On documentary

Just a few notes on “Documentary: Witness and Self-revelation” by John Ellis (2012). The first few chapters are an overview of some of the history and well known problems of documentary. This gives way in later chapters to more original material about documentary practice using Erving Goffman’s ideas around the ‘performance of the self’, and also exploring documentary as ‘witnessing’.

Chapter 11 ‘Ambivalent feelings about photography and recording’ , deals with surveillance society and how the CCTV camera material is absolutely meaningless until it is used for something. In the first part of the chapter, Ellis expands upon the unease which photography and the moving images create in us: the embarrassment of seeing ourselves through the raw mirror of a camera, only to discover that ‘we don’t look as good as we thought’. He then goes on to talk about the lack of context that the single piece of recording can have, and how this makes it prone to be used for all kinds of unintended purposes.  Imagine your family album ending up in a pawn shop and later being remixed for somebody’s music video – not a very nice thought for some.

I agree with Ellis’ statement that photography is not very good at holding meaning. The frame is narrow even with a wide-angle lens, context is lost as we don’t know what preceded or what will follow those recorded minutes.

Chapter 4 of Ellis’ book deals with ‘The Changing Technologies of Documentary Filmmaking’. Ellis doesn’t seek to present a technological determinist view of the impact of equipment on the history of documentary, but he does present some compelling examples of how changes in equipment accompany transformations in topics and forms of documentary. The relationship between technology and practice is of course dialectical, with multiple feedback loops between what the filmmakers want to achieve and what the technology manufacturers are able to provide.

Ellis provides several examples where early documentary filmmakers found creative solutions to the constrains of the technologies they had available. His first example is from ‘Housing Problems’ (1935), where the filmmakers from the General Post Office Film Unit did on-site interviews with slum dwellers in London. The 35mm cameras took up most of the space in the rooms and the sound equipment was held in a vehicle parked outside the location (Ellis 2012: 35).

A more thorough account of the technical challenges that ‘Housing Problems’ producers Elton and Anstey had to overcome to create the conditions for these direct address segments is provided in Jack C. Ellis’ ‘John Grierson: Life, Contributions, Influence’. The filmmakers had to work on making their interviewees comfortable with the bulky 35mm cameras, they did so by having warm-up conversations alongside the cameras. They also repeated the interviews so as to have various angles to cut to, (which later became a challenge in the editing room). Above all, the success of these interviews was due to director Ruby Grierson (John Grierson’s sister), who had the skill to gain the confidence of interviewees. It was this confidence that made them give the candid accounts of their lives captured by this film (Ellis 2000:99-100).

A second example in John Ellis’ chapter of defying technical ‘limitations’  is Esfir Shub’s ‘K-Sh-E, Komsomol, Chief of Electricity’ (1932), where location sound is used throughout. This was in fact Shub’s first sound film, where composer Gavriil Popov also made use of the theremin. Shub made no attempt to hide how aware the interviewees were of the camera equipment and crew presence (BFI).

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