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Portrayal Of Reality In Documentaries Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2045 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Many, perhaps most, documentaries are organized as narratives, they presented themselves as descriptions or stories, just as fiction films are. Meanwhile these very forms ranging from the propaganda film, which carried a persuasive effect in order to ask the audience to accept a tacit social or political perspective. Propaganda is concerned with influencing attitudes towards life by certain time, people, place and specific event. Raul Ruiz’s Of Great Events and Ordinary People (France, 1978) takes its title from John Grierson’s remark: “We wait for the cinema to give us an event, a great event which can show us ordinary people.”

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Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, 1935, Germany), methodically constructs a mythic representation of Fascist’s leader Adolf Hitler in a relation to the German people for the purposes of political persuasion. Triumph of the Will is completely made up of “actual” footage, recording what is happening. Thus, this is incontrovertibly a true documentary despite Riefenstahl merely reveals something on behalf of the Nazi authority. This is a true documentary. But the truth is subjected to director’s subjectivity via the medium. They enforce people to accept the Nazi’s ideology for maintaining the “value” they own. Here, Riefenstahl creates a “cult of personality” of Germany to its ancient heroism through the medium of Hitler, the savior. To fuse such truth with such propaganda, she transfigures the “real life” which is happening in Germany while apparently recording it. In Triumph of the Will, the structure is straightforward, in the most literal documentary of narrative tradition. It should follow the chronological order when recording the on-going event. There is no exception here as well. The narrative structure begins with Hitler’s arrival; continue the inspection of the troops and speeches in the order they happened. To this event, there is no commentary, lack of music and interview. Yet Riefenstahl transfigures all, by her manipulative cinematography and another cinema device. The documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens said:

“There are lots of in-between stages from shooting to public projection-developing, printing, editing, commentary, sound effects, music. At each stage the effect of the shot can be changed but the basic content must be in the shot to begin with.”

In Triumph of the Will, the camera is no longer limited by what one character can see or know, and the eye of the story does indeed move freely in time and space (This was authorized by Hitler). In literary way, this master cinematography is called “Omniscient Point of View.” Use the distorted lenses to camouflage the negative image on Hitler and hide the real situation in Germany. Furthermore, the camera set-ups create two fundamental, related effects: disorientation and animation. Disorientation is achieved by leaving some crucial aspects of “reality” out of the frame. For instance, a mother and her fair-haired daughter present Hitler with a bouquet of flowers. Then the film cuts to two other blonde girls in the crowd who seem to observe them. Finally, the first girl raises her mother’s arm to makes a winning gesture to Hitler. These serious of images reveal Hitler is a leader who full of love and thus create the impression that he loves his flock as he loves his children.

Animation is achieved by close-up and angle vision. For instance, the scene that Hitler is giving a lecture to the Hitler youth. Frank P. Tomasulo describes this scenario as:

This section begins with a giant close-up of a blaring bugle that fills the screen, followed by a cut to another circular shape, a round drum being pounded. Finally, we cut to a boy beating the drum with two sphere-headed batons. From these close-ups of rounded and straight shapes, the camera pulls back to include a wide shot of the Hitlerjungen standing on their tiptoes to see their hero’s arrival at the huge amphitheater, the noise level rising to build anticipation. As Hitler enters, Riefenstahl cuts to a shot of phallic trumpets bellowing. On cue, the youth Heil Hitler en masse. Thus, the sequence builds from explicit individual sexual symbols to mass excitation that culminates with the appearance of Hitler. Again, Hitler is backlit in order to augment his godlike aura and lighten his hair, while the youthful crowd is out of focus.

In this regard, “reality” becomes figurative, things move as if charged with supernatural power, with a will of their own, or more precisely, the will of Hitler. Such transfiguration via the camera movement creates disorientation and animates the still subjects to spectator from the “objective fact”.

The supported images are also the key element apart from the main subject. In Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl develops Hitler’s imperial image by repeat and emphasize the natural things. For example, the sky; the fire; the logo of Nazi, these things make Hitler in the deep center of the focus. The sky portraits him as a great leader; the fire lightens his tough personality and the swastika represents his supreme status in the party. Riefenstahl’s choice of motifs to repeat and emphasize is greatly facilitated by the staged nature of the events, in which most of these images were deliberately conceived to function “live”.

Commentary is a conventional tool in documentary. It serves to provoke a sense of distance for the purposes of orientation, evaluation, judgment, reflection, reconsideration, persuasion, or qualification between the text as a whole and the evidence it presents. Nevertheless, there has no tendentious commentary in the whole film. Susan Sontag has argued that because it represents an already achieved and radical transformation of reality: history become theater. In the Griersonian tradition, the “voice” of documentary is identified with that of the male voice-of God commentator, whose claim to authority and omniscience depends on the denial of a person viewpoint. Besides, in Triumph of the Will for instance, most of the scenes are the speeches and sermons by Hitler and the vast throngs on street. Riefenstahl deliberately skip the commentary in order to isolate the leadership of Hitler from ordinary. Shape an untouchable image to impose meanings which implies the Nazi ideology. The ambiguity is the purpose for the director to leave “reality” out of the frame.

Editing also disorients the viewer, the sudden shift of angle or from close-up to long shot switch viewers attention in terms of reinforcing the overwhelming power of the image. For example, as the lectures to the Hitler Youth is ongoing in a massive stadium. The frame is switched from the part of youth’s close-up to the long shot from outside the stadium. At the same time, we can hear the heiling which comes from the stadium. By this constant shift of viewpoint, the concrete “reality” of Nuremberg becomes tenuous, the “cult of personality” replace the importance of reality. Especially like Triumph of the Will, such this expository mode’s documentary. The editing generally serves to establish fresh insights and maintain rhetorical continuity more than spatial or temporal continuity.Thus the viewer of Triumph of the Will in this expository mode will generally holds expectation to Germany’s future.

In documentary’s value, present factual information about the world to the audience is the aim for a documentary filmmaker. The form of the documentary plays a significant role in the relationship between reality and spectators. The representation in different situation, event and issues under a variety of documentary modes is distinctive. Since Bill Nichols’s Introduction to Documentary (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001) divides documentary into four categories. They are listed as following: expository, observational, interactive, and reflexive. Bill Nichols said:

These categories are partly the work of the analyst or critic and partly the product of documentary filmmaking itself. The terms themselves are essentially my own, but the practices they refer to are filmmaking practices that filmmakers themselves recognize as distinctive approaches to the representation of reality.

Triumph of the Will as an expository documentary, filmmaker sophisticatedly utilizes images and “cut” (without voice-of-God commentary) to divert people’s attention and raise the nationalist sentiment. Such evidentiary aspects adopt many of the same techniques as classic juxtapositions between images and scenes. As a form of film, documentaries present themselves as factually trustworthy. But any one documentary may not prove reliable. Even though they take a stand, or advocate a solution to a problem. Their ultimate purpose is merely the persuasion to the spectator and the satisfaction to their own political needs.

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The main difficulty when attempting to define documentary fiction is an apparent contradiction of terms. One simple example before the exposition, everyone know something make you sit down is chair. We know it’s a chair because it is a chair. This is objective real. People understand this as a chair because of someone tells this story to us and we go into the story and confirm it as well, then we understand it fits to the reality thus we believe it. Nevertheless, documentary is not as simple as the chair that merely can identify something directly through our eyes without any limitation. We can’t see anything without our eyes, so too we can’t comprehend anything without categorical understanding. Another example about chair anew, we all know we sit down because of we are tired or we need relaxation. But why don’t we sit on the floor instead sit on a chair? David Hume attributes it to his famous theory of naturalism. In the example of chair, due to we have categorical understanding, we can sense the object. However, if we couldn’t access to it directly, we will mediate it in order to understand it. In this regard, the mediation is assumption. So to speak, mediation is subjective and reality has to be imagined.

In the boundaries between documentary and fiction, as the opinion by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson:

We assume that a fictional film presents imaginary beings, places, or events… If a film is fictional, that doesn’t mean that it’s completely unrelated to actuality. For one thing, not everything shown or implied by a fiction film need be imaginary…Fictional films are tied to actuality in another way: they often comment on the real world…Through theme, subject, characterization, and other means, a fictional film can directly or obliquely present ideas about the world outside the film.

From the filmmaker’s “vision” in documentary and fiction, the documentarists use their personal point of view about the historical world to manifest their purpose ranging from Riefenstahl records the fascinating ceremony for giving Hitler a power via her camera. And the filmmaker of fictions favors the actor’s performance to present imaginary actions and event. Sometimes, as audience, the images and sounds was not easy to distinguish sharply between documentary and fiction. Documentaries may include shots of prearranged or staged events, while fictions can incorporate upstaged material.

To sum up, the concepts which make reality real are in our subjectivity rather than out there. The reality exists in everywhere, people don’t realize the reality occasionally just because of the artificial intervention blind the gap between our eyes and the truth. In life, reality has to be imagined. We decide our future but the external factors will impact our thinking. And in documentary filmmaking, the reality also needs to be imagined. We decide the motif, we mediate the reality.


Triumph of the Will- Leni Riefenstahl, 1935, Germany


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