Week 2 - Learning Journal - Participatory Documentary

This week, Dr Knowles’ lecture focused on the “participatory mode” of documentary, as described by Bill Nichols (2001: pp.115-124). Nichols associates the participatory mode with anthropology, describing how the “anthropologist lives among a people for an extended period of time and then writes up what she has learned” (Nichols, 2001: p.115). This is what he describes as “participant-observation”, where the filmmaker is actively engaging with the subjects of their documentary, rather than just purely looking on with the observational mode.

A major difference between participatory and observational is the explicit presence of the filmmaker, often visible on-screen or present through first-person voiceover. With one series I have watched recently, Sophie: A Murder in West Cork (Dower, 2021), the interviewer can be heard off-screen asking questions to the subjects, in a similar way to how Herzog interviews his subjects in Encounters at the End of the World (Herzog, 2007).

Knowles also highlights how the participatory mode is ethically conscious, allowing the filmmaker and viewer to engage with the situation instead of observing it from a distance, and how the filmmaker shares responsibility for the ethics and politics of the encounter. This form of negotiating control allows the audience to see the situation bounce back-and-forth between the filmmaker and the subject, allowing us to see the conflicts and resolutions faced by the subjects. Knowles says that this represents a level of ‘emotional investment’, instead of ‘detached observation’.

Participatory documentaries are linked to cinéma vérité, developed by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, as seen in their 1960 film Chronicle of a Summer, where the filmmakers are seen on-screen discussion with the subjects how the film is going to work, and asking questions to them whilst present in the frame. This provocation and questioning allow the truth to emerge from the subjects’ responses, and the staged filmmaking process feels as though there is a more authentic truth compared to observational. These personal stories and testimonies can then be used to spark a wider, public debate. However, Nichols raises the fact that the filmmaker must be considerate about how much they probe for answers from the subject, and how much information the subject can disclose, saying “how much can the filmmaker insist on testimony when it is painful to provide it?” (Nichols, 2001: p.116).

One of the major aspects of the participatory documentary form is the attention to sound, with voice-over and interviews having a significant role within the documentary. Another aspect commonly found within participatory documentaries are ‘on-screen reflections about the filmmaking process’, typically seen with clips of interviewees preparing for an interview, or the filmmaker present on screen.

Screening – Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, 2007)

Encounters at the End of the World (Herzog, 2007) was a refreshing interview-driven documentary to watch, with stunning visuals of the icy Antarctic landscapes, accompanied with haunting choral music. The first few minutes of the documentary is focused on the filmmaker’s own personal relation to the situation that he has found himself in, discussing how the pictures under the outer-worldly sea were “taken by a friend of mine, one of these expert divers”, and how they were enough to convince him to travel to Antarctica. As a viewer, we are meant to feel the same amount of ‘awe’ at the imagery as Herzog feels, and we too are wondering “who were the people I was going to meet in Antarctica, at the end of the world?”. His constant questioning conveys how excited he is for the adventure, and it makes for exciting and entertaining viewing for the audience. His first-person voice-over (a typical characteristic of the participatory form) paints Herzog as an ordinary man who has been given an extra-ordinary opportunity that most of us will never experience first-hand.

              One sequence makes use of archive footage of a Western film, close-up stock footage of ants, and archive footage of Shackleton’s expedition. This was significant for me as both observational documentaries I watched last week mostly (if not completely) contained footage solely captured by the filmmaker on-location. Herzog uses this footage to further progress his voice over narration, providing historical context to the location and bridging a gap in the visuals where he would have no suitable footage of his own.

              With most of his interviews within this film, Herzog is audible asking questions after the subjects have introduced themselves in some way. I quite like the innocent, comedic little questions that he asks the interviewees, such as “when you go back home, are you a taxi driver?”. They are completely unnecessary, but he choses to include them as it shows a personal side to the subjects, further developing their characters within the film. What I appreciate about Herzog’s interview style is that he allows the characters to provide their own personal backstories about how they ended up at ‘the end of the world’, and what led them to that point, such as one man’s experience with near-death at the hands of dangerous men with machetes. His funny commentary continues in quite a poetic way, with one voice-over clip saying, “but I was still surprised to find McMurdo looking like an ugly mining town filled with caterpillars and noisy construction sites”, and another saying, “abominations such as an aerobics studio and yoga classes”. Whilst Herzog isn’t shown on screen, his personality is very present in the voice over.

              Compared to the observational films I watched, which focused on quite a static, visual-driven cinematic style, Encounters at the End of the World had a vast variety of shots, with a mix of handheld and static shots, with handheld used in the more sporadic moments and static for the pre-prepared interviews. The quick changes in dynamics between the two types across the film represent how chaotic and unpredictable it is on the continent. Herzog also uses slow zooms on his servo zoom lens, to add a personal, intimate feel to some of the interviews or to focus on a particular artefact, such as the researcher’s computer screen.

              One sequence I quite liked was with glaciologist Douglas MacAyeal, as Herzog manipulates the zoom to break up parts of the interview. Douglas begins with a personal and poetic description of Antarctica, where the camera is in a close-up on his face (see fig. 2A). As MacAyeal is about to finish his poetic prose, we have an out-of-vision section where we continue to hear MacAyeal, however the video is focused on the icebergs and ice landscapes outside (see fig. 2B). Once the interview has finished, with a bit of breathing space, it cuts to a wide shot of MacAyeal’s office. He starts to talk about the binary oppositions between being indoors and outdoors, and conveniently, the shot is wide enough to keep both his office and the outdoors in frame.

What is also important to note throughout this section is the use of name badges and lower-third graphics, as MacAyeal’s importance is signified through the title of “glaciologist”. Most interviews within documentaries have names within lower-third graphics so that we can understand who the characters are during the documentary. Most of the interviewees’ eyelines are off to the side of the camera, a typical characteristic of the subjects looking and responding to the interviewer instead of directly to the camera.

              Overall, Encounters at the End of the World (Herzog, 2007) is a fascinating documentary film that, whilst very scientific in nature, is engaging and enjoyable for the majority of those watching who have no familiar background in what was featured. It incorporates many of the participatory documentary characteristics, such as voice over and interviews, but also is very artistic and beautiful to watch.

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