand we need to strip it of its negative connotations, and on the other hand we need to examine the devices and formal techniques a doco film-maker might employ in order to manipulate viewers. Then the real pandora’s box emerges.

How does that kind of formal experimentation and deliberate manipulation relate to the aim of collaborating and giving agency to people?

This isn’t a question that’s designed to be answered, but rather one to think about in your own film-making.”

Group Project Update: Week 4

This week we started going into the edit suites. So far Samantha and I have been chipping away at the 2.5 hour long interview we had trying to find something to use. Most of it is incredibly abstract, and to me doesn’t seem to fit at all, but Samantha seems to find some merit in it, wanting to create not just a portrait of Melbourne but a portrait of the person as well. Let’s hope we can find an interesting blend of the two somewhere.

I also sourced more found footage. Here are some examples of the awesome things I found this week in my further explorations:

Christmas Island, August 29, 2001. Handout picture of some of the 438 asylum seekers onboard the Norwegian cargo ship MS Tampa on Monday 27th August, 2001. The boat people where rescued from their sinking ferry in international waters and remain onboard the ship which is anchored off Christmas Island. Australia refused the boat permission to enter Australia's waters and Indonesia has since taken a similar stance. (AAP Image/Wallenius Wilhelmsen)

resize white-australia1 the-white-australia-policy the-vietnam-war-20-638 Mongolian_octopus part_1a_3 p03fchhr MN008748

I’m really excited to see how all of this comes together into the one documentary.

What is Wrong with Simply Observing the World?

Observation is inherent to documentary form as we use the techniques and devices we have at our disposal to critique and bring light to the world around us, however, it is through this critiquing that documentary form blurs a few lines. Can you observe and push your own agenda at the same time?

The Oxford Dictionary defines the word observe as to “Notice or perceive (something) and register it as being significant.” The observational mode in documentary was a movement which occurred due to an increase in accessibility. The camera became mobile and so too did the subject. The observational mode “look[s] on as social actors go about their lives as if the camera were not present” (Nichols, 2010, 150). The observational mode sought to observe and record reality itself. However, films within the observational mode such as Primary (Drew, 1960), Monterey Pop (Pennebaker, 1968) and Don’t Look Back (Pennebaker, 1967) often did not do exactly what they set out to do – record life as though they, the filmmaker, were not present. Films such as Don’t Look Back (Pennebaker, 1967) boil life down to the significant moments, blurring the line between reality and construction.

The poetic and performative modes are often confused for each other as they both question the way we understand the world around us, and therefore each take a similar but varied approach to documenting and observing that world. The poetic mode tends to distance itself from the humanness of the subjects in the film, choosing instead to treat “people more typically… on a par with other objects as raw material that filmmakers select and arrange into associations and patterns of their choosing” (Nichols, 2010, 162), providing their story and the argument around the story the filmmaker wishes to present with emotional clout, but removing the agency from the subjects of the film, who themselves are often not the main subjects. In comparison to this, the performative mode “stress[es] the emotional complexity of experience” (Nichols, 2010, 202) allowing for a deeper, more empathetic understanding of the more general and abstract processes present in society. Both the poetic and performative modes do the exact opposite of observe. They directly manipulate and interact with subjects and environments to create an expressive, empathic and layered piece, which even though it may not blatantly show an individual’s experiences, we feel we have experienced them ourselves through the abstract techniques used by these modes. Although the poetic and performative modes and practitioners of such styles do not simply observe the world in order to present it, they create an abstracted view of it through first observing it themselves as filmmakers, and then allowing it to be expressed in an emotional and not analytical way, allowing for a deeper engagement with the subject.

Nichols argues that in order for a human subject to be shown ethically in a documentary, they need to be given agency and shown as “an active, self-determining agent of change” as opposed to a “victim” who “suffer[s] from a plight” (Nichols, 2001, 212). While observing subjects and their environment is intrinsic to the nature of documentary, when a filmmaker’s own agenda comes into the equation as well as the way in which they choose to observe the subject of the film can take away their agency, such as in Grierson’s Housing Problems (1935). By showing the housing situation in a broad, factual and dehumanising manner Grierson took away the human component of the situation and, by not allowing the audience to relate to the subjects on an emotional level, created a state in which the audience could detach themselves from what was occurring instead of engaging at a level of understanding. In this way, interaction and collaboration with the subject is key, not simply observing, as it allows for a greater level of connection and understanding to occur.

Can a filmmaker truly be an observer? As stated previously, the filmmaker’s agenda drives the documentary’s arc and is at the forefront of the documentary itself. In an interview, Emile De Antonio stated, “I approach all of my work from a consciously left viewpoint” (Crowdus, 1982, 21). As a documentary filmmaker he himself has consciously made the choice to present only one side of an issue, the side which he himself sees as correct. Many other documentary filmmakers also make their political agendas and beliefs evident throughout their films, mainly through the choice of topic, such as The Box (Windy, 2001) who was “motivated by a feminist consciousness” (Chao, 2010, 79) in her film about a lesbian couple in China, advancing her own agenda through someone else’s story. Santiago Alvarez stated in an interview about his film career, which arose from the revolution in Cuba, that “the social needs forced us to become what we did… that state of constant aggression, constant war, our cinema had to be consistent with that reality” (Alvarez, 1975, 18). In this way, Alvarez, Windy and De Antonio are all voices for social change, observing the world and then acting as a voice for those who need it. A strong argument, an agenda may be what is needed for a documentary film to make a stand and fight for some sort of awareness or social change to occur within society.

This essay, just like a documentary, has been advancing its own argument. We cannot simply observe our world, we must interact and engage with our environment and the subjects within that environment in order to create a layered, expressive and humanising image of that world. We must give the subject of the piece agency to tell their own story and not let our own agendas as filmmakers take over the process. We must find a way to let our own agendas and people’s unique stories work together to create a balanced and layered perspective that can work to actively cause social change.

  • Oxford Dictionary Online, “Observe Definition”. Available at:
  • Nichols, Bill, 2010, “Introduction to Documentary, Second Edition.” Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 142-211
  • Nichols, Bill, 2001, “Documentary Film and the Modernist Avant-Garde”, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Summer, 2001), pp. 580-610
  • Crowdus, Gary; Dan Georgakas and Emile De Antonio, 1982, “History is the Theme of All My Films: An Interview with Emile De Antonio” Cinéaste, Vol. 12, No. 2 (1982), pp. 20-28
  • Chao Shi-Yan, 2010, “Coming out of The Box, Marching as Dykes”, in Berry, Chris; Xinyu, Lu; Rofel, Lisa, 2010, The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record, Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong, pp. 77–95
  • Alvarez, Santiago, 1975, “5 Frames Are 5 Frames, Not 6, But 5: An Interview with Santiago Alvarez”, Cinéaste, Vol. 6, No. 4 (1975), pp. 16-21

Nowhere Line: Voices From Manus Island

This a very powerful short documentary. They use the fact that they can’t gain physical access to the individuals they are speaking to as a device to create what occurs on Manus Island through realistic animation instead. This, combined with the powerful stories of the people from Manus Island and the texture of their voices allows for a powerful, expressive document of what occurs on Manus Island.

This performative documentary follows the steps of Waltz with Bashir, another documentary in the same light which uses the same animation technique to piece together missing visual information about the filmmaker, Ari Folman’s experiences in the Israeli Defence Force. This powerful documentary does the same with animation, however there is a greater sense of danger and immediacy in the voices of those being interviewed, giving the animation a greater sense of reality and the documentary greater clout.

The fact that they had to animate this documentary also adds to the overall critique of detention centres that they are trying to make through out the documentary, as they were never allowed to actually see the detention centre, and were instead forced to recreate it through animation.

Group Project Update: Week 3

It’s week 3 of our group project and we’ve just pitched our documentaries to the class officially. The class really helped us to get a grasp of the shot footage documentary, as after seeing our pitch they felt it was too big for three minutes and needed to somehow be tightened or ‘pivoted’ into a different story. They thought a broader, multicultural idea might work better, which I thought sounded awesome. They also thought there was a bit of an ethical issue with the way we were using the voice of our interviewee, but they really liked the texture of his voice. So we agreed that recording some other voices would work really well, and convey a greater multicultural perspective.

The class also helped too clarify the found footage documentary, as to be honest at the time of the pitch I had no idea how to put it together or what sound would work well with it, so was feeling a little lost. They helped by solidifying the concept, a history of Australian racism in three minutes. They also helped to solidify the soundtrack, affirming my sporadic ideas for it, using boat sounds such as the ocean and boat creaks, as well as bigoted statements from politicians.

The documentaries are really starting to feel like they’re coming together, however I’m still the only person working on the found footage documentary in my group.

Group Project Update: Week 2

This week we interviewed our interviewee for the voice over for our shot footage documentary. Samantha and I conducted the interview which, because of its incredibly broad nature, went on for far too long (2.5 hours!). I’ll admit that it’s broadness is only because we are yet to narrow down the point of our documentary ourselves. Hopefully our class will be able to help out in that regard when we pitch the documentaries officially to them next week.

I also managed to find all sorts of awesome pieces of found footage for the found footage documentary! Here’s just a taste of what I’ve found so far:

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The Art of Persuasion: A Whole New Studio

Can something be political and poetic? This is just one of the questions that we seek to answer in my studio for this semester: The Art of Persuasion with Liam Ward.

Documentary as a form is both inherently truthful and manipulative. It is truthful through what it seeks to capture and the indexical quality of its imagery, whether it’s an observational documentary like the French documentary “To Be and To Have” (Philibert, 2002), a compilation documentary such as “Now” (Alavarez, 1965) or even an animated documentary, “Waltz with Bashir” (Folman, 2008) which uses indexical audio instead of imagery to the same effect. In this way, documentaries sign a contract, if you will, with the viewer, the viewer understanding what they’re getting from the documentary – the truth. But documentaries are also inherently manipulative as they seek to sell an idea or an opinion on a particular issue to their audience. If there wasn’t an opinion to be sold, what would the point, or reason be to make a documentary? Through this indexical quality that documentary has and the inherent manipulation present within the genre, documentary skates an interesting line between its place in the realm of truth and its agenda for social change; because of its indexical quality it exists within the concrete sense of the truth, but it also exists within the socio-political debates in which it seeks to advance an idea or opinion.

As documentary is essentially the advancement of an argument, there are many questions as to how to treat the subjects of such films in order to get their message across in a truthful, human way. In an ethical way. Bill Nichols explains that the best way to treat subjects in documentaries ethically is to give them “agency” (Nichols, 2001). “human agency:… agents must be active… actions are part of the natural order, and… intentional actions can be explained by the agent’s reasons for acting.” (Mayr, 2011). Through giving a subject agency, a filmmaker essentially allows the subject to represent themselves in the argument and tell their own story, allowing the audience to identify with the subject, as opposed to dehumanising them through treating them as a whole rather than an individual, as well as victimising the subjects and detaching them from the issue (particularly through voice over), such as in “Housing Problems” (Grierson, 1935). Thomas Waugh also posed, through his “committed documentary” (Waugh, 2011) that the documentary form is inherently committed to social change. The committed documentary (often involving increased collaboration with the subject) becomes a part of the topic in which it seeks change, allowing it to foster greater social change.

Nichols and Waugh posed, respectively, that documentaries should give their subjects agency as well as advance an argument to promote social change. In this way, a documentary can be both political and poetic, as it remains truthful to the experiences of the subject and gives them greater agency through allowing them to express and not just simply telling their story. Through allowing the individual to express, the political agenda of the film is also advanced, allowing for social change to be promoted at greater levels.

Some examples of the Bill Nichols’ poetic mode:

Joris Ivens – Regen (Rain, 1929) from Avant-Garde Cinema on Vimeo.

Sans Soleil Trailer (1983) – Chris Marker

Blight (1996) – John Smith

– Lanir, Lesley. 2012. “Charles Sander Peirce: Symbolic, Iconic, and Indexical Signs”. Available at:

– Nichols, Bill. 2001. “Documentary Film and the Modernist Avant-Garde”. Critical Inquiry, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Summer, 2001). pp. 580-610.

– Waugh, Thomas. 2011. “Why Documentary Filmmakers Keep Trying to Change the World, or Why People Changing the World Keep Making Documentaries”. The Right to Play Oneself: Looking Back on Documentary Film [Visible Evidence Series, Volume 23], University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. pp. 24– 41.

– Mayr, Erasmus. 2011. “Understanding Human Agency”.  Oxford Scholar Online. Available at:

Group Project Update: Week 1

So it’s the 9th of March, 2nd week of term but the first week of our group projects. I’m really excited about this project and really looking forward to seeing all the interesting things we can create together.

Together we decided, out of all the broad topics to choose from on the board a very topical, and to be honest an issue that I’m very worried about exploring on an ethical level since we ourselves aren’t heavily involved enough in the issue, as well as over stepping with our message for political and/or social change, since this issue will always be in that sphere. I also really want to do something new and interesting with these documentaries, so that we can showcase not only our skills but also bring light to something that people in Australia aren’t normally very aware of, however this issue is very much constantly in the spotlight, and that issue is refugees. There will be a lot of ‘pivoting’ involved down the line, I’m sure.


Recent development:

This weekend I came up with a new idea, an epiphany of sorts for our found footage documentary. I felt that the original idea we came up with was not a solid enough idea, a little too underdeveloped and I couldn’t really see the film working in three minutes or coming together at all. But I had an epiphany and thought of a new idea, a sort of history of the phrase “go back to where you came from” and it’s own inherent hypocrisy, as well as a history of refugees and what caused them to move here, and how they were received upon arrival.