Exploring Objectivity in Docufiction Filmmaking through the Concept of Hybridity.

As a result of ever-advancing new medias and technologies (from the development of the portable camera and synchronised sound to contemporary self-publishing) and in the advent of postmodernity, reflexive awareness of documentary modes of production have become part of the discourse in factual representation. Documentary has been perceived as fundamentally objective; ‘truth-telling- benign in intention, beneficial in effect, and demonstrably real’ witha certain cachet and a claim to artistic purity’ (Lipkin et al., 2006: 12). Yet, as film production becomes more conspicuous it provokes questions of objectivity in the search for ‘truth’ on screen. Mock-documentary, then, is a symptom of this growing viewer consciousness of documentary form, and is able to explore and provide commentary for the issues raised regarding the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject with its use of reflexivity. Using the practical research of our short film, Firebox (Forder, Jennings, Stead, 2014), this essay will reveal how hybridity[1] is particularly interesting in this experimentation, as it deploys contrasting techniques to bring attention to the production process in order to experiment with how the audience’s interpretive process may change. In order to articulate how Firebox explores objectivity, this essay will establish that, with the amalgamation of Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight’s three ‘degrees of mock-documentary’, alongside observational techniques from the cinéma vérité tradition, and with the implementation of ethnoficition research and performance strategies, Firebox becomes a dense hybrid that distances the audience to a critical, and potentially more objective position.

 

Mock-documentary is an extremely complex form that provokes equally complex, layered readings from its viewers. Indeed, its reflexivity encourages questions of authorship as well as readership; in its subversion of the Classic Objective Argument, the form is able to expose the crisis of representation, while familiarising audiences with the discourses surrounding the ethics of ‘truthful’ documentary representation. This ‘knowing’ audience is essential for critiques to be absorbed, with their ability to distinguish between fact and fiction allowing them to engage with the critical reflexivity and ‘inherent playfulness’ of the form (Lipkin et al., 2006: 17) that challenges common-sense notions of representation, and experiments with ideas of perception and interpretation.

Although these texts are fictional, which in itself is a deliberate manoeuvre away from reality, Michelle Citron argues that fiction actually ‘allows for more authenticity by giving voice to that which we both consciously and unconsciously know. Yet at the same time, it works by deception, which ironically, by opening up a space of safety, may ultimately lead to honesty and truth’ (Citron, 1999: 282). Thus, the fictional nature of mock-documentary allows for the satirising of the proliferation of ‘reality’ production, which Lipkin, Paget and Roscoe observe is increasingly welcomed by audiences in the advent of ‘Reality TV’ (Lipkin et al., 2006: 24). The more sophisticated fusing of fiction and non-fiction forms, therefore, allows experimentation with this search for ‘honesty and truth’, as will be subsequently discussed in relation to Firebox and the non-fiction research process involved.

 

The aim of our short film, Firebox, was to critique the distorted and unethical nature of media representation. Therefore, using a hybrid of aesthetic techniques we intend to draw attention to the superficiality of this kind representation by contrasting what the fictional filmmakers want the audience to see with behind-the-scenes view of the production process and the conflicting motives at play. We used obvious reflexivity, with one of the crew members, Lily, being complicit in the action, in order to break the illusion of the popular culture representation, as well as to parody the form with moments of naturalistic awkwardness and dramatic irony that contrast with the slick images of the stereotypical tabloid-style video opening. To add authenticity that adheres to the documentary aesthetic in addition to increasing realism we used non-actors and on-location shooting, meaning a lot of the footage is observational filming of training sessions that we have edited into the narrative, in addition to improvised scenes that we devised in collaboration with the boxers themselves. Ultimately, by combining varied techniques in our creative approach we hoped to produce a less cohesive film that calls into question audience identification with the documentary form and its perceived objectivity.

 

Roscoe and Hight propose three degrees of mock-documentaries: parody, critique and deconstruction (Roscoe and Hight, 1988). Firebox amalgamates elements of each degree in order to create a compound that most effectively draws attention to the issue of objectivity. The paradoxical complexity of this compound distances the audience, with similar intention to that of Bertolt Brecht’s alienation technique, verfremdungseffekt (Brecht, 1964). Indeed, it is through the fragmenting hybridity of aesthetics that alienates the audience from the narrative in order for them to establish an objective, critical perspective. As in Epic Theatre, some mock-documentaries, including Firebox, juxtapose action, dialogue and commentary to force the audience to make moral judgments (in this case about authorial objectivity). This strategy adheres to post-structuralist claims that textual meaning is generated through interaction with an audience. As Edward Said claims: ‘the reader is a full participant in the production of meaning, being obliged as a moral thing to act, to produce some sense’ (Said, 1983: 41). Therefore, the hyperconsciousness of some mock-documentary demands that the viewer reflect on the author’s and their own subjectivity in the interpretive process, especially in this less cohesive hybrid form which seeks to break empathetic bias to certain characters.

Firstly, Firebox’s satirical presentation of tabloid-style non-fiction programming borrows techniques from parody mock-documentaries. While parody mock-documentaries bear less explicit critique of the form itself, they utilize documentary aesthetics to emphasise comedic elements, often using the sober form to contrast with an absurd subject. For example, The Office (2001-2003) is a perfect example of documentary parody, using numerous signifying documentary conventions such as shaky camera footage, quick zooms, soft-focus shots, obstructed views and eye contact with the camera, all giving the impression of spontaneous ‘on-location’ action . It is structured as a typical television documentary with the use of ‘talking-head’ interviews, which audiences are taught to read as a non-fiction convention. Similarly, Firebox includes the use of talking-head interviews against symbolically establishing backgrounds (for instance boxing competition photographs to show the successes of the boxer), as well as coded ‘imperfections’ of focus, microphone distortion and sight of the film crew in certain shots to create a sense of authenticity and realism. By playing with the audience’s screen literacy, The Office and Firebox both challenge audience expectation of reality. Indeed, ‘the audience must be a ‘knowing’ audiences that recognises the object of the parody to be able to access critiques on offer’ (Lipkin et al., 2006: 24). To this extent, these films rely on the audience’s ability to recognise documentary aesthetic conventions in order to comprehend, in these cases, the humour that derives from the contrast between the (perceived) rationality of the form and the absurdity of the subject, which ultimately arouses questions of form and content of ‘realistic’ documentary portrayal.

 

While the parody in mock-documentaries such as The Office does not necessarily make explicit criticisms of the form (instead using the conventions for comedic purposes), Firebox also uses its parodic humour to critique media practices themselves. ‘Critique’ mock-documentaries, according to Roscoe and Hight, are those that address an ‘underlying documentary agenda’ (Roscoe and Hight, 1988: 236), and which problematise the appropriation of documentary codes and conventions in media representation (Roscoe and Hight, 1988: 235). This acknowledgment of implicit subjectivity in documentary production means that critique mock-documentaries ‘engage more critically in the form’s inherent reflexivity towards factual discourse’ (Lipkin et al., 2006: 16-17). In Firebox this is achieved through the tensions presented between the subjects (members of the boxing gym) and the filmmakers (represented in the diegesis by one of our team), who strive to ascertain scandal and add incongruous subtext to the images. For example, Lily’s voice-over illustrates a deliberately melodramatic and falsified narrative that seeks to add drama to the fairly sober action. These contradictions between the producers and the subjects dramatises the inherent conflicting intentions or subjectivities and undermine ‘the pretence that a documentary filmmaker necessarily adopts a neutral and non-interventionist stance towards his/her subject’ (Roscoe and Hight, 1988: 236). This is exemplified when Lily attempts to construct ostensibly ‘natural’ scenes in the gym.

Peter Watkins’s Culloden (1964) similarly critiques the inherent bias of representation. By presenting documentary-style interviews at the time of the Battle of Culloden in 1746, Watkins aims to reveal the constructedness of typical historical melodramas to emphasise the subjectivity of historical documentation. Watkins negotiates the ‘alienation coefficient’ (Lajtha, 1981: 9); similarly, Firebox does not adhere exclusively to Brechtian alienation techniques to achieve critical commentary, instead, like Culloden, allowing emotional identification with the characters, since a complete lack of empathy ‘can distance us to the point where we dismiss or lose sight of the essential issues’ (Lajtha, 1981: 10). In both cases this was achieved through improvisation that generated emotional involvement through the performers’ real connections to the action (some of the performers are descendants of real soldiers from the Battle of Culloden). Yet, the intention was not realism. Instead the emphasis on authorial bias is brought to the fore in Culloden through the presentation of the journalistic Classic Objective Argument, in which various members of each side are interviewed by a BBC-style news reporter. This generic form relies on expositional, interactive and observational modes of representation (Nichols, 1991), all of which require some degree of subjective interpretation. Therefore, the adoption of this documentary style is able to critique the effort to produce a balanced view, which we acknowledge would not have been provided during the time of the Battle of Culloden or noted in the records of the event. Certainly, the idea of a ‘balanced’ view implies a ‘fair’ judgment that derives from a given perspective of society, which is inevitably the perpetuated hegemony of the dominant class that control the media. Therefore, as R. Ericson, P. M. Baranek and J. B. Chan observe, these adopted political stances predicate the allegedly ‘apolitical’ nature of journalistic practice (Ericson et al., 1987, 1991). Critical mock-documentaries such as Culloden are then able, through their exposition of previously unexplored investigative method, to display the artificiality of representation and the discriminatory nature of perspective and interpretation in documentation.

Furthermore, during the battle scene in Culloden, a hand-held, shaky camera is used, which adds a sense of authenticity, while the editing and narration signal that it is a reconstruction (Lajtha, 1981: 11). With similar effect to Firebox’s mixture of non-interventionist, observational filming and edited sequences, the combination of aesthetics reinforces this negotiation between emotional involvement and critical distance that leads the audiences to question ‘balanced’ representations.

 

‘Deconstruction’ mock-documentaries scrutinize documentary form, essentially making the form the subject of the film. In so doing, such films challenge documentary’s relationship to ‘truth’, thus critiquing the perception that audio-visual representations have ‘a direct, unmediated relationship with reality,…based upon a specific ethical relationship between the filmmaker and subject, and that the filmmaker is capable of adopting an objective, balanced, non-interventionist stance toward his/her subject’ (Roscoe and Hight, 1988: 237-9). This is largely achieved through the use of conspicuous reflexivity, which is presented in Firebox through the visibility of our crew member, Lily, and her motives that attempt to orchestrate on-screen drama, which ultimately cause the downfall of the protagonist. A canonical example of deconstruction mock-documentary is Man Bites Dog (1992), which presents the story of a documentary film crew filming a serial killer and eventually becoming implicated in the on-screen action. The crew are made visible throughout the action, including, for example, the flashlight getting in the way of the murder of the child. This text undermines the very foundations of the documentary form as it challenges the ethics and limitations of documentary filmmakers and deconstructs ‘the value system constructed by audience expectations of such texts’ (Roscoe and Hight, 1988: 239). As with Firebox, the fictional film crew, played by the actual film crew, use their real names, which further blurs the boundary between fact and fiction. This breaking down of barriers makes the audience feel more complicit in the action, which forces them, like with Brecht’s breaking of the fourth wall, to question how they are responding to action. Indeed, the comedic portrayal of tragic events seeks to create what Lipkin, Paget and Roscoe describe as ‘ethical unease’ that will lead to critique (Lipkin et al., 2006: 16-17). For example, the fairly sympathetic and humorous serial killer makes the audience question their identification with him as he commits his murders. Similarly, in Firebox the humorously hyperbolic voice-overs evoke comedy at the protagonist’s expense, though when shown alongside the juxtaposing quiet images of him looking lonely and awkward the audience become unsure of how to react. Additionally, Lily’s ambiguous character, at times polite and innocent, at others melodramatically wicked, makes the audience unsure of how to perceive her and the film crew. This confusion is advantageous to the ethical messages of both films as the uncomfortable relationships to the texts force the now critical viewers to question their own relationship to media representations, making them participants in the commentary of their own statuses as consumers of popular culture. This critique deconstructs the ‘mainstream behaviour’ of ‘seeing as believing’ in the face of mass media which blurs the boundary between journalism and entertainment, and thus begins to proliferate questions of accepted documentary objectivity.

While Man Bites Dog subverts the non-interventionist cinéma vérité style, another deconstruction mock-documentary, David Holzman’s Diary (1967), uses that very style in its own dissemination of the form. Based on the claim from Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (1963) that ‘film is truth 24 times a second’, David Holzman’s Diary (1967) comments on the assertion that documentary is able to access and depict ‘truth’ by exploring the relationship between film and reality, as the protagonist films himself in his daily environment in the search for his own truth. Through its exploration of voyeurism (perhaps a pre-emptive comment on representation in reality TV), McBride’s film seems to question ‘the customary notions of representation, of how we see and know the ‘reality’ of the world around us and how we communicate those perceptions’ (Sklar, 1987: 52). Indeed, the character’s frustration with the lack of ‘truthful’ insight from the camera creates a parody of cinéma vérité by drawing attention to the formulaic artifice of any documentary.

Firebox combines both cinéma vérité observation and reflexivity, used respectively in these two examples, to create less self-conscious realism and more alienation for a critical reading. Indeed, Terry Lajtha notes how Brecht ‘can use Epic and Dramatic theatre devices in the same production. Everything evolves around his desire to eliminate empathy’ (Lajtha, 1981: 14). Similarly, Firebox uses the logic of contrasting aesthetic styles to provide critical distance, though, like David Holzman’s Diary, retains allowance for some identification through the realism of non-interventionist techniques, most notably through the observational scenes of the boxer naturalistically interacting with his peers. In his uninterrupted state the boxer is visibly gentle and kind, despite the label of ‘aggressive and dangerous’ given by the voice-over. This immediately challenges the credibility of the film crew’s depiction.

 

What adds a new dimension to the commentary we present through Firebox is the hybridisation of mock-documentary conventions with ethnofiction research and performance techniques, along with observational filming strategies borrowed from the cinéma vérité tradition. While ethnofiction is used as an anthropological research method, such a method can be exploited to add authentic realism to a film. By using real people, improvising scenarios that directly correlate to their lived experience, ethnofictions are able to depict indefinable reality. In relation to Jean Rouch’s ethnofictions, Peter Loizos describes ‘the use of improvisation and fantasy as projective methods in the exploration of people’s lives’ (Loizos, 1993: 46) that serve ‘to convey something fundamental about real lives’ (Loizos, 1993: 50). These ‘projections’, presenting unconscious, implicit feelings through the explicit act of performance, dramatise fundamental truths that could not be discovered in any other way. Indeed, our research process for Firebox involved extensive interviews with our actors, in which we put forward relevant questions and hypothetical scenarios. We then instructed the actors to internalise the thoughts and feelings that these discussions provoked, and subsequently improvise scenes that we outlined with a stimulus or turning point. From this process we developed the broad themes of aggression in sports and boxer-coach relationships; themes which the actors were able to speak about more freely through improvisation, and more knowingly than any scriptwriter could articulate.

Peter Watkins uses similar research techniques in Punishment Park (1971), a mock-documentary about counterculture figures being put through brutal trial for their crimes against the USA. Many of the amateur cast related their performances directly to their own lives, expressing their true political views in their improvisations. Even the perpetrating police officers and the prosecuting panel held, to some degree, the opinions they argued in the narrative. Indeed, complete control of dialogue was given to the actors after a rough outline of narrative sequence was given by the director, meaning ‘no two takes were the same’ (Gomez, 1979: 10). Dr. Joseph Gomez notes how the camera woman, Joan Churchill, would simply weave in and out of on-going action and circle the actors in a spontaneous manner (Gomez, 1979: 10). We used a similar technique during Firebox shooting, both in improvised and observational scenes. The fictional set-up of both films is able to construct a framework environment that, as Johannes Sjöberg observes, ‘triggers the associations of the protagonist and allows for a creative flow through the improvised acting’ (Sjöberg, 2009: 3). Such improvisation, with its roots so connected to reality, is able to provide a deeper level of realism. For example, our actors were able to bring into discussion their relationship as boxer and coach, making the implicit respect more explicit through the dramatic play, while the cast of Punishment Park were given fictional platforms on which to debate their true beliefs.

The resulting realism in Punishment Park adds credibility in conjunction with the documentary conventions, and emotional investment in the subject matter. However, in Firebox, the realism of some of the performances works less in conjunction with an more in deliberate opposition to the stylised editing and the melodramatic performance and voice-over of Lily, the crew member. This is most obvious during the musical montages, and the final scene in which a series of naturalistic shots are un-naturalistically edited together in quick succession to artificially add tension. The contrasting styles draw attention to the distorted representation being constructed by the fictional filmmakers, while also making the film less fluent and harder to watch, thus reinforcing the Brechtian-style critical distance. This jarring incongruence is reinforced by observational cinema techniques. For instance, in the direct cinema style of figures such as Frederick Wiseman, among others, we spent a significant amount of time simply filming our subjects in their natural environments (the boxing gym) without necessarily recording. This meant the presence of the camera became increasingly normalised, and we were able to capture something closer to reality and further from conscious performance. The non-interventionist, non-fiction sequences are layered with Lily’s voice-over, which makes blatant attempt to impose fabricated meaning onto the images in the plight to deliver a scandalous news story. Consequently, the seemingly unmediated representation set beside obviously stylised and edited material challenges any previously discernable objectivity; the viewers are lead to question whether they can trust any of the varied representations delivered.

 

In conclusion, given that mock-documentaries provoke questions regarding ‘the permissibility, usefulness, and even danger of mixing the functions of documentary and drama’ (Lipkin et al., 2006: 14), we chose to mix numerous documentary and drama aesthetics and genres in order to provoke further questions about the form, as well as broader queries regarding the crisis of representation. The contrasting styles of both fact and fiction draw stark attention to the artifice of representation, which through any filmic portrayal are inherently subjective despite any roots in reality. To this extent, such a hybrid mock-documentary achieves a more hostile critique than a straight-forward Christopher Guest-style film, which exploits the form more to add to the comic or satirical value of the subject, and aims to entertain rather than challenge per se. We have taken the hyperconscious, deconstructive, critical mock-documentary form further by creating a more complex hybrid form that simultaneously features aspects of reality and stylised construction to confuse and confront, eliciting interrogation of authorship, motives and interpreted textuality. Had we made our film longer, we may have had the opportunity to experiment with additional aesthetics, such as disorientating jump cuts or incoherent layering of sound and image. Using these non-linear tropes reminiscent of French New Wave Cinema- which is itself a postmodern hybrid of Italian Neorealism and ‘Golden Age’ Hollywood[2]– and implementing them into this mock-documentary composite would yield greater audience disorientation and ultimately a more analytical position, which would produce further scepticism over the concept of objectivity.

 

Bibliography:

Brecht, B. and Willett, J. (1964). Brecht on theatre. New York: Hill and Wang.

Citron, Michelle. (1999). ‘Fleeing from Documentary: Autobiographical Film/Video and the ‘Ethics of Responsibility’ in Waldman, D. and Walker, J. (eds). Feminism and Documentary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ericson, R. (n.d.). Visualising deviance, negotiating control and representing order. Open University Press.

Gomez, J. (1979). Peter Watkins. Boston: Twayne Publishers.

Lajtha, T. (1981). Brechtian Devices in Non-Brechtian Cinema: Culloden. Literature/Film Quarterly, 1(1), pp.9-14.

Lipkin, S. N., Paget, D. and Roscoe, J. (2006). Docudramas and Mock-documentary: Defining Terms, Proposing Canons in Rhodes, G. and Springer, J. (eds). Docufictions. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.

Loizos, P. (1993). Innovation in Ethnographic Film. Manchester, Manchester University Press.

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

Roscoe, J. and Hight, C. (1988). Building a Mock-Documentary Schema in Rosenthal, A. (eds). New challenges for documentary. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Roscoe, J. and Hight, C. (2001). Faking it. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Said, Edward. (1983). The World, the Text and the Critic. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Sjöberg, Johannes. (2009). Ethnofiction and Beyond: The Legacy of Projected Improvisation in Ethnographic Filmmaking. Available at: http://antoine.chech.free.fr/textes-colloque-JR/Sjoberg.pdf [accessed 20.05.4]

Sklar, R. (1987). When Looks Could Kill: American Cinema of the Sixties. Cineaste, 16.1(2), pp.50-53.

Filmography:

  1. Culloden. (1964). [DVD] UK: Peter Watkins.

David Holzman’s Diary. (1967). [DVD] USA: Jim McBride.

  1. Firebox. (2014). [DVD] UK: Eleanor Forder, Jemima Jennings, Lily Stead.

Man Bites Dog. (1992). [DVD] Belgium: Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel.

The Office, (2001-2003). [DVD] UK: Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant.

Punishment Park. (1971). [DVD] USA: Peter Watkins.

 

[1] Although a highly contestable term, this essay will use the working definition of ‘hybrid’ as the combining of disparate elements; in this case, the fusion of differing dramatic styles that work with opposing artistic theories. For further reading see: Homi Bhabha. (2001). The Norton anthology of theory and criticism. Leitch, V. (ed.). New York: Norton.

[2] See: Greene, N. (2007). The French new wave. London: Wallflower.

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