The shadow becomes the substance:
The documentary /2

By Paul Howard September 7, 2013

Read Part 1

As I have previously stated, the range of material covered by documentary includes biography, natural history, science, wildlife, entertainment and comedy and various combinations of all of the above; but there is also a further sub-division that embraces the above but refines it even more. Effectively this brings us to the consideration of what we refer to as ‘observational’ type documentary and ‘non-observational documentary’. Observational refers to material, which is gathered within a particular context where we the audience become observers of what is actually happening in front of the lens. Usually this is not set up in any organised way. For example we might go to an A&E division of a hospital and we follow what happens there over a period of time. The filmmaker is not imposing or orchestrating or directing any of the activities as they happen. Likewise a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ style documentary that observes how the public interact within, for example, an airport environment or a railway terminus environment would be similar. In other words a lot of material is filmed over a period of time without a director telling the people in front of the camera what to do. The director is simply looking to observe the situation and hopes to find some interesting interaction that can be edited down at a later stage to fit a particular context within a given structure. Wildlife documentaries too very often also require very long periods of observation in order to gather material that a filmmaker might regard as useful or relevant to the particular subject he is making a film about.

Non-observational documentary is usually driven by a pre-defined narrative. These would cover biography, current affairs, historical etc and in this case the hand of a director is more to the fore. Generally more careful planning, research, scripting, the orchestration of sequences and people, interviewees etc all have to be set up and planned for in advance. A script or treatment is written based on thorough research and the documentary made based on the script or treatment. A very good case in point is the David Bohm documentary that we are currently planning. The known facts of Bohm’s life are documented and a script written. A whole variety of locations pertinent to Bohm’s life will be included and these will form the backdrop for filmed sequences, interviews etc. In addition there will be visual illustrations of the science and scientific experiments that he was closely involved with and the people who were a big influence on him and who he interacted with throughout his life.

Above and beyond all of the above is the hand of the director – the one who will interpret THE LIFE, in this case BOHM, for the audience. And this is all down to what an individual director and/or writer may wish to highlight as to what he or she feels are the key elements that bring meaning to that life and how that life may inspire others through engagement with the completed film.

More next week…Paul