Week 1 - Learning Journal - Observational Documentary

Following Bill Nichols’ modes of representation, he presents ‘observational documentary’ as a form of its own, originating post-WW2 following technological advancements in 16mm cameras and synchronised sound (Nichols, 2001: p.109). These portable cameras allow the filmmaker, without the need for a large crew, to produce long, handheld takes. A major difference between observational documentaries and other documentaries, such as the participatory form, is that the filmmaker is removed from the action, letting the subjects interact with the world and other subjects naturally without the filmmaker’s intervention. As we may know it as the “fly-on-the-wall” type of documentary, the observational aspects of this form are fuelled by spontaneity and improvisation, with situations developing naturally without the filmmaker being in the way of the action. Many fly-on-the-wall documentaries, particularly of the televised kind, have some interviews with the subjects and elements of voiceover, incorporating aspects of the “participatory mode” (Nichols, 2001: p.122). Following the strict “observational mode”, however, there are no interviews and little to no voiceover. An important note that Kim Knowles raises is that Nichols’ modes are not definitive, and documentaries do not have to conform to a singular mode. As seen in “sleep furiously” (Gideon Koppel, 2007) and “Dwy Chwaer a Brawd” (Meleri Morgan, 2018), the observational films are slow in pace, with no fixed meanings or interpretations; allowing the audiences to engage with the film by reflecting or contemplating the scenes they are being shown.

Screening 1 – Dwy Chwaer a Brawd (Meleri Morgan, 2018)

Two Sisters and a Brother (Meleri Morgan, 2018) is a slow, Welsh-language observational documentary film about the Herberts family living their lives in their farmhouse. It’s a simple film that follows the two sisters and their brother around living in the home and looking after their farm animals. Morgan doesn’t appear in the film; however, it appears that she has initiated one or two interviews from the subjects, with the brother talking to the camera at one point during the film. However, following the code, we don’t hear Morgan’s prompts. It follows the “fly-on-the-wall” feeling with lots of handheld camera, and Morgan has managed to isolate most of the camera noise from the film – however some does remain and is slightly noticeable. Whilst it is successful in representing isolated countryside life on a farm, I can’t help but raise some production issues with this film. The awkward framing in some parts and uncareful camera movement make it not feel as satisfying to watch as sleep furiously, and the over-exposure of the light on the table and outside is distracting. It also feels like Morgan was getting in the way of the subjects, with one of the sisters saying “gosh, I didn’t know you were outside”, however this could just be a limitation of the location as it appears to only be a small farmhouse. Compared to sleep furiously, Morgan’s narrative in Two Sisters and a Brother is a lot clearer, with clear intercutting between the two narratives – one inside the house, and one on the farm. A problem with sleep furiously is that it focused too much on showing the full picture by including too many smaller narratives that confuse the viewer.

As an observational documentary film, I feel that Two Sisters and a Brother perfectly encapsulates and represents what it is like to live an older life with your siblings on a farm, with lots of ‘cute’ moments between the siblings, such as the one sister opening a bottle whilst the other loads wood onto the fire. One shot I particularly like is shown in fig. 1, where the sister and brother are sat at opposite ends of the room, whilst the other sister walks in with a tray of food. Whilst the framing is off and there is a slight lens distortion from using a wide lens, I feel like it shows exactly how normal life is for them, and it is the best example of what I feel the filmmaker was trying to represent.

Screening 2 – sleep furiously (Gideon Koppel, 2007)

Following what I had discovered about observational films, sleep furiously (Gideon Koppel, 2007) ticked the criteria boxes but in a way that felt very weird to me. Barbash and Taylor say that observational films are about “catching life ‘on the fly’” (Barbash & Taylor, 1997: p.22), however there is an aesthetic element to sleep furiously that makes things feel formal and more constructed than they should appear. By this, I am referring primarily to the formality of the frontal, centralised framing, which adds a sense of symmetry.

Koppel, who originates from a fine art background, has gone for a distinct style and aesthetic for the visuals of this film which make the film itself and the landscape appear beautiful, mixed in with a warm, pastel colour palette that further adds to this. I really appreciate the visual styles Koppel has tried to create with this film, as he and his team would have had limited time to prepare these shots to follow the ‘hands-off’ approach of filmmaking associated with observational documentaries. Following the conventions of the mode, there is no voiceover, nor are there any interviews. Instead, what we see is the people of Trefeurig getting along with their lives, having natural and uninterrupted conversations with their neighbours. With sleep furiously, this preparation work is seen with how the camera is typically at a long distance away from the subjects, with a telephoto lens being used throughout most of the film. Everything is being filmed at a distance; however, much of the audio is clear, showing that Koppel and his team took the time beforehand to prepare the location with microphones that are closer to the action. There is also very little movement with the shots, with an occasional tilt in places.

              Famed reviewer Roger Ebert points out that nobody is formally introduced throughout the film, although the main character it seems is the travelling mobile librarian. In his 2011 review, he claims that “individual people are not the point” (Ebert, 2011), which shows Koppel’s intent to represent the community, whilst using the librarian as the link between the characters shown throughout the film. Barbash and Taylor write: “as a filmmaker, you will probably ask yourself: why do I want to make this film? What do I want to show, or to say?” (Barbash and Taylor, 2001: p.35). In Koppel’s case, he clearly wanted to create this film to respectfully showcase the day-to-day lives of the people living in Trefeurig, paying attention to the struggles they face. One example of this is earlier on in the film, as the locals argue with the council over closing the local school, something that is very relatable to modern, isolated villages across Wales. As someone who was raised in a city, I can only empathise with the locals as they would have to either send their children to a school miles away or be forced to move out of the village. Koppel represents this issue well, with the mixing of different audio clips during the heated village meeting discussions.

            Overall, sleep furiously is an interesting example of how observational filmmaking has been taken seriously, with things filmed from a literal distance in a “fly-on-the-wall” form. Whilst it does feel disjointed with lots of little narratives and no clear start or finish, it introduces the characters in a unique way, showing how close the community is, and represents the community’s ups and downs in a quirky and respectable way. For example, we are left wondering what will happen to the village as the film ends with a montage of clips showing the derelict and dusty houses, accompanied with a haunting soundtrack.

© 2021 - 2022 Matthew Tyler-Howells | MMN MATTHEW'S Media Networks LTD.