Electronic media has always been advertisers’ medium. Almost all popular electronic media of today – radio, television, the internet, movies, DVDs, etc are predominantly used as tools to leverage commerce and consumerism. In this scenario, what could be the role that documentary films play? Do they hold special significance in terms of their artistic and informative merits? Do they have any drawbacks? What does the future hold for this genre? The rest of the essay attempts to answer these questions.
Some of the advantages associated with documentary films are their greater potential for exploration, innovation and integration. To take advantage of this broad scope for creativity offered by documentary films, the filmmakers should adopt a script-free approach. Documentaries such as Fahrenheit 911 and Bowling for Columbine, which have garnered much critical acclaim are good examples of this scrip-free approach. The filmmaker needs to possess an eye for spotting key moments in the film before, during and after the production of film content. In the words of a famous cameraperson, “working creatively and seizing the moment and turning the camera on when things are happening before the rehearsal are important”. To be successful in this approach a passionate approach to work, an elevated cause behind the production and a sense of intuition are all essential qualities in the filmmaker. In the case of Fahrenheit 911, its producer/director Michael Moore excels in all the above aspects (www.documentaryfilms.net).
A central unifying concept is essential to organize disparate footages and to integrate the various points of view expressed in it. While interviews and images of talking heads are important elements, there are many nuances to them. For example, “Interviews are not enough. Interviews may help define the point of view, but they are usually a terribly cumbersome way to get the documentary idea across, because they don’t show the topic; they show people talking about the topic. It takes pictures” (Barnouw, 121). The first good example of the utility value of still images in documentaries is The Civil War film made by Ken Burns. By clever maneuvering of camera across each photo, the director lets the viewers know that the rest of the film will revolve around still pictures. The time span of these visuals and the background music are also equally important to make the intended impact on the audience. In The Civil War sound track the rendition of the solitary violin “speaks” for the pictures. An oral background commentary would have been redundant and might even diminish the impact on the viewers (Barnouw, 25).
The 2006 motion picture release “Borat: The Cultural Leanings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” is a parody on documentary filmmaking. While the film deserves merit on presenting a comical view of the sober subject of documentary film making, it is still fictitious. We cannot read too much into the film and make concrete judgments on the nature of documentary films and filmmakers (www.documentaryfilms.net).
Some of the most successful documentaries of the last 50 years or so have come from not-for-profit production houses. The most notable of these is the British Broadcasting Corporation. The production ethic for making documentaries will not allow for cutting corners. Hence only media enterprises like the BBC that is committed to dissemination of objective and factual content to its viewers can undertake challenging projects and see them through to the end. Documentaries such as Ascent of Man and Civilization, presented by Jacob Bronowski and Kenneth Clark are true masterpieces to have emerged from the BBC (www.documentaryfilms.net).