Animating Documentary Modes: Navigating a theoretical model for animated documentary practice

First Published in the International Journal for Film and Media Arts,  Universidade Lusófona, Lisbon. 

Abstract:

Music & Clowns is an animated documentary that intimately portrays the subjectivity and relationships between my brother, our parents, and myself. This film will function as a case study to facilitate a reflective exploration and practice-informed analysis of some of the theoretical frameworks relevant to animated documentary discourse. Placing emphasis on Bill Nichols’ modes of documentary, I trace the influences, interactions, and specific application that this theoretical topology has had on Music & Clowns. Expanding upon Nichols’ framework by way of visual metaphors, I develop increasingly sophisticated models of the interactions between practice and theory, maintaining Nichols’ topology to integrate live-action and animated documentary traditions.

Key Words:

Bill Nichols, documentary modes, animated documentary, theory, practice

Introduction

Music & Clowns is an animated documentary containing a rich portrait of someone with Down syndrome. This film was conceived as a response to the polemic documentary, A World Without Down Syndrome (Richards, 2016), presented by Sally Phillips, which addresses the introduction of Non-invasive Prenatal Testing (NIPT) to the United Kingdom (UK), and the likelihood that it will decrease the birth rate of people with Down syndrome. In the UK, prior to the introduction of NIPT testing, 90% of fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome were aborted. In Iceland, after NIPT testing was introduced, the abortion rate rose to 100% (“Sally Phillips’s film on…”, 2016, para. 7-8).

It could be argued that the significant drop in the birth rate of people with Down syndrome fits Rob Nixon’s caracterisation of “slow violence”, a process or destruction that is gradual and often invisible (Carruth, 2013, p. 847). Jane Fisher, director of the support organisation, Antenatal Results and Choices, argues that these tests simply provide pregnant women with more accurate information. Phillips was criticised by Fischer for occupying an overtly pro-life position, attempting to directly influence the choices of pregnant women who are likely to give birth to a baby with Down syndrome (McVeigh, 2016, para. 5). It was also problematic that Phillips focused on the stories of people with Down syndrome who are high functioning. Fischer argued that Phillips’ thesis was informed by a relatively privileged experience of raising a high functioning child with Down syndrome. Despite Phillips’ son being representative of just a small fraction of the UK’s population of people with Down syndrome, she built an argument for the potential of the entire community to make societal contributions comparable to those without the diagnosis. In response to the dialogue between Phillips and Fisher I chose to create a film that placed emphasis away from the abortion debate, instead developing a film which tackles the under-representation of the ordinary lives of people with Down syndrome. This film provides qualitative evidence, which will hopefully demonstrate to audiences my brother Jamie’s human worth, irrespective of his profound limitations or capacity for proactive contributions to wider society.

Suzanne Buchan proposed that politically motivated animated documentaries can be characterised as an “encounter”, evoking for the viewer a sense of being “…“present” and/or involved in the subject matter and people depicted” (2014, p. 252). Music & Clowns has the potential to present viewers with an encounter with my family, positioning them in our home, immersed in our interpersonal dynamics. This film contains within it curated opportunities to observe Jamie’s unique personality, quality of life, and the influence his presence has had on my parents and I.

Despite Jamie’s extremely limited verbal communication, Music & Clowns attempts to demonstrate how funny, charming, and perceptive he is. The film is structured around a series of interviews I conducted with mine and Jamie’s mother (Anna) and father (David). Topics discussed, relevant to the political subtext, include how they both felt when first hearing of his diagnosis, as well as the impact of their decision to eventually move Jamie out of the family home into one run by carers. Anna, who was not provided with a prenatal diagnosis, does not express a position on the debate surrounding diagnosis informed abortions. In contrast, David alludes to his pro-life perspective. During the editing process his politicised opinions were selected based on their relevance to his informed perspective and rejected where it was possible to infer overt judgment regarding the choices made by others.

I also conducted interviews with Jamie. It felt necessary to grant him an active role in the documentary and offer him an opportunity to provide consent. The ethics of creating a film about someone who is not legally able to offer informed consent was a significant concern. In response to asking Jamie if he felt comfortable with me making a film about him, he laughed and kissed the microphone (figure 1). While it is tempting to infer consent from this act, I cannot assume he understands the difference between a private screening of the film and its wide distribution, and thus may not be able to forsee the potential impact of the film’s release on his life. In accordance with the Royal College of Art’s ethical procedures, David and Anna provided consent on Jamie’s behalf. In a later interview, without prompt, Jamie kissed the microphone once again. I interpreted this repetition as a signifier of his intuitive comprehension of the comedic value associated with unanticipated subversion. He was either making a joke in the former interview or observed my response, prompting a reenactment.

      Figure 1: Jamie kissing the microphone. Screenshots from Music & Clowns, Alex Widdowson, 2018

Upon completion, I observed Jamie’s response to the film. He engaged enthusiastically with elements of the work, particularly those featuring clowns or music, and was able to recognise family members. However, his attempts to articulate his recognition or approval were cut short, possibly because the fast editing and dynamic animation may have been difficult for him to process. I do not consider this a flaw in the project as he is not the intended audience. If he were, the final outcome would be significantly different.

Music & Clowns addresses several ethical ambiguities, arguing for the social value of the life of someone who can’t care for themself, referencing Jamie’s limited ability to explain whether or not he is offering consent, deciphering obscured mental processes based on observation, questioning the legitimacy of each family members interpretation of his cognition, and challenging viewers to trust documentary value of a non-indexical method of representation to illustrate informed qualitative observations. In order to encourage critical engagement with the form and subject matter, the film possesses numerous reflexive devices. However, the multiple strategies employed in this film prevent it from being categorized in Bill Nichols’ reflexive mode. My choice to animate the presence of microphones in some scenes replicates and contrives a trope of the participatory mode. Interspersed between conventionally structured participatory scenes, structured around indexical testimony, are sequences that exemplify Bill Nichols’ performative mode, in which the subjectivity of a participant is evoked. In addition to this, the use of observational archive footage and the playful experimentation with form imply additional affiliations with both the observational and poetic mode. This complex medley of modal interactions has prompted my reevaluation of the relationships between animated and live action documentary practice, and the theoretical discourses relating animation to Nichols’ topology of documentary.

Developing visual metaphors to plott Nichols’ theoretical framework of documentary

John Grierson’s pithy definition of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality” (1933, p. 8) has endured as the foundation of documentary theory. Annabelle Honess Roe argues this is partly due to a flexibility associated with epistemological “broadness” (2011, p. 216). Bill Nichols’ proposed modes of documentary create six subdivisions akin to sub-genres in his book, Introduction to Documentary (2001, p. 99, 1st ed.). His topology was composed of the “poetic mode”, which places emphasis on aesthetics rather than a subject; the “expository mode”, which presents a linear authoritative perspective; the “observational mode”, documenting a subject naturalistically; the “participatory mode”; focusing on the relationship between the filmmaker and subject; the “reflexive mode”, focusing on the relationship between the filmmaker and the audience; and the “performative mode”, attempting to represent subjective knowledge (2001, p. 125 & 138, 1st ed.). Collectively the modes appear, at first glance, to be a method for dividing the spectrum of documentary productions into distinct camps. This evoked for me an image of six pillars standing tall upon Grierson’s enduring foundation. Nichols’ rough chronology of the advent of each mode (2001, 138) could inform an extension of this metaphor indicating both the order and manner in which Nichols arranged the theoretical columns. The allegorical act of erecting individual columns could represent the linear progression implied by Nichols’ table of documentary modes (2001, 138).

Figure 2: Bill Nichols erecting the modes of documentary practice on top of John Grierson’s foundational definition, Alex Widdowson, 2018

Annabelle Honess Roe reviews early approaches to building a theoretical framework for animated documentary (2011, p. 223). These theoretical strategies anchored the discipline to individual modes of documentary practice proposed by Nichols. Contextualising animated documentary in this way further atomized his framework. The resultant discourse became preoccupied by conflicting opinions regarding which of the modes possessed animated documentary as a constituent. Sybil DelGaudio (1997, p. 192), while referencing an earlier publication by Nichols featuring just five modes (1991, p. 56), argued that animation was inherently reflexive in a documentary context because it functions as “metacommentary” by way of artistically interpreting conventional documentary sources. Gunnar Strøm undermines the idea that animated documentary is a subdivision of the reflexive mode by illuminating the culturally informed audience’s preconceived limitations on the practice. Non-fiction publications demonstrate that the written word, devoid of indexical mechanics, evidences the potential for animation to be capable of representing fiction and reality (2003, p. 52). This argument trivialises DelGaudio’s reflexive characterisation.

Strøm instead points to Nichols’ performative mode due to the emphasis it places on subject specific strategies of representation (2003, p. 53). Eric Patrick supports this categorisation, however, his argument shares similarities with both Strøm and DelGaudio by adding that “…the very nature of animation is to foreground its process and artifice” (as cited in Honess Roe, 2013, 18). Animation is therefore performative, evoking subjective of subject and animator, by way of a reflexive device.

Paul Ward, in contrast, considers the relationship between a documentarian animator and their subject demonstrates a participatory or “interactive” tendency within the discipline. Like Patrick, Ward focuses on the interpretation of testimony as animation, instead emphasizing the potential for dialogue between subject and filmmaker to facilitate representational authenticity through feedback (Ward, 2005 p 94-95).1

Honess Roe was critical of attempts to “shoehorn” animated documentary into Nichols’ modes, which were conceived with live action documentary in mind. Instead she establishes a framework specific to animation based on how the medium functions differently from live action in a documentary context (2011, p. 225). These included: “mimetic substitution”, in which live action documentary footage is imitated due to the absence of a camera or be impossibility of capturing events on film; “non-mimetic substitution”, where footage is replaced with illustrative or figurative imagery unbound by conventional documentary aesthetics; and “evocation”, which describes the use of animation to represent abstract and subjective concepts such as emotions, sensations, and mind-sets. (2011, pp. 225-227).

Nichols is also dismissive of attempts to segregate individual films into any one category, preferring a “mix and match” approach (2001, 34). He avoided categorising animated documentary into any particular mode. While not mentioned in the first edition of an Introduction to Documentary (2001), in the second edition (2010) he grounds various animated documentaries into two separate modes, while highlighting the overarching relevance of a third.

Characterised by the modernist tendency towards artistic interpretation, an emphasis on form and overthrowing conventions, Nichols references Silence (Bringas & Yadin, 1998) and Feeling My Way (Hodgson, 1997) as exemplars of the poetic mode in which the artist’s vision is foregrounded (2010, p.164). Nichols points to the stylized reenactments and metaphorical signifiers in Waltz With Bashir (Folman, 2008), Ryan (Landreth, 2004), and His Mother’s Voice (Tupicoff, 1997), attributing them to the performative mode (2010, 204). Furthermore, Nichols highlights the use of animation in documentaries as inherently reflexive. For at least some audience members animation prompts them to “question the assumption that a documentary must support its proposals or perspective with historically authentic footage” (2010, p. 33).

Despite his efforts to accommodate animated documentary in the second edition, Nichols has overlooked a significant portion of the discipline. The films he cited are certainly exemplars of the animated documentary cannon, however, Honess Roe, proposed a modal distinction between the films Nichols discussed and what she describes in her own topology as examples of mimetic substitution. The Sinking of the Lusitania (McCay, 2018) and the series Walking With Dinosaurs (BBC, 1999) use animation to replace absent or what would be impossible footage (2011, p.226). In the former, the intertitles represent the U.S. government’s propagandist motivations, and in the later a voice-over matches the contentions of natural history documentaries, linking both examples to the expository mode.

With Nichols’ “mix and match” approach in mind, my previously proposed architectural metaphor now appears to be superficial and inadequate. In its place I envisage a more complex gravitational system model, akin to a solar system, which may elucidate the interactions between the genre, modes of practice, and individual films.

Each mode, with its own gravitational field, orbits the documentary genre. In this model an individual film moves through the figurative solar system, initially guided by the directors intentions. The production’s progress is influenced by a number of gravitational fields in varying strengths, shaping the film’s trajectory. Some will arrange themselves like satellites, in tight orbits of a single mode, others will form a complex series of arcs as they travel between modes, through the system.

When extending the metaphor to account for the difference between animated and live action documentaries, one can observe that the two disciplines tend to be drawn to particular modes, and offer distinct qualities. Comparing the medium to a vehicle, allows us to account for animation’s time consuming nature, and thus these productions have a slower means of propulsion. Live action, which often involves larger crews for a shorter period of time, can be represented by larger, faster shuttles. Educational or industry training may be equivalent to a starting position or resting place. I imagine two distinct stations orbiting the documentary sun, one which services animation shuttles, the other larger live action ships.

The movement of the modes, in their orbit of the genre, may roughly characterise the shifts in trends throughout documentary history. Live action expository films, for instance, gradually rose and fell in prominence during the 20th Century. This tendency can be represented by the relative proximity of the two orbiting bodies at any given time. Tracking the 100 years would show the modes gradually rotating clockwise around the genera, before reaching their current position represented in figure 3.

Figure 3: Tracking modal influence and mediums used in Music & Clowns through a gravitational system model of the documentary genre, Alex Widdowson, 2018

Navigating documentary modes through animated documentary practice

Case study 1: Jamie’s aspiration to be a clown vs. his appreciation of clowns. Facilitating and visualising verbal metacommentary to further distinguish contrasting perspectives, manifested in the performative mode.

Music & Clowns is one of six films produced by the inaugural year group of animation masters students graduating, from the documentary pathway, at the Royal College of Art (RCA). Initially conceived by Joan Ashworth and Sylvie Bringas, following Ashworth’s departure as programme leader, Birgitta Hosea oversaw its launch in 2015. This coincided with the first Ecstatic Truth symposium, hosted by the RCA, and organised by Tereza Stehlikova and Hosea.

Figure 3, which tracks detectable influences from Bill Nichols modes of documentary in my graduate film, Music & Clowns, is a testament to how effective the master’s degree has been in familiarising me with documentary discourse. In addition to this training much of the success of this project is attributed to working with my family. It became clear early in development that 30 years of first hand experiences of my subjects facilitated unlimited access and provided an enormous advantage.

The performative qualities of animated documentary, argued by Strøm (2003) and Patrick (2004), and supported by Nichols’s reading of specific examples (2010, 111), are conceptually dominant in Music & Clowns. Nichols characterises performative documentary as, resisting the western philosophical tradition of knowledge as abstract and universal, instead promoting forms of knowledge that are subjective, constructed from lived experience and personal interpretation. Nichols emphasises that the performative mode promotes an interpretation of meaning as a “affect-laden phenomenon” (2001, 131). Jakub Traczyk, Agata Sobkow, and Tomasz Zaleskiewicz, faculty members from the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Wroclaw, consolidate various definitions of affect-laden as follows:

People differ in the ease with which they create vivid mental images of various objects and situations. Consequently, affect-laden mental images should evoke emotions that differ in intensity in people who vary in mental imagery ability.

(2015, para. 35)

In the context of performative animated documentary, a directors role is to expand and articulate a subject’s affect-laden reading of a situation. The ambiguous nature of Jamie’s communication strategies provide numerous opportunities for this. The most tangible evidence for what Jamie is thinking at any time is his frequent reference to key interests. These include family members, favoured musicians, clowns, and the circus. More often than not these words or phrases are proclaimed spontaneously. The limitations on his ability to engage in dialogue makes it hard to contextualise his assertions and decipher his thought process. Despite not knowing what goes on in his head, the rest of the family are prone to speculation, often drawing different conclusions. For instance, while Anna thinks Jamie’s fascination with clowns must indicate that he has aspirations to be one, David disputes this, believing Jamie is drawn to clowns because their comedy is communicated almost entirely through body language and therefore more legible to him than other humour. Inspired by Samanta Moore’s “collaborative cycle” methodology (2014, pp. 105-125), I capture my parents differing perspectives by recording David’s feedback as he watched an early version of the film, featuring Anna’s speculations about Jamie’s aspirations. I then incorporated David’s verbal metacommentary into a later version of the film. This created space for David to narrate a shift in style between the two scenes, both of which are simulations of their respective affect-ladened interpretation of Jamie’s aspirations (see figure 4).

Figure 4: Jamie’s interest in clowns representing Anna’s and David’s perspectives. Screenshots from Music & Clowns, Alex Widdowson, 2018

Case study 2: Interpreting Jamie’s ambiguous behaviour. Demonstrating the complex inter-modal dynamics at play when shifting between the perspective of multiple documentary subjects

Some of the speculations about Jamie by the other subjects in Music & Clowns arguably reveal insight into the mindset and biases of that participant. When David recalls Jamie approaching him during a moment of stress, he compares his son’s touch to the effect of a “lightning conductor” (Widdowson, 2018), draining away the frustration. David is proud of Jamie’s sensitivity and perception. During an interview he proposed this anecdote as supportive evidence, however, I remember thinking that this story didn’t prove Jamie’s intentions. I’ve seen my brother approach my father this way a number of times but this instance stood out in David’s memory, possibly because of his vulnerability at that moment. Rather than demonstrating Jamie’s intention to comfort my father, I inferred from this memory that the anecdote was an indicator of confirmation bias. This term is used in behavioural science to describe people’s tendencies to overvalue information that supports an existing belief, while overlooking evidence that is unsupportive or contradictory (Heshmat, para. 2). During the editing process I reflected on how audiences might interpret the conflicting attitudes in this interview. I could see how David might be seen as a sentimentalist, where as I come across as more of a cynic. Resisting the impulse to introduce to the film as an argument for confirmation bias, I developed representational strategies to signify our conflicting interpretations and visualised the tension between them.

Figure 5: David’s colour Scanned frame from Music & Clowns, Alex Widdowson, 2018

The scene was initially rendered in TVPaint2. These digitally drawn frames were then printed and, with the help of four assistants, manually coloured. The shots where David experienced stress were shaded with charcoal, signifying his melancholy (see figure 5). Jamie is coloured using pastels, a signifier for David’s emotional reading of Jamie’s healing potential. Triggered at the point of contact, a wave of pigment radiates across the frame, vanquishing gloom from the scene. The temporal space of this reenacted memory is fractured when I enter the frame to question my father about his proposition. This break with documentary convention hybridised the performative reenactment with a participatory interview, invoking reflexivity. I signify my detached, analytical perspective by transitioning the imagery from printed, hand-coloured frames to stark, flat, digital colours rendered in TVPaint (see figure 6).

Figure 6: The perspective of David, hand coloured in charcoal and pastels, and Alex Widdowson, manifest as digital colour. Screenshots from Music & Clowns, Alex Widdowson, 2018 Screenshots from Music & Clowns, Alex Widdowson, 2018

Unlike the rest of the film, line-boil is absent from the digital character animation in this scene. This specialised term is used, in my experience as a practitioner, to refer to an animated line, the product of traced and sequential substitution, often looped, composed of a minimum of two drawings. The stillness of the fully digital sequence can be read as a further manifestation of the cynical nature of my critique. In contrast, the scanning process of the printed scenes was conducted with such haste that many frames are misaligned. When played in sequence, a tonal comparison with early black and white footage is noticeable. Where charcoal shading is dominant, the frame movement both invigorates the sequence and adds a turbulent quality. This was complimented in post-production with non-diegetic sound design featuring a recording of heavy rain. As pastels fill the frame the rain subsides, making way for bird song. The calming effect was further enhanced by my efforts to stabilise the josseling image sequence, correlation with the moment of transition. The cumulative result of these methods should invoke in the audience recognition of: firstly, an emotional shift in David, triggered by Jamie’s approach; followed by a change in tone, instigated by my intruding scepticism. The modal transition towards participation, and it’s reflexive connotation, rather than nullifying the performative qualities of the scene, illuminate the dynamics between active participants and their subjectivity. Jamie’s passivity, and lack of representation in the performative construct is informed by his absence during the source interview.

Case study 3: Approaching Jamie’s subjectivity. Demonstrating the complex ethical and inter-modal dynamics at play when representing the explicit perspective of an individual documentary subject.

Paul Wells, in an early attempt to innovate a topology specific to animated documentary in 1997, proposed four categories: the imitative, subjective, fantastic, and postmodern modes (Wells, 1997). Wells’ subjective mode recognised the attempt of documentary makers to use animation to represent the individual worldview of their subjects. This sub-category shares a close affinity with Nichols’ performative mode.

In two scenes I attempt to embody Jamie’s perspective. The first instance features abstract animation to emphasise the difficulty experienced, by both David and Anna, when imagining the manner in which Jamie thinks. This scene is unique in the film as the only sequence I chose not to animate myself. Emily Downe, a first year documentary animation student at the RCA, with an aptitude for abstractaction, had never met my brother. Her unfamiliarity with him liberated the scene from the potential signifiers which may have emerged if I were to have animated it. I anticipated that a lifetime of observing Jamie’s behaviour and appearance may have contaminated my attempts at abstraction (see figure 7).

Figure 7: An abstract representation of the impenetrability of Jamie’s consciousness. Screenshot from Music & Clowns, Alex Widdowson, 2018 (animated by Emily Downe).

The second attempt at representing Jamie’s subjectivity took Inspiration from A is for Autism, directed by Tim Webb (Arnall & Webb, 1992). In what Ward described as a “collaborative working method”, Webb encouraged the subjects of his film, who are on the autistic spectrum, to draw and discuss, on tape, their passions and concerns (p.94). In 2005, I was able to encourage Jamie to draw my portrait for an A-Level project about our relationship (see figure 8). Thirteen years later, he showed no interest in participating as an artist in Music & Clowns. I navigated around this by tracing, on my graphics tablet, drawings he created when he was younger. The resultant images, which were the basis for character designs of the entire family in this scene, do not constitute “Outsider Art”3. Roger Cardinal, coined the label Outsider Art to formulate an English language equivalent of Jean Dubuffet’s term, “Art Brut”. Their overlapping definitions encompass artwork created without traceable influence from contemporary art practice or history (Cardinal, 1972, p.21). The movement is associated with works produced by individuals who are either institutionally or mentally isolated from the art world. If Jamie’s drawings are identifiable as Outsider Art, my taking influence from his representational style could be interpreted as an inversion of the outsider convention due to my formal training, as well as my purposeful response to a recognised art movement. When considering my translations of his work, the indexical chain between Jamie’s drawings and the scene I’ve animated is significantly weak. With regards to the documentary process, the scene is better described as an imitation rather than a collaboration.

Figure 8: A portrait of Alex by Jamie. Jamie Widdowson, 2005, with permission from the artist’s parents.

My inability to solicit drawn contributions from Jamie prompted me to appropriate artwork he created in an educational context, approximately twenty five years ago. This process was further problematised by his inability to provide consent, in an informed manner, for me to use his artwork. Our shared parents, once again, took this decision on his behalf. While maintaining a strong degree of resemblance, the images I traced were significantly altered by adapting them into new mediums, and coloured, before being animated. The aforementioned conclusion, that my method was antithetical to Outsider Art, would not apply to A is for Autism, as the film is mitigated by the director’s significantly collaborative approach.

Mosaic Films, under the direction of Andy Glynn, have produced a number of animated documentaries which adopt performative devices comparable to the Music & Clowns, scene discussed in the previous two paragraphs. The Seeking Refuge series (2012), features first hand testimony from children who were forced to flee their homeland and chose to resettle in the United Kingdom. A comparison between two of the Seeking Refuge episodes reveals potential problems that arise from an imitative, as opposed to collaborative, performative animated documentary. There is a noticeable difference in the degree with which Glynn has executed artistic collaborations with the young refugees featured in each episode. This is demonstrated by Juliane’s Story (2012), animation direction by Karl Hammond at MUMMU Studio, and Ali’s Story (2012), animation direction by Salvador Maldonado, produced in house at Mosaic Films.

Ali’s Story is rendered without adherence to conventional perspective. The animation technique, commonly known as cut-out or 2 ½ D, makes use of flat puppets, consisting of individual bitmap images rigged together to make a character form. These are composited in a three dimensional digital space featuring parallaxing sets and backgrounds. Ali’s Story includes a mixture of digital imagery and scanned hand rendered artwork, much of which was created by the subject. His testimony emphasises a passion for drawing. A viewer has enough information to identify the influence Ali’s artwork had on the films art direction.

Juliane’s Story includes some animated references to what might be her own drawings. However, unlike Ali, she does not corroborate that these are her creations. The indexical link between Ali’s scanned drawings and those of Julianne’s are broken in this episode by the animators use of vector based tracing. The mechanical indifference of scanned original artwork, akin to the mechanisms of live action documentary, is entirely lost.

While this methodology is comparable to one used in Music & Clowns, audiences are left to infer a collaboration between Glynn, Hammond, and Juliane. Where as, this is explicitly evident in Ali’s Story. The increased creative dominance of the animators in Juliane’s Story makes the episode a relatively strong example of Nea Ehrlich’s characterisation of animation as “suspect and un-objective as a documentary language” (2011, para. 3).

Glynn described his interview methods during a panel discussion I attended at the animated documentary festival, Factual Animation Film Fuss (FAFF), in September 2015. Glynn, a trained clinical psychologist, recorded conversations with the pree-teen subjects of this series. From this he would extract the narration for the series by editing out his voice. Nichols referred to this process as the “masked interview”, utilised by observational documentaries in order to maintain the fly-on-the-wall aesthetic (2001, 113).

In contrast to the performative and participatory tone of the relevant scene in Music & Clowns, the Seeking Refuge series, directed by Glynn and supported by multiple animation directors, navigates a different path between modal influences, aligning very closely with performative conventions. This dominant mode contains within it a complex amalgam of other modes: a poetic animation, informed by an observational version of obscured participatory interviews.

Nichols describes a shift in prominence from the observational to participatory documentary modes. He partly attributes this trend to the limited scope of observational methodologies for exposing a director’s existing bias, as well as the disparity between a literal documentary crew and the figurative fly-on-the-wall (2001, 114). The strategies developed in the participatory mode were successful in mitigating these issues, providing further opportunities for filmmakers to reveal their existing prejudices by way of perceivable profilmic or audible interactions with subjects. Participatory documentaries also reveals some of the influence filmmakers have on events as they unfold (Nichols, 2001, 119). The weaknesses Nichols attributed to observational films, which prompted participatory innovations, helps further illuminate problems relating to ethics of authenticity when comparing Music & Clowns with Seeking Refuge.

Doctoring the interviews in the Seeking Refuge series obscures Glynn’s presence in order to remove potential distractions from the subjects’ testimony. However, whittling down the dialogue to produce a monologue nullifies the transparency and ethical benefits of the participatory act. The masked interview facilitates the construction of the performative strategy “We speak about ourselves to you”. This notion is essential to the performative mode and influenced by auto-ethnography (Nichols, 2001, 133-4). However, as mentioned previously the degree of influence the Seeking Refuge subjects had on the art direction of this series varied greatly.

Despite the visual auto-ethnographic and observational intentions of the seeking refuge series being either inconsistent or lost, animated documentary audiences are in an advantageous position, relative to viewers of a live action documentary. The indexicality of footage also helps to mask a filmmaker’s bias. Animation on the other hand provides continuous stream of fully constructed semiotic information, providing vast data set for a critical analysis of what prejudices may have informed the iconographic coding of each animated documentary. Ehrlich’s scepticism with regards to the limited documentary value of animation based on it’s “constructedness” (2011, parap. 3), is in these circumstances an advantage for a critical viewer.

There is also value to be found in reflecting on why these modal strategies were selected by the directors. In Music & Clowns I appropriated Jamie’s adolescent drawings out of necessity. He was out of practice and would not engage with a collaborative exercise. Where as, Ali’s accomplished drawings were, judging from his testimony, presented to the filmmakers with enthusiasm. Julianne on the other hand evidences no enthusiasm for drawing, possibly due to her level of ability and the self consciousness one could infer from this. Glynn may have masked his presence in the Seeking Refuge interviews because he probably considered his relationship with the participating children as irrelevant. In contrast, I chose to maintain a role in the scene with Jamie because our relationship is as much of a central theme as his ability to respond to questions and the performative interpretation of his subjectivity.

Other modal explorations in Music & Clowns

Music & Clowns features one observational scene composed of archive footage taken from a 1985 BBC Two documentary about my parents experience raising a child with Down syndrome (Chapple). This segment originally began with exposition from the programme narrator. The testimony then shifted to off camera masked interviews with my parents, participatory at the point of recording but observational in the context of the BBC Two documentary. The camera crew hid from sight, an explicitly observational filming technique, providing scope to record the dynamics between David and Anna, both in their thirties; Guy, my other brother, age two; and Jamie, age five. Within the context of Music & Clowns, careful editing of this footage allowed me to partially synchronise contemporary testimony from Anna and David with footage of them from over thirty years ago. The observational footage of my brother, visibly joyful and energetic, combined with the materiality of the damaged VHS recording may evoke a sensation of nostalgia. This is juxtaposed with contemporary participatory interviews I conducted with mine and Jamie’s parents. David describes Jamie’s decline after being moved out of the family home into one where he is assisted by carers. My brother, who was in his late 20s when this decision was made on his behalf, has since entered a gradual intellectual decline, probably caused in part by the relatively unstimulating and overly accommodating environment he lives in. Anna, responding to my questions about this decision describes her “no regrets” attitude, managing the associated guilt by explaining “you can only do what you think is best at the time” (Widdowson, 2018).

The affecting disorientation of combining conflictual visual and verbal narrative threads, complimented by a temporal displacement, places the scene closer to the performative mode. It may produce in a viewer a divided emotional state, something akin to cognitive dissonance, a term used in psychology to describe the discomfort of simultaneously experiencing conflicting thought processes (“Reference Terms Cognitive Dissonance”).

This pluralised subjectivity approach was inspired by Through the Hawthorn (2014). An animated documentary, commissioned by the Wellcome Trust, to communicate problems related to the disparate interpretations of risk and attitude that can develop during psychiatric treatment. Three directors: Anna Benner, Pia Borg, and Gemma Burditt, were each granted equal space within the frame, adopting contrasting methods to simultaneously represent the perspective of each of the three protagonists: a psychiatrist, a psychiatric patient, and the patient’s mother. Not strictly a documentary, the script was written by D. R. Hood and inspired by the 2011 non-fiction book, Henry’s Demons; co-authored by Henry and Patrick Cockburn; and informed by observations of family therapy sessions in a Hospital in South London (Borg). Despite the several degrees of separation between the animated film and the real world experiences that inspired it, Through the Hawthorn clearly demonstrates performative methodologies, which are situated within the experimental and formal concerns of the poetic mode.

The poetic mode sacrifices the conventions of continuity editing and the sense of a very specific location in time and place that follows from it to explore associations and patterns that involve temporal rhythms and spatial juxtapositions.

(Nichols, 2001, 102)

It could be argued that the prominence of formal devices, which help divide and structure my film, Music & Clowns, justify a poetic undertone. However, a performative and participatory reading of the film are more dominant. These devices could also be interpreted as having a reflexive connotation.

Unlike David, Anna and Jamie, I attempt to manifest my own subjectivity consistently throughout the film. Adopting the role of an inquisitive documentary filmmaker, the mimetic, untextured digital animation technique was intended to function as a baseline from which the aesthetics deviated throughout the film. Taking inspiration from Slaves: an Animated Documentary (Aronowitsch & Heilborn, 2003), and Ryan (Holborn, Smith, Page & Landreth, 2004), I signified both the participatory context of the audio recordings and emphasised my role as a documentarian by contriving the appearance of microphones in frame.

There is a conceptual difference between a utilitarian use of microphones and their symbolic inclusion an animated interview. Nick Broomfield’s confrontations with an unwilling documentary subject in Kurt & Courtney (1998), may not have become a film at all were he to ask for permission off camera. Thus, his wielding of a microphone is a necessity (Nicholson, 2001, 119). While microphones were present in my family home, similarly arranged to how they appear in Music & Clowns, this is not an example of Honess Roe’s mimetic-substitution category. I could have easily captured these scenes on camera as profilmic participatory interviews. This fact is evidenced to the audience when footage of me painting Jamie’s face appears alongside the end credits. By contriving participatory acts in animation I was able to both emphasise to audiences the dynamics between subject and filmmaker, while also promoting a reflexive metadiscourse, due to the purposefulness of this act. The reflexive potential of a contrived microphone adjustment is exemplified in the scene where Anna recalls her emotional state following Jamie’s birth and the subsequent diagnosis of Down syndrome. The animation features her in a hospital bed 40 years earlier holding Jamie in her arms. At the start of the scene, I adjust the microphone while I sit beside her, ten years before I was born. It is reasonable to predict some viewers may be momentarily distracted by this folding in of temporal space. Making use of Nichols’ comparison between the participatory and observational modes (2001,p. 125), the onscreen presence of an animated documentarian, microphone in hand, prompts the viewer to raise their awareness of the form, shifting focus momentarily from the relationship between me, the filmmaker and my subject, Anna, to the me, the filmmaker and them, my audience. I use this trope a number of times in the film, often with comedic effect.

While I would argue the act of navigating between multiple documentary modes is inherently reflexive, Music & Clowns, completes a full orbit of the performative mode in figure 3, indicating its dominance. However, Nichols warns of the strategic limitations of the mode to address objective truths, in addition to their “excessive” preoccupation with style (2001, 138). Ward also argues this point, highlighting the pertinence of these issues with regards to performative animated documentaries (2005, 86). This mirrors Ehrlich’s aforementioned concerns about the “constructedness” and “un-objective” constraints of animation in a documentary context (2011, parap. 3).

Rather than diminishing the authority of animation as a documentary medium, Okwui Enwezor, when addressing recent documentary innovations, argues such works “…raise new relations of ethics and aesthetics because instead of presenting the viewer with non-negotiable facts, they create a ‘truth process’” (Ehrlich, 2013, p. 252). This mirrors Werner Herzog’s attack on the preoccupation within the documentary tradition for seeking objective truths. Herzog mocks this concept comparing it to the “truth of accountants”. In its place he coined the term “ecstatic truth”, describing it as “…mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization” (Walker Art Centre).

In attempting to strike a balance between the fluid concepts of documentary truth proposed by Herzog and Enwezor, and cautionary words regarding the performative mode and animated documentary put forward by Nichols, Ward, and Ehrlich, I devised a strategy for mitigating the risk of anecdotal subjectivity. Rather than developing a single performative strategy, as I did in my auto-ethnographic film Patients (2012), I developed distinct representational styles to separate the subjectivity of the four documentary participants in Music & Clowns. In addition to this, Anna, David, and Jamie presented or prompted distinct topics that required individual aesthetic treatment, further pluralising my representational pallet. The accumulative effect of this montage of techniques was intended to figuratively increase the sample size of my aesthetic readings of the participant’s subjectivities. Within the social sciences such an approach would in most circumstances be expected to improve the reliability of data collected. However, this research contains within it only a degree of correlation between the figurative data points. In addition to the general glowing assessment of Jamie’s character, there are many conflictual accounts and unsubstantiated assumptions about what life must be like for him from myself, David and Anna. Rather than undermining the usefulness of my results, it helped me create a rich portrait of Jamie’s life, contextualised by our family dynamics, the results illuminate the limits of our knowledge. The product of my research, Music & Clowns, suggests we can never truly know Jamie because of his limited expressive capabilities, and to a lesser degree each other, due to the limits of our own subjectivity. A key aim of this film was to evoke “truth”, in Herzog’s sense of the word, by way of a reflexive transparency regarding the capability of animation to supersede the “truth of accountants”, which still holds the attention of many live action documentarians.

Conclusion

My eight years of practice informed animated documentary research has been punctuated by exposure to two key text, An Introduction to Documentary (Nichols, 2001 & 2010) and Annabelle Honess Roe’s book, Animated Documentary (2013). Honess Roe establishes a bespoke theoretical framework for animated documentary, breaking from previous attempts to adapt Nichols mode system. Honess Roe went back to the drawing board and developed her own taxonomy, based on how animated documentaries function differently from live action: mimetic substitution, non-mimetic substitution, and evocation. Defined as categories rather than modes, they illuminate three distinct strategies employed by animated documentaries and, for the most part, they are inapplicable to live action documentary. Honess Roe’s framework was both insightful and inspiring, as well as a helpful framework to improve the efficiency with which I repeatedly explained what my discipline was.

However, when directly comparing the practical application of theoretical topologies contained within these two publications, the emphasis Honess Roe places on the difference between live action and animation potentially marginalises the practice of animated documentary. In a teaching context, if fledgling animator documentarians are encouraged primarily to pursue the topics that live action documentary is not capable of addressing, this might point them down a narrowing path.

Nichols, contrasts this approach in the second edition of his book, Introduction to Documentary (2010), by introducing animated documentaries into an existing theoretical framework. Despite only referencing examples of practice that exemplify particular modes, the flexibility of his modal system, characterised by the “mix and match” approach, prompts the reader to compare and contrast animated and live action documentaries that intersect two or more modes. The boundaryless approach to documentary discourse that Nichols promotes stimulates a dialogue with dominant live action forms, while illuminating numerous potential paths for creative exploration.

The detailed analysis, diagrams, metaphors and examples collected in this article should demonstrate both the aptitude of animation for navigation of Bill Nichols’s modes and the enduring and invaluable contribution he has made to animated documentary discourse. The complex, shifting and interactive relationships contained within Nichols’ documentary topology, should not be considered evidence for his weakness as a taxonomist, but rather, a testament to his strength as a theoretician, having developed a powerful set of tools to inform and reflect on animated documentary.

When attempting to articulate the influence Nichols’ modal system has had on the development and production of Music & Clowns, I found it necessary to invoke visual metaphors to clarify my insights. This process culminated in the development of a gravitational system model of Nichols documentary modes. It is a testament to the enduring brilliance of Nichols’ theoretical framework, that I was able to expand my initial solar system metaphor to not just indicate the relative position the modes in relation to each other and the genre, but also account for tenancies and trends associated with the two dominant mediums, live action and animation. The analytical potential of this figurative approach was then demonstrated by the ease with which I was able to plot the allegorical journey of my own production through the medley of influences specific to the documentary genre. While conscious of the risk of over extending the space exploration metaphor, I would like to propose one final annex to the figuration, borrowed from Adam Curtis’ 2015 essay documentary, Bitter Lake4 (Kelsall).

Stanisław Lem’s 1961 science fiction novel, Solaris, centres on an exploratory mission by cosmonauts to observe a strange planet. While orbiting Solaris, the crew experience vivid hallucinations, which are at times indistinguishable from reality. These mirages, seemingly evoked by the planet; and the subsequent delusions, are informed by past experiences and memories of loved ones. The application of Lem’s science-fiction to the metaphor of the gravitational system model of the Nichols topology for documentary, expands, all be it fantastically, the intangible mechanism by which each mode inspires and facilitates creativity at the point when filmmaker enters the range of a particular mode’s gravitational pull. My choice to conclude my practice informed theoretical analysis of the animated documentary, Music & Clowns, by leaving the realms of Newtonian physics, and entering the territory of science fiction, may indicate the limits of my own comprehension with regards to the precise mechanics of inspiration.

 

Bibliography

Arnell, D. (producer) & Webb, T. (Director), (1992) A is for Autism [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Fine Take.

Aronowitsch, D. (co-producer/director) & Heilborn,. H (co-producer/director), (2003). Slaves: an Animated Documentary [Motion Picture] Sweden: Story AB.

Benner, A. (co-director), Borg, A. (co-director), Burditt, G. (co-director) (2014) Through the Hawthorn [Motion Picture]. London: Wellcome Trust.

Borg, P. (2014) THROUGH THE HAWTHORN [website]. Retrieved from http://piaborg.com

Bringas, S. (co-producer/co-director) & Yadin, O., (co-producer/co-director), (1998) Silence [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Halo Productions.

Broomfield, N. (producer/director), (1998). Kurt & Courtney [Motion Picture]. Capitol Films

Callam, C. (producer); Richards, C. (director) (2016) World Without Down Syndrome [one off television special]. Dragonfly Film and Television.

Child Care and Parenthood 4 [Television segment]. (1985, may 20). In Chapple, J. (series producer), Daytime on Two. London: BBC 2.

Cardinal, R., (1972). Outsider Art. London: Studio Vista

Carruth, A. (2013). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor by Rob Nixon. [review], MFS Modern Fiction Studies, 59(4), 847-849. doi: 10.1353/mfs.2013.0055

Ehrlich, N. (2013) Animated Documentaries: aesthetics, politics and viewer engagement. In S. Buchan (Ed.), Pervasive Animation (pp. 248-272) London & New York: Routledge.

Ehrlich, N. (2011, December 22). Animated Documentary as Masking [peer-reviewed open access online journal], Animation Studies Online Journal, Regrieved from https://journal.animationstudies.org/nea-ehrlich-animated-documentaries-as-masking/

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Glynn, A. (Producer/director), (2012, June). Julianne’s Story [Television series episode]. In Seeking Refuge. London: BBC 2.

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Heshmat. S., (2015, April 23) What Is Confirmation Bias? Wishful thinking. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/science-choice/201504/what-is-confirmation-bias

Hoban, S. (co-producer); Mark Smith (co-producer); Marcy Page (co-producer) & C. Landreth, (director), (2004). Ryan [Motion Picture]. Canada: National Film Board.

Hodgson. J. (producer/director), (1997) Feeling My Way [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Hodgson Films.

Honess Roe, A. (2011). Absence, Excess and Epistemologica Expansion: Towards a Framework for the Study of Animated Documentary. Animation: an Interdisciplinary Journal, 6(3), 215-230, doi:10.1177/1746847711417854

Honess Roe, A. (2013). Animated Documentary, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kelsall, L. (producer) & Curtis, A. (director), Bitter Lake [Motion Picture], United Kingdom: BBC productions.

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Nichols, B. (1991). Representing Reality, Bloomington: Indiana University Press,

Nichols, B. (2001). Introduction to Documentary (1st ed.), Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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Nixon, R. (2011). Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

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Sally Phillips’s film on Down’s is ‘unhelpful’ for families, warns antenatal specialist. (2016 October 2) The Guardian Online. Retrieved from

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/oct/01/downs-syndrome-screening-jane–fisher-expert-criticises-sally-phillips-bbc-documentary

Strøm, G. (2003). The Animated Documentary. Animation Journal, 11. pp. 47-63

Tim Haines (co-director) & Jasper James (co-director), (1999). Walking with Dinosaurs [television series] (1999 October 4). Bristol: BBC Natural History Unit.

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Walker Art Centre, (2017 October 12), Werner Herzog’s Minnesota Declaration . Minneapolis:Walker Art Center. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com

Ward, P. (2005). Documentary: The margins of reality. London: Wallflower.

Wason, P. (1960). On The Failure to Eliminate Hypotheses in a Conceptual Task. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 12(3), 129-140. doi:10.1080/17470216008416717.

Widdowson, A. (2011) Art: Redundant Term or Useful Category? BA dissertation, Loughborough University.

Widdowson, A. (producer/director), (2018). Music & Clowns [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Royal College of Art.

Widdowson, A. (producer/director), (2012). Patients [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Loughborough University.

 

Notes

1 Nichols’ participatory mode was originally coined as “interactive” in Representing Reality (1991, p. 44).

2 2D bitmap animation software

3  I examined the potential redundancy of Outsider Art in terms of ontology, due to increasing reach of media and popular culture influences, as well as ethical implications of a movement which incentivises the exclusion of artist for fear of creative contamination 

4 In his 2015 essay film, Bitter Lake, Adam Curtis’ proposed the planet Solaris as a metaphor for Afghanistan, illuminating the ideological fractures experienced by invading forces throughout modern history.

Manifestos in Action: Progression, Deviation and Lived Experience

Introduction:

This article has been developed to support a lecture/workshop hosted on 24th October 2017 at Concordia University, Department of Art History, for the class, Art and Its Changing Contexts: The Manifesto.

Despite the title only some of the examples mentioned in this essay are defined as manifestos. In order to make my argument I wish to also address methodologies and policies. Like a manifesto, they involve rules which are created with the intent of influencing behaviour in the future.

This article is split into three distinct sections. Firstly, the Hegelian Dialect will be unpacked to reveal how movements are connected despite their differences. Secondly, the disparity between the intent of an author and the real world application of a manifesto will be explored. As the poet Robert Burns wrote, ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men often go awry.” Finally, attention shifts towards autoethnography, a useful method for documenting the application of a manifesto. I will mostly be using documentary examples to illustrate my points but this article also touches on politics, economics, fine art and fiction cinema.

PART 1 –  The Hegelian Dialectic

A dialectic describes a discourse between two or more people who hold different points of view about a subject while wishing to establish the truth through reasoned arguments. The Hegelian Dialect, although associated with the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, was first attributed to Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus.

How it works: The dialectic is composed of stages of development. A thesis is proposed, a conceptual starting position. This gives rise to a reaction which forms into an antithesis. This position will either contradict or negate the thesis. If the tension between the thesis and antithesis resolved to produce a new position this would be a synthesis.

Using Chinese political history to demonstrate the Hegelian Dialectic:

Capitalism emerged in China in a way that was interlinked with the legacy of feudalism. There was a strong class structure which built on both heritage and personal wealth (thesis).  Marxist ideology spread to China leading to the formation of the Communist Party in 1921. They promoted the ideal of a classless society and criticized capitalism as a corrupting force (antithesis). In 1949 Mao Zedong led a successful revolution, establishing China as a communist state taking charge of all property and businesses. However, in the late 20th Century the impracticality of strict communist rule led to some Chinese citizens creating black markets. This led to small pockets of prosperity. In 2003 the leaders of the Communist Party of China amended their constitution to permit a degree of private enterprise. The result was a hybrid form of communist style capitalism (Synthesis).

Tracking the Hegelian Dialect in the methodologies and manifestos of documentary practice

It could be argued that documentary filmmaking developed as an antithesis to fiction film. While Hollywood produced forms of escapism, documentaries addressed “reality”.

John Grierson coined the term documentary, defining it as the ‘creative treatment of actuality’. This definition helps us understand the agency of a director when crafting a documentary. Mark Cousins placed emphasis on the balance between creativity and actuality when he characterized documentary filmmakers as having to ‘co-direct with reality’.

The Dogme 95 manifesto is an example of how the tension between hollywood fiction (thesis) and the realism of documentary (antithesis) was resolved to form a synthesis. In 1995 Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg wrote and co-signed ‘vows of chastity’. Their goal was to purify fiction filmmaking by placing specific and strict limits on directors. Such chastity prompted circumstances that mirrored some of the limitations of documentary production and promoted a form of realism in fiction film. The Dogma group specifically rejected expensive and spectacular special effects, post-production modifications and other technological gimmickry. Instead they wanted emphasis to be placed on story and the performance of actors.

The Dogma 95 Vows of Chastity

  1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
  2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot).
  3. The camera must be hand-held. Only movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted.
  4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut, or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
  5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
  6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur).
  7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now).
  8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
  9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
  10. The director must not be credited.

Within documentary practice the pendulum swing from thesis to antithesis is visible. Bill Nichols, the eminent documentary theorist, identified distinct modes of documentary practice, each of which developed as a result of a particular time and context but also in response to previous modes. The majority of these modes developed without the explicit creation of manifestos, however each adear to distinct principles, rules or boundaries.

The table below is an overview of the modes of documentary practice according to Nichols:

The expository mode of documentary making (thesis) was developed in the 20s and remains to this day one of the more dominant modes. Optimised by what Nichols refers to as the ‘voice-of-God’ exposition, these films are structured around an informative and authoritative narrator who delivers a carefully written script over footage.

In the West a climate of liberation was fostered in the 1960s. In the context of social, political and sexual counterculture movements, figures of authority were being questioned. The two documentary modes which emerged in this decade, observational and participatory, represented a loss of faith in the authority of the narrator. In its place an emphasis fell on capturing footage that could speak for itself (antitheses). Another reason this shift happened at this time is because technology permitted it. All of a sudden cameras were portable, more affordable and were quiet enough to record synchronized sound.  

The observational mode, also known as fly-on-the-wall documentary, took influence from ethnography.  This is a qualitative research method used by anthropologists usually involving a process of embedding with a community for extended periods of time. Researchers aim to gain the trust of the community in order to get access and insight into how the community operates. An ethnographer may conduct their research in secret but generally this is not possible when creating a documentary. Ethnographic subjects range from small tribe communities, to psychiatric institutions and criminal gangs. The aspiration of observational documentarians is for the filmmaker to blend into the background and quietly film as the events unfold around them.

Asylum, directed by Peter Robinson (1972) was filmed over a period of 7 weeks while he was living at one of the controversial P.A. community houses in London. Psychiatrists, disillusioned with the medical establishment, lived with liberated patients, many of whom were schizophrenic. Each housemate had a say in the running of the community while sharing responsibility for their own wellbeing and that of their housemates.

In this clip we see a father of one resident visiting the house and struggling to let go of his preconception about what a young man’s priorities should be.

The Participatory Mode, also known as Cinéma Vérité (truth cinema), was characterised by the visible participation of the filmmakers in devised interview scenarios. Like the observational mode, narration was rejected. However, this mode occupied an antithetical position against observational documentary by negating the fly-on-the-wall metaphor. Several crew members and a camera can be quite disruptive and are more likely to capture spectacle rather than natural behaviour. Cinéma Vérité prompts filmmakers to be reflexive and expose the artificiality of a filmed scenario. Interviews were devised carefully before filming, often being planned in partnership with the subject of the interview. Cinéma Vérité nullifies the pretense of observed reality in film, instead capturing  authentic testimony.

Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) is an epic Cinéma Vérité documentary series in which survivors of the Holocaust are interviewed. Despite the fact Abraham Bomba had not worked as a barber for years he agreed to cut hair while describing his experience of shaving the heads of holocaust victims before they were gassed. This scenario powerfully links the subject and the audience to the topic being discussed. Bomba’s complicity in planning the interview permitted Lanzmann to press Bomba with difficult questions.

15 years after Shoah, Werner Herzog wrote his own antithetical manifesto, The Minnesota Declaration (1999) which explicitly debunked Cinéma Vérité.

This lyrical 12 point manifesto is at times hard to digest but I believe it’s essence emerges in points 1 and 5.

“1. By dint of declaration the so-called Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.”

Here Herzog is arguing that the sort of testimony produce in a Cinéma Vérité style interview is akin to that of a courtroom. No matter how accurate the description, the nature of these interviews are unlikely to evoke in the viewer the sensation of the crime that instigated such a trial.

“5. There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”

Herzog’s concept of ecstatic truth mirrors the notion that poets provided some of the most authentic documentation of the horrors of the First World War.

The synthesis of this particular Hegelian Dialectic is the emerging practice of animated documentary, my own discipline. For the past two years the Royal College of Art has hosted a symposium on animated documentary entitled Ecstatic Truth. Herzog’s liberal definition of how actuality can be imbued in documentary has helped animators to cover topics which live action footage could not reach, either literally or in terms of evocation.  

PART 2 – The Rule of Unintended Consequences

Returning to the example of communism, I would like to highlight how impossible it would have been for Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to predict how the Communist Manifesto would have been put into practice and the contemporary outcome.

After a violent revolution the Soviet Union gained some stability as a functioning communist state under Lenin. However Stalinism seemed far from a Marxist utopia. During the despotic leader’s reign a famine struck Ukraine killing 7 million citizens. Some historians argue this was a deliberate genocide designed by Stalin to crush ethnic uprisings.  After decades of decline, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 leaving a handful of technocrats to pillage the remains of infrastructure resulting in today’s Russian Federation which is controlled by a elite class of fantastically rich oligarchs.

 

The rule of unintended consequence is a common theme in economic theory. Economics isn’t necessarily the study of wealth. It can be the empirical study of behaviour in the world through data sets. Please follow this link and listen to The Cobra Effect, an episode of Freakonomics Radio: (Listen from 00:05:00)

In summary, the cobra effect is named after an instance when the Imperial British government, which was ruling India, created a bounty for cobra heads to incentivise a cull, Local people breed cobras for the bounty. When the government figured out their mistake they canceled the bounty and the farmers released the cobras into the wild. The net result by the time the policy was rescinded was an increase in the cobra population.

Manifestos function in similar ways to well meaning government policies. Whether written by a political party or a practicing artist, a published manifesto intends to shape behaviour in the future. It is impossible to predict how a well meaning manifesto policy may be interpreted or executed.

Adam Curtis’ documentary The Trap: The Lonely Robot, (2007) addresses the unintended consequences of the policies introduced by the New Labour government in Britain in 1997. This party rose to power on a manifesto that stated specific targets as measures of success.

Watch from 00:36:36 to 00:43:00

Curtis argues the rigid target systems introduced by New Labour were reductive and distorting, serving to distract the institutions of state from their general remit. The incentives were high enough to make cheating the system a rational response.

An unintended consequence of the critical acclaim that befell the early Dogma 95 films was the appropriation of the manifesto by cash strapped studios and advertising agencies. As the Danish group came into vogue, producers around the world took notice of how much success was achieved on such small budgets. By the early 2000s the Dogma label was used to describe all mannerr of small budget productions. This could be viewed as a measure of success for the manifesto, however the cynical appropriation of the Dogma ethos and distinctive aesthetic led to proliferation, dilution of its meaning and ultimate decline.

These examples demonstrate that misappropriation and misinterpretation can result in outcomes which may horrify the authors of a manifesto. However, I would argue the rule of unintended consequences can be re-framed to describe these deviations as creative. The farmers in India, managers in the British civil service and low budget film producers are simply innovating in response to circumstances that were defined by a set of rules. The unpredictability of how manifestos will be executed may explain why they have endured as a motif in art and cinema.

Andre Breton, the author of The Surrealist Manifesto, was aware of the potential of unexpected outcomes. The text willfully insights transgressive and impulsive behaviour. Breton is daring readers to do something irresponsible and unpredictable:

“The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd. Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well-defined place in that crowd with his belly at barrel-level.”

André Breton, (1924) Manifesto of Surrealism

Exquisite corpses is a surrealist drawing exercise designed to utilize the inconsistencies between interpretations. Two or more artists would fold a piece of paper, taking turns to draw on one section. The folded section would reveal nothing more than where to join the lines at the edge. This exercise stitches together a multitude of aesthetic approaches producing a single work that is both coherent and fractured.

Nude  (1927.)- Cadavre Exquis with Yves Tanguy, Joan Miró, Max Morise, Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky)

This method has been appropriated by the animation community many times. The most recent example I came across was a online promo for Rick and Morty. Each animator starts their segment using the last frame of the previous artist.

Rick and Morty Exquisite Corpse (2017) multiple directors

 

The musician and producer Brian Eno collaborated with the artist Peter Schmidt to develop a system that would prompt innovation by incorporating unpredictable elements into a creative exercise. Oblique Strategies consists of a deck of cards. Inscribed on each one is a phrase or cryptic remark. When a music he was producing felt stuck or inhibited he would randomly select a card and attempt to put into practice it’s suggestion. They functioned like micro manifestos, prompting the user to change their approach in a way that on their surface seems meaningless, but in practice was liberating in its unpredictability.

Examples of oblique strategies:

  • Remove ambiguities and convert to specifics
  • Take away the important parts
  • Faced with a choice, do both
  • Use an old idea
  • What is the reality of the situation?
  • Pay attention to distractions
  • Ask your body
  • Honour the error as a hidden intention
  • Work at a different speed

This tool functions  like a randomised manifesto, the blind selection of clauses plorifiates the variety of future outcomes and the vagueness of the content broadens its applicability and as well as potential for interpretation. The most famous application of Oblique Strategies was during the creation of David Bowie’s critically acclaimed albums known as the Berlin Trilogy (Low, Heroes, and Lodger), which Eno produced.

 

PART 3- Documenting a manifesto’s execution

Ethnographers, like the fly-on-the-wall documentarians, were confronted with the dilemma that their presence was most likely distorting the natural order of the communities they wanted to research. Reflexivity, the notion of contextualising observations with critical self-awareness, became an essential consideration when collecting reach. The greater their insight into how they were impacting a community, the better equipped they were to minimise that impact and and see beyond it.

Autoethnography emerged as an extension of the reflexive method of critique. It combined ethnographic research methods with autobiographical subject matter. The researcher attempts to collect and organise qualitative research about their own lived experience, in this way the researcher, and the circumstances they experience, are both primary subjects of the investigation. For instance, an autoethnographic investigation into alcoholism is likely to contain first hand records of struggling with addiction.

Keeping diaries and writing memoirs is nothing new. However by setting key research questions, formulating a method of collecting and processing qualitative data, and prompting self reflexive critical analysis autoethnography brings rigour to this common human instinct.

Susan Young is a PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art in London. She had a very successful animation career that was severely disrupted by a hand injury as well as difficulties in her personal life. The Betrayal is a product of auto-ethnographic research into a period of her life where she was abusively controlled by a doctor who was responsible for her becoming addicted to medication. The images in the film include leftover pills, as well as medical and court documentary specific to her case.

The Betrayal – trailer (2015) Susan Young

Autoethnography can be a useful tool to record first hand experience of enacting a manifesto. The following passage is a brief given to students at Concordia as a class exercise:

PART 4 WORKSHOP – One-week manifesto exercise (for field notebooks)

You have 30 minutes to form groups and co-write a manifesto that will influence how you live or work in the following week. For example:

– You could write a manifesto on how to best exploit social media (or to not use social media!)

– Your manifesto may push you to work outside of your comfort zone in a particular way

– You could prompt significant changes in you social life

Your manifesto should involve:

– A theme or focus of intent agreed upon by the group

– Context for this decision

– A praxis or statement of action how to be agents in said context

– A list of undersigned

Breakdown:

This is a group activity so after deciding a theme you must debate and agree on your manifesto points as a group. Consensus may be difficult, and negotiation is part of the process.

Consider your manifesto ideas in context. What ideological, cultural or personal concepts inform your choices? Do they occupy a thesis, antithesis or synthesis dialectic position? If it is hard to reach a consensus on your manifesto points don’t forget each individual is free to interpret the manifesto through their own practices.

After you have agreed on your manifesto’s position and praxis, nominate one member of your group to read them out to the class.

For the next 6 days you must try to put your manifesto into action.

While doing so, use an auto-ethnographic methodology to document the experience. This must involve keeping a record of your experience in you field notebook, but feel free supplement your written notes with experimental, expressive, or innovative ways of recording experiences but you must insure remain reflexive. Documenting how a manifesto affects you (or not!) is part of this workshop.

You will have an opportunity discuss and share parts of your autoethnographic research in class.

Ethnographic Documentary Making

Anthropology is defined to be an academic discipline, the study of human cultures and the material of those cultures. Ethnography, on the other hand, is considered a methodology for producing anthropological knowledge.

In the 19th century Europeans became more interested in the cultures of the people they’d colonized. This new field of study was problematic from the beginning as there was often a disparity between those who were in the field; missionaries, explorers, soldiers; and those who published papers from the safety of their universities.

Later, field research and academic writing merged. Bronisław Malinowski, a well known anthropological writer, traveled the world immersing himself in various indigenous societies. His papers permeated both academia and the popular culture of his day. However, the cool observational style of his published work greatly contrasted his private diaries, put into print several decades later.  They indicated the difficulty he had relating to the people he was studying and illustrated a critical outlook which some readers perceived as racist. Are either of these documents were more valid as sources? Put simply, the action of referencing and contextualizing both documents would be the appropriate contemporary method. The anthropologist’s subjectivity and the manner in which they project themselves onto their field of study became an increasingly important area of ethnographic research in the second half of the 20th Century.

Imperialism and the other ideologies that permitted colonialism have endured as problematic themes in anthropology. While such issues were partially addressed in many western societies during the 20th century. Post-colonialism and insidious forms of racism must be considered in contemporary ethnographic ethics.

As communication technology developed academic ethnography research and practice maintained a bias towards the written word. Footage was created as supplementary material but the writing was maintained as the focus. The films were created to document aesthetic activities like dance. An interesting consequence was that the resulting film archives over emphasize dance in indigenous cultures and fuel reductive cliches.

Workers Leaving the Factory (d. Auguste and Louis Lumière, 1895) was one of the first films ever created. The factory, in which this revolutionary technology was being developed also became the subject of the fledgling filmic gaze. The Lumière brothers set up a static shot of the building’s exit, a bottle neck where every employee passes at the end of the shift. The footage captured a procession of men and women flooding out. Some appeared to be performing for the camera, others quickly passed by with ambivalence.

On first appearance one is struck by how differently people dressed in the late 19th century. What was not immediately obvious, however, was that the Lumière brothers had given advanced warning to their factory staff informing them of the camera experiment. Consequently many of the employees followed the day’s convention to dress in their finest, as if they were posing for a photographic portrait. In what way does this effects one’s reading of the film and the ethnographic significance of the footage?  The context of how the people’s image was captured has proven to be just as much a part of the ethnographic data as the recording it’s self.

Nanook of the North (d. Robert Flaherty, 1922) is considered the first feature documentary. This film was enormously successful and is credited as the birth of the genre. Flaherty adapts the language of narrative cinema to tell the story of an Inuit patriarch, Nanook, and his community.

However, when subject to closer scrutiny this feature was clearly problematic. From first glance it is obvious that many of the scenes were staged. Some times Flaherty was simply using the language of Hollywood cinema to represent a linear narrative; shooting a sled being pushed over a hill, for instance, requires the camera to move, re-shoot from another angle and be edited together to make it appear seamless. Non-the-less his method would have been truly disruptive to an authentic sled journey.

There are also scenes which feel utterly contrived and are more easily red as a projection of how Flaherty, a white visitor, perceived the native people. Flaherty demonstrates a gramophone recording device to Nanook, who repeatedly misunderstands the mechanism and insists on biting the record plate several times. Moments like this seem directed, and may have been constructed to please the expectations of western audiences.

It was eventually revealed that Flaherty staged most of the scenes in the film. He encouraged the Inuits to abandon their rifles and modern cloths in favor of traditional garments. Moreover, the main character was not called Nanook, nor was he married to the woman we were told was his wife. There seemed to be some ambiguity around the circumstances in which Flaherty’s original documentary footage from an earlier expedition was destroyed. This second batch of footage, which makes up Nanook of the North, seems to be an attempt at recreating and augmenting what he had previously scene.

The Documentary Modes, established in Bill Nichols’ book, Introduction to Documentary (2001), are a vital framework through which we can dissect the genres. Flaherty uses the expository mode, normally associated with an authoritative voice-over telling use what to think and where to look. For instance, David Attenborough’s entire career. This God’s eye view is manifest in Nanook of the North via the inter titles. The technology to synchronize sound with film had not been developed.

bill_nichols_documentary_modes

These modes are a set of tools that have developed in the past century. Despite the shifts in emphasis over the decades, there is no right or wrong technique and it is counter productive of be puritanical about what documentary should be.

Margaret Mead’s film Trance and Dance in Bali (1952) was created as a supplement to her written work as an anthropologist. This film also adopts the expository mode; her authoritative voice precisely describes well researched interpretations of the dance rituals. There is great attention paid to how the camera is used; towards the end of the film, when a state of trance is achieved by the dancers, the live action photography shifts into slow-motion in an attempt to mirror the dancers psychic state.

Between 198 and 1989 the nomadic African tribe, the Wodaabe, was the subject of two ethnographic documentary productions. Disappearing Worlds (1970- 1993) was a series produced in the UK by Granada television International. For their episode on the Wodaabe the producers employed an anthropologist to work with the crew while interviewing and filming the tribe. The second production was an independent film directed by Werner Herzog.

Unfortunately there are no online clips of Disappearing World: The Wodaabe (d. Leslie Woodhead, 1988, s.1/1 e.36/49). In the observational mode, the film gradually introduces us to the customs of this tribe, allowing the people to speak for themselves. In line with the reflexive mode, the director included footage tribes-people reflecting white film crew’s presence and their impressions of the West. The film climaxes with a ritual dance, the meaning of which is explained as a community wide courtship display, culminating in the young women of the tribe selecting a young man as a sexual partner.

This cultural sensitivity and self-consciousness is hugely contrasted by Herzog’s film, Wodaabe: Herdsmen of the Sun (1989) which mostly utilized the poetic mode. The highly strange looking ritual dance is featured in the first moments of the documentary. It is not explained nor given any context. We are simply confronted with it’s oddity. I feel Herzog was exploring his own uncanny sensations rather than attempting to understand the dance or communicate it’s significance. These introspective in-sensitivities are further exasperated by Herzog juxtaposing the dance with European music.

In typical fashion, the German auteur (who’s films I am a great fan of), narrates his documentary with an implausible poetic exposition, placing his interpretation and feelings center stage.

The penultimate and most impressive film of the evening  was Alain Resnais and Rhris Marker’s essay documentary – Les Statues Maurent Aussie (Statues Also Die, 1953). This astonishing french language documentary lures the viewer in with conventional museum edutainment imagery and framing. Shot after shot of African mask are cut starkly into a static procession, all the while a frenetic french narrator delivers the director’s cutting thesis at break-neck-speed. Gradually the analysis deviated further away from polite, white, dinner party topics. We are eventually plunged into a troubling world of appropriation, exploitation and racism. It’s particularly bold that this film was made in an era when France still held sovereignty over some African colonies. Truly extraordinary; I only wish I could read subtitles as fast as the French at-ta-at-tack, machine gun delivery.

Irish Folk Furniture (2012), is a short pixilation film directed by Tony Donoghue. It is an example of contemporary documentary animation which was being taken seriously by anthropologists and by “grown-up” documentary festivals; proving once and for all that the documentary animation bubble is not such a cul-de-sac.

 

Credits:

Many of the ideas and opinions in this article were originally shared or developed in a seminar, hosted by Sylvie Bringas, at the Royal College of Art on the 6th October 2016. Bringas co-produced an ethnographic film, There is Nothing Wrong With My Uncle (2011), with director, Dul Johnson .