The Poetry of Documentary Interviews

“The line between documentary and fiction film is tenuous. Both are created by editing and selection. Both, wittingly or unwittingly, embody a viewpoint.”  Brian Winston (1978)

The fact that documentaries are not a reproduction of reality gives them a voice of their own. They are a representation of the world, and this representation stands

for a particular view of the world, the voice of documentary, then, is the means by which this particular point of view or perspective becomes known to us.’ (Nichols, 1989)

Interviews are not a neutral means of verbal expression, beyond the implications of a filmmakers ‘voice’ or agenda as described by Nichols et al there is interplay with sound and image of course and understanding the historical practise, the aesthetic of the practice can help me understand it beyond just a simple question and answer exchange and offer me further insight into my own practice and the development of ‘How We Die’. This will not only enrich my understanding of the mode itself, “a mode in which content often eclipses the crucial operations of the form” (Grindon, 2007) but can also be seen as part of a wider industry movement in which documentary is lifted from its preoccupation with content.

In summary, to fully understand the impact documentary interviews can have on an audience we require an understanding of some of its fundamental principles. Some analysis and an understanding of its history can help us understand the impact stylistic decisions and how they are applied and at the same time to be more aware how the design of the interviews shapes a response in the viewer.

Although interviews are traditionally thought of as central to the documentary mode my previous research into the Kuleshov ‘effect’ and the birth of montage

editing has shown that historically this was not the case and indeed today some modern documentaries like those coming out of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnographic Lab (SEL) also remove interviews completely from their ‘narrative’. These films don’t contextualise, they don’t feature talking heads or try to inform, as so many nonfiction films try to do. According to Leger Grindon ‘The interview actually only begins to assume prominence during the television era and after effective mobile sound equipment becomes employed around 1960’ (Grindon, 2007). Whilst I don’t wish to focus on these differences in form or try to offer a definition of the documentary here, these distinctions have opened up my eyes to the possibilities in documentary styles and specifically the use (or not) of interviews.

“What is a documentary film but the search for a truth or a representation of reality, past and present? In this pursuit, a director can take any number of approaches—using experimental techniques, archival footage and photographs, interviews with historians, vérité camerawork, animation and more.” (Svetvilas, 2004)

For Mary Lea Bandy, chief curator of Film and Media Art at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, there is “no one way to do it,” for her documentary is by its nature a hybrid form. As Bill Nichols points out in his seminal work ‘The Voice of Documentary’ (Nichols, 1983) the styles and modes of documentary change, they have a history. And he suggests they change for much the same reason that narrative films change, because “dominant modes of expository discourse change; the arena of ideological contestation shifts. The comfortably accepted realism of one generation seems like artifice to the next’. He goes on to suggest new strategies must be discovered to present ‘things as they are’.

Whilst this creative approach to interviews explored reflects my own personal interests I think it also reflects a wider, growing interest in spiritual and philosophical ideas and a desire to explore further our understanding of human experience and consciousness whilst also engaging with cinemas constant need to tell stories in new and compelling ways as evidenced by the critical success of films like ‘Sweetgrass’ (2009) and ‘Leviathan’ (2012) from Sensory Ethnographic Laboratory at Harvard.

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