The Subtle Voice of Persuasion in Documentary Film
Webster’s dictionary says a documentary film presents facts objectively, without editorializing or inserting fictional matter (“documentary”). But we also know that “one man’s truth is another man’s bias.” So, while the goal of every documentary filmmaker is to inform or teach their audience about a specific idea or subject that represents some form of truth, a bias begins almost the moment the film is conceived. Which means the true definition of documentary film is re-envisioned each time a new film project is undertaken. The film would not be created if the director did not have a vision in mind from the start, and thus from mere intention to make the film, the director inserts personal opinions that shape the film and its ultimate presentation.
Although the goal of many documentary films and filmmakers is often to present a fair, balanced, and objective representation of a particular topic, the analysis of the style and form of documentary films reveals a different perspective. These fact-based films are subjective constructions with specific “voices” presented through their selection of footage, juxtaposition of images, use of sound, cinematography, lighting, and other stylistic elements, which affect an audience emotionally, as well as intellectually. Film such as Triumph of the Will, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, and Bob Dylan: No Direction Home seem to present an objective study of a specific character, but through the stylistic approach the director takes toward the subject and their social actors, each film puts forward clear arguments. This paper will discuss bias in the voice of documentary, consider the stylistic techniques used in each film that work to present ‘actuality’, and debate the authenticity of documentary film.
Documentary films work to, “speak about the historical world” (Nichols 42). Through a specific voice, each filmmaker presents an argument or makes a case about their subject matter. The voice acts in a very influential way throughout the film, and can sway an audience’s emotions even though they believe they are simply watching a film that is objectively presenting facts. This experience is comparable to the way in which most Americans watch the nightly news. Although the TV station, and ultimately the corporation that owns it, are making the decisions about what stories are aired that night, many Americans believe the news is free of any bias and all newsworthy information that occurred that day is part of the broadcast. This is why when watching any documentary film, one must detach them in order to analyze influential camera techniques, and internalize the voice within the film.
The directors of the films referenced here, Leni Riefenstahl, Nick Broomfield, and Martin Scorsese, take three very different approaches while making a documentary film. But their critically different approach to voice means that each will ultimately direct the emotional state of their audience by film’s end. All three directors subtly employ powerful techniques of persuasion, but through a close analysis of each style the claim of authenticity in documentary film can be challenged.
In 1934 Adolph Hitler commissioned Leni Riefenstahl to make a film of the National Socialist Party Congress at Nürnberg. This film has become known as one of the greatest propaganda films of all time because of Riefenstahl’s poetic imagery, and god-like representation of the Fuehrer. Riefenstahl planned the filming of a Hitler rally months before the film was made: she had 120 people on staff, thirty cameras, and four sound trucks in operation (Barnouw 101). The preparation that went into pre-production is reflected in the “Hollywood-like” presentation and artful extravagance of Triumph of the Will (1934, Germany). Thus Riefenstahl re-defined what a documentary film could be.
Riefenstahl’s film lacks any voice-over narration, which by its absence creates the illusion that the “truth” is being told. The audience is left to its own assumptions, and each filmgoer begins to create their own narrative. This leads audience members to believe that they are forming a personal opinion of the film because there is no guiding voice to direct thought. Riefenstahl, however, has tactfully created her film in a poetic mode, and the film becomes influential through music, point-of-view shots, and the motif of children. “The poetic mode is particularly adept at opening up the possibility of alternative forms of knowledge to the straightforward transfer of information…This mode stresses mood, tone, and affect much more than displays of knowledge or acts of persuasion (Nichols 103). Riefenstahl believed spoken commentary was an “enemy of film,” and found means to seduce audiences through a unique arrangement of image and sound (Barnouw 102).
The film opens as Hitler’s plane descends from the sky upon the ancient city of Nürnberg. It is as if God is revealing himself through the clouds, bringing salvation to the people of Germany. As the plane slowly makes its way to the landing destination, Riefenstahl lets the camera linger on shots of buildings covered in Nazi flags, and streets filled with Hitler’s powerful following of soldiers and citizens. William S. Lewis, a professor of film at Skidmore College, comments on the influential power in Riefenstahl’s style, “The geometric patterns formed by columns of soldiers, the close-ups in which these soldiers appear as statuary, the minutiae conveyed by faces in the crowd: all of these masterful shots involve the film’s viewer in an aesthetic experience that is neither banal nor gratuitous but satisfying and inspirational” (Lewis 42). Riefenstahl has created choreography within her film through the organization of images mixed with triumphant music and inspirational speeches. In several instances, children work as powerful symbols of hope and the promise of a bright future. Riefenstahl crosscuts between images of happy children waving flags and cheering, with images of Hitler greeting his people with an exceptionally dorky wave. The director extracts the innocence that children represent to inconspicuously portray Hitler in a favorable light. The audience cannot help but be dazzled by this great figure that appears to have the world at his feet. The grotesqueness of Riefenstahl’s ability to transform one of history’s most evil leaders into a God, makes the persuasive tone of her documentary undeniable.
Beginning in the late 1950’s, two new forms of documentary filmmaking were established. In the United States, Direct Cinema claimed to present the truth through an uninvolved “fly on the wall” approach to filmmaking. Across the ocean a Cinéma-vérité maintained that film truth could be captured through a provocateur approach to a film’s subject matter. Documentary film author Erik Barnouw reveals that, “Direct Cinema found its truth in events available to the camera. Cinéma-vérité was committed to a paradox: that artificial circumstances could bring hidden truth to the surface” (Barnouw 255). New developments in synchronous-sound, and lighter equipment made possible by plastic allowed for directors to approach filmmaking on a new level. One could immerse themselves within a situation, when previously more staging was involved in the creative process. Immediacy and intimacy were established between the camera and the social actor or situation, creating what both camps considered truth in documentary. Although no film fits within the limitations of either style, many filmmakers were inspired by both approaches to seeking the presentation of truth, and incorporate a mixture of the two ideals in modern documentary.
Filmmaker Nick Broomfield was born in London in the late 1940’s, and grew up during the beginnings of Direct Cinema and Cinéma-vérité. Broomfield has studied law, political science, and film which all have influenced his spin on documentary filmmaking (“Nick”). In Broomfield’s approach to documentary film, truth becomes a persona within his own films, and his interaction with the social actors works to create a crisis situation in hopes that more will be revealed on camera. Ruby Rich describes Broomfield’s approach as, “a combination of auteurism and on-screen presence”, that has become a new style of documentary filmmaking employed by other filmmakers like Michael Moore (Rich 110). In his film, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, Broomfield works as a catalyst hoping to ‘inspire’ his dozens of social actors into revealing more than they intended. One approach he consistently uses stems from the idea that if the social actor does not have time to prepare themselves for questioning, their response tends to be less rehearsed or reserved. Broomfield enters the social actor’s homes with the camera rolling, and effectively creates a Cinema Verite-like crisis. By participating within his films, Broomfield incorporates participatory and preformative modes of documentary filmmaking in search of truth.
Like Dziga Vertov’s aspirations for Kino Pravda, film-truth-within-film, Broomfield strives to find out the truth behind Hollywood’s most famous madam, Heidi Fleiss. The film opens with a close-up of Broomfield driving his car, and his voice over narration reveals that he has come to America, through the BBC, in hopes of finding out more about Heidi Fleiss. The film ends up really being about Broomfield’s quest to finally get an interview with the madam, and Broomfield’s personal agenda begins to seep through the objective front he has presented. The audience is presented with facts, but only those that Broomfield chose to incorporate in the editing process, about why and how Heidi Fleiss came to be a famous madam. Once again the audience is lead to believe they are witnessing truth, and that the very essence of Heidi can be gleaned through the viewing of this film. The audience doesn’t, however, realize that all the ‘facts’ – “hinge on the nature and quality of the encounter between filmmaker and subject” (Nichols 116). Documentary theorist Bill Nichols exposes the illusions of the participatory mode stating, “The possibilities of serving as mentor, critic, interrogator, collaborator, or provacateur arise” (Nichols 116). Although Broomfield is searching for truth about Fleiss, the filmmaker’s interaction with the social actors and the audience creates bias within the facts.
Several times throughout Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (1995, UK), Broomfield incorporates reflexive techniques in his filmmaking style. In a sense the director is commenting on the authenticity of his own film and in several instances it becomes what Nichols calls, “the process of negotiation between filmmaker and viewer” (Nichols 125). During interviews with the talking heads, Broomfield has included footage that shows him paying them for their interviews. One of Broomfield’s most reliable sources, Madam Alex, is consistently filmed asking Broomfield: “where is my green?” This consequently raises the question of authenticity and truth within his film because the talking heads become paid actors. The audience must decide if the talking heads will reveal more because of their payment, or if they will elaborate, even exaggerate more because they know what Broomfield is looking for. The audience awareness of the construction of Broomfield’s film is essential for realizing that this is a representation of reality, and only a partial truth.
Broomfield also incorporates evidentiary editing, demonstrative proofs, and voice-over narration, all in hopes of presenting a convincing impression of Fleiss and her crowd. Broomfield often lets the camera linger on the talking heads after they are finished speaking. This tactic produces discomfort in the social actors, and several times they reveal more in hopes of ending the awkward silence. Broomfield also strives to persuade the talking heads to reveal more by continuously probing them with repetitive questions. He often asks for more and more details about a specific incident, and although he is prying into the lives of others, more often than not the talking heads are willing to reveal more. Broomfield strategically plays dumb, and thus the repetitive questioning appears to be from his lack of understanding as opposed to his hope for more information. Prominent talking head Ivan Nagy tells Broomfield, “You’re a rube. She thinks you’re a fucking idiot. You’re an idiot. You’re not in the club” (“Memorable”). Broomfield’s constructed persona works to create ease during his participatory interactions with the talking heads. The subsequent creation of this persona, however, is one of Broomfield’s efforts in convincing an audience of what he believes is truth.
Martin Scorsese is one of the most well recognized names in the history of film directing. Scorsese’s repeated motifs, themes, techniques, and individuality make his style one-of-a-kind. But his work in the documentary film genre is often overlooked. Scorsese has a clear agenda in every film, and his documentary, Bob Dylan: No Direction Home (2005, USA), is no different. Through expository filmmaking, Scorsese has inter-cut archival footage with recent interviews in his version of an objective documentary on the evolution of Bob Dylan.
The objective quality of the film is quickly lost, when the viewer realizes Scorsese’s motive for creating the film is to glorify one of his heroes. Scorsese works to persuade his audience of Dylan’s brilliance by incorporating archival film footage, music, still photos, and interviews with Dylan and friends. The commentary from the talking heads contradicts Dylan’s version of reality in several instances throughout the film. However, Scorsese has added this only to convince the audience that he is presenting each side fairly. He so successfully uses the contradicting footage that it works to present the talking heads as obstacles of jealously – overcome by Dylan – and their side of the story becomes translucent. Nichols reveals that commentary within the expository mode “represents the perspective or argument of the film. We take our cue from the commentary and understand the images as evidence or demonstration for what is said” (Nichols 106).
A lot of the archival footage Scorsese has incorporated draws heavily from D.A. Pennebaker’s film Don’t Look Back (1967, USA). This film is often classified as part of the Direct Cinema movement, and Socrsese’s film has obviously been influenced by the techniques used by Pennebaker. Scorsese presents his film as a ‘fly on the wall’, or as Barnouw describes the approach, “the direct cinema artist aspired to invisibility…[and] found its truth in events available to the camera” (Barnouw 255). Interestingly enough, cinema studies professor Tim O’Farrell reveals that Scorsese had no direct contact with Dylan before making the film. In fact, most of the interviews used in the film were completed before direction began. O’Farrell exposes the bias within the film stating, “Although Columbia Records and Dylan’s management gave Scorsese unique access to their vaults, this access came with a crucial caveat: the footage was vetted by Dylan’s management before it was provided to him. Inevitably, this has lead to accusations that the project is an “in-house” or “authorized” biography” (O’Farrell). It appears that Dylan was edited for appeal even before Scorsese had a chance to put his spin on the picture. Thus his invisibility is not only in homage to the direct cinema movement, but stems from the lack of direct contact with the subject matter.
Although direct cinema claims to present truth, much like its counterpart, cinema vérité, a director’s first inspiration for creating the film is the first point of bias. Scorsese was ultimately influenced by Dylan from his early work in The Last Waltz (1977, USA), and had a prepossessed notion of who Dylan truly was. Thus the creation of this film works to express a reality Scorsese already believed about Dylan’s evolution into a Rock and Roll superstar. O’Farrell accurately describes Scorsese’s ultimate bias claiming, “The fact that this experience is ultimately an attenuated link to another time, occluded in the precision of its representation, limited in context and marked by the subjectivity of its creator, must be acknowledged. These parameters define the limits of the indexical link, of direct cinema’s rhetorical truth claims, and the status of the archival images of Bob Dylan in Bob Dylan: No Direction Home as a representation of reality” (O’ Farrell). Consequently, Scorsese’s ‘representation’ of Dylan’s story proves to be partial to a pre-determined idea of truth shared by the director, and the Dylan camp.
The definition of what a documentary film is has continued to change and be challenged since the term was first coined by filmmaker John Grierson. The authenticity of documentary film is defined by each new director’s manifestation of what they believe documentary film should be. Through different means of presenting a subject, directors work to reveal an unknown truth to their audience. In the previous examples, each director has strived to present a positive, objective truth about their subject. Some directors, however, take the opposite extreme and present subjects in the most unfavorable light possible. Werner Herzog’s film, Grizzly Man (2005, USA), has incorporated stylistic approaches similar to the directors motioned above, but in hopes of presenting Timothy Treadwell as a repellent antagonist. These films are inter-related through the clear agenda of the director, and their insertion of voice that is used to persuade a perspective on the subject matter. Herzog often comments on mans insignificance within nature, and through careful editing of Treadwell, combined with biased interviews, Herzog convinces his audience that Treadwell’s life was a farce. Although Herzog has taken an opposite approach toward his subject, the film works to parlay his personal opinion of Treadwell, in a seemingly objective presentation.
Documentary film theorist Bill Nichols has created the term epistephilia, the pleasure of knowing, to describe the fascination with documentary film. Because audiences find so much pleasure in discovering the unknown, often they are too quick to accept or believe the facts being presented. Only through analysis of documentary film can one understand the level of authenticity being presented. Triumph of the Will, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, and Bob Dylan: No Direction Home, all have a specific film “voice” and thus present information through the director’s partisan filter.
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