How Films Win Friends and Influence People

And the modes of representation that affect the filming process.

6 modes of representation: poetic, reflexive, observational, participatory, expository and performative
Image via Author (Nichols, 2001)

Take a look at observational films, as an example

The observational mode stressed the capturing of events as they happen; events that would happen regardless of the presence of a camera. Though we are able to “look in on life as it is lived”, this mode throws light on ethical issues of filming, such as:

  • Indirect intrusion into their lives, and
  • Choosing subjects because of their “cinematic appeal” i.e. because they’re unique, fascinating, or your audience will find them unusual.
Source: One Hundred Years of Cinema (1935: Triumph of the Will — The Power of Propaganda)

Expository mode

This mode directly addresses viewers, and receives most of its structure from what a guiding, apparently-impartial voice (or the “voice of God” commentary) says. This voice represents the viewpoint of the filmmaker, while images serve to advance and lend credibility to the overall argument; National Geographic and other documentaries do this very well.

Performative mode

Performative documentaries, on the other hand, draw the audience into an emotional engagement with a particular experience or community, such as Paris is Burning (1990), which beautifully, agonisingly depicted the drag queen and LGBTQ+ community of New York. It took subjective forms of representation and unconventional narrative structures to create emotional experiences. These films sometimes take on an autobiographical note.

Reflexive mode

These show us what films really are: a construct or representation, and make the audience aware of expectations and assumptions they might hold of a film, as well as issues in representation. From a political perspective, reflexive films make audiences aware of stereotypes they might hold of the world around them, like feminist documentaries in the 1970s that called assumptions surrounding women into question.

Participatory mode

Also called cinéma vérité (film truth) by filmmaker Jean Rouch, is where the filmmaker becomes a part of what happens in front of the camera, and how their presence there affects the situation. Interviews are a staple in this mode, and take place solely because of the existence of the camera.

Is there one truth? Is truth relative? Is what we see on film what actually happened, without anyone’s bias or intervention?

For example, Rouch’s film Chronicle of a Summer (1961) involves scenes that are a result of collaborations between filmmakers and subjects — scenes that wouldn’t have happened if not for the camera.

While participatory film allows one to be as close to the subjects as possible, the filmmaker’s presence makes the film a representation of reality, rather a reproduction of it.

But are all films a “lie”, then?

Actually, Danish anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup disagreed with this idea of films being representational. She stated that in the post-positivist era “participation … is fieldwork itself which generates the events that are then portrayed as facts.” (Hastrup, 1993). The line between what is truth, what is fact, and what is a representation of the filmmaker’s perspective, is completely blurred.

The real film truth

A debate between pioneering anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead helps explain how relative “truth” is. In the filming process, Mead says that you should get “what happens”, as it happens; Bateson counters that you should film “what’s relevant” to your study, that society, etc.

  1. Nichols, Bill. ‘What types of Documentary are there?’ In Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001, pp. 99–137
  2. El Guindi, Fadwa. ‘For God’s Sake Margaret’ In Visual Anthropology: Essential Method and Theory, Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2004, pp. 61–82
  3. Spiegel, Pauline. ‘The Case of the Well-Mannered Guest’ in The Independence Film and Video Monthly, April 1984, pp. 15–17

A Generation Z kid studying sociology and searching for the Fortress of Solitude.

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