There are different styles and approaches on how to make a documentary. This section aims to address questions that are often reaised a round supposed objectivity or subjectivity of the medium and it’s limitations for knowledge discovery and knowledge sharing, and proposes to provide some different perspective to examine the problem from.
What follows is the bare minimum (I think) you need to know about documentary films history and theory, if you work with audio/visual medium. I draw and expand on an essay I wrote during my MA in doc films a while back.
I might be over simplifying here, but I think there are three main concepts that are worth knowing about when it comes to documentary films history and theory, especially if you are working in documentary or factual production, or even in some other form of story telling for that matter.
One is the American concept of Direct Cinema (equivalent to free cinema in the UK), Second one is the French idea of Cinema Verite, and last but not least Verner Herzog’s concept of Aesthetic truth.
But rather then dive straight into the key historic moments, it might be worth whatching Capturing reality from NFBC beforehand to get a bit of context, here’s the trailer, that lays out some of the key issues a round documentary films, with interview with established documentary film-makers.
Magic lanterns where used as projectors to entrataine audiences.
See how in this BBC documentary it is compared to a precoursour of early days cinema.
It’s interesting to see how this tradition is still very much alive in what are now called “digital stories” or “Multimedia slide shows” such as those made by MediaStorm, see One Man Brand or Remember These Days as examples. They still use a bit of video footage, but the audio interview in the narration and the stills are mostly what drives the narrative, as opposed to on screen actuality.
Another example that resonate with this tradition I think is An inconvenient truth, trailer. Where at the core a lecture by Al Gore is mixed with a voiceover to ad a personal journey element to it.
Going back to our fast track history of docs, In Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, he draws on the travelogue tradition. However the narrative was highly crafted during production, staging scenes and sequences, but without voice over narration, perhaps mostly due to limitations of the medium, and presented to the audience as filmed in an observational unobtrusive way. And some could argue that this created a precedent for most of the misconceptions about the camera’s supposed objectivity.
There’s much more to be said about Dziga Vertov and Kino-Pravda (“Cinema Truth”) but for now, just watch it and see how it substains your attention and creates a narrative, without a voice over or dialogue…
In Direct cinema, the feeling of being there captures the audience. There’s is no narration, presenter or the film-maker intervening on screen.
I guess is what most people think of when they think of “fly on the wall”, “pure Obs doc”.
However for it to work, they usually chose crisis situations where not only the contributors are so engrossed into what they are doing that they forget about the camera, but also some sort of story arc is guaranted by the upcoming events that will be unfolding in life regardless of the filming.
Jean Rouch uses the camera as a catalyst, incorporating interviews and improvisation as tools. To gain insight into hidden thought - the consciousness of the subject – interventions were employed to guide the participants both inside their inner world, but also stimulating their curiosity for one another.
These are the main motivations that led Rouch and Morin to be on-camera participants while directing the film.
Here’s an extract from “Chronicle of a summer”, and an interviewwith Jean Rouch. Showing the opening scene where they discuss the implications of film-making with the main contributor Marcelline.
“But I wonder if it is possible to film a conversation naturally with a camera present” - Jean Rouch, Chronicle of a summer.
In the 1961 film “Chronique d’une ete”(“Chronicle of a summer”), started off with a camera that weighted 30 to 50 kilos. This restricted them to shooting from a fixed camera. And halfway through filming, Michel Brault brought the first lapel mic, and 10 mm camera to Jean Rouch.
The best example of the freedom of movement allowed by this type of technology is the scene where Marceline iswalking through the Place de la Concorde. She has a recorder and microphone under her coat, and although Rouch and Moran are not aware of what she is saying, they can decide to move the camera,further away, to increase the dramatic effect of the framing. Rouch’s car was used as a dolly.
However this focus on the inner word of the subjects in cinema verite has been criticized as self- reflexive, in danger of implying that the only possible film was “was the one about how that film was made.” (Winston 2008, p.197)
As she so eloquently puts it in this interview, Jean Rouch’s underlying assumption about Truth is that people reveal their “real” self when performing in rituals, in this case the filming ritual done in the cinema verite way, as opposed to when they go about their daily life unaware of being filmed.
Very interesting point he makes, and you can see how it then raises ethical questions, and gives ethical editorial responsibility to the film-maker. We’ll get back to this point, but for now let’s consider Michael Moore’s approach.
We like non-fiction and we live in fictitious times. - Michael Moore
To take this issue a step further I’d strongly recommend to watch “Manufacturing dissent” (watch), see trailer below, where film-maker Debbie Melnyk criticise Michael More for “bending” the facts in some of his docs.
In today’s documentaries most productions will use a mixture of direct cinema and cinema verite, leaning more towards one or the other, and most often aiming to do interviews, mixed with actuality. Most amazing combination of this I’ve seen on Tv recently is the BBC3 Life and death row series. What I like about it is it does not recur to narration led voice over. It strikes the right balance between interviews and actuality, using those to drive the narrative.
I think it then becomes very useful to understand Werner Herzog idea of aesthetic truth and how for him boundaries between documentaries and fiction are therefore very blurred.
But Before we do so let’s consider this interview I made for the BBC academy college of production with John Douglas one of the directors of one of the episode of the Life and Death Row Series I already mentioned.
The key take away here is the emphasis on the relationship with the contributors and representing your understanding of their truth without making it about you.
Back to Herzog, his concept of aesthetic truth. Which is something behiond the actuality and the factual description of the event, it is its manipulation to represent a higher truth of the moment to shade light on elements that would other wise be missed (Herzog Cronin 2002, p.238)
in his words:
So for me, the boundary between fiction and ‘documentary’ simply does not exist; they are all just films. Both take ‘facts’, characters, stories and play with them in the same kind of way. I actually consider Fitzcarraldo my best ‘documentary’. So I fight against cinema verite because it reaches only the most banal level of understanding of everything around us. I know that by making a clear distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘truth’ in my films, I am able to penetrate into a deeper stratum of truth most films do not even notice. The deep inner truth inherent in cinema can be discovered only by not being bureaucratically, politically and mathematically correct. In other words, I start to invent and play with the ‘facts’ as we know them. Through invention, through imagination, through fabrication, I become more truthful than the little bureau- crats. This is an idea that will become clearer when we discuss some of the later films like Bells from the Deep and Lessons of Darkness. - Herzog Cronin 2002, p.240
We were very careful about editing and stylizing Dieter’s reality. He had to become an actor playing himself. Everything in the film is authentic Dieter, but to intensify him it is all re-orchestrated, scripted and rehearsed. - (Herzog Cronin 2002, p.265)
Personally I don’t find the re-orchestrating and scripting of events very interesting in itself, but the Idea of representing a moment that is artificially reconstructed, to fabricate and reproduce emotions and feelings that belong to that moment, it is nonetheless quiet compelling.
Alan Yentob asking Herzog about the decision of subsequently making a feature film out Dieter’s story, which was then called Rescue Dawn, raises the question about choosing documentary over fiction, which I find Is an interesting point for debate.
Facts and reality some time are quiet often note enough. You need a Enhancement an intensification of it. Some sort of, an essential version of things to make things transparent - Herzog
For instance you take a film like 127 hours, it could have been a docudrama, in the style of [touching the void](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Touching_the_Void_(film), but Danny Boyle would argue that an actor performing is bests at re-creating the truth and getting the audience into the cinematic story. Vs making a docu-drama.
I don’t think there’s a clear cut answer to this question, and it mostly would depend on the story, and the film-maer skills and sensibility. But none the less I agree with the point raised in Imagine that “Rescue Dawn” ended up being more of a documentary because of how literally was reconstructing very detail without leaving room for imagination and interpretation while, “Little Dieter’s needs to fly” was more of a work of fiction (in a good way) because of the performance and re-enactment, which I find interesting food for thought, especially if you think about Jean Rouch idea of performance in rituals being the time where people are their “real” selves, which we mentioned earlier.
On the flip side, this also means that sometimes you’d avoid including material that could have great “dramatic impact”, because it is not the right thing to do both for ethics considerations and for the story.See Werner Herzog explaining it in his words in regards to the decision not to include the recording of the final moments of Timothy Treadwell, and his partner being eaten by a bear in “Grizly Man”.
It [the audio recording] was so terrifying and horrifying that it was immediatly clear it was not going ot be in the moview […] and ofcourse there is a responsability that as a film-maker you have. because you’d violate the right and the dignity and death o these two individuals, you just don’t do it.
However it is an important pivotal moment in the story, and Herzog, cleaverly finds another way to include it, indirectly through an interview with the doctor who performed the autopsy and had listened to the tape, and who can describes it. As well as through filming himself listening to it, while talking to one of the key contributors.
I chose these last example because they are films were, taking for granted that the camera is not objective, the question is then shifted on what are the best way to use all the multi-sensory element of the film-making medium to reconstruct the truth of the moment of the story you are trying to tell.
Lastly I think that “Into the Abyss” by Herzog I’d say it’s in a more cinema verite style contrasted with the BBC “life and death row series” which I persoanlly think hits more of a sweet spot between the two styles (direct cinema/cinema verite)
It’s all about story
None the less, it’s all about story, not as hard and fast rules, but as principles, which you’d need to know about to be able to break.
And the reason why I say this is that this last point overshadows to a certain extent the previous schools of thoughts, in the sense that once you’ve figured out what the possible story is, then you can work out the best way to tell it.
Sure it’s a given that story telling and story crafting might come easier to some, but none the less it’s a craft, and as such it can be learned.
And whit this thought in mind I’ll leave you with a clip from Adaptation where Robert Mckee answers to the question:
“What if the writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens?[…] more of a reflection of the real world?”
Gosh, the German election system. I still remember learning about it in school. Or rather: I don’t. I was really not interested in politics back then. Of course, I blame my teacher. So every four years I stare at this sheet of paper in the voting booth, trying really hard to remember what it means when I put my cross next to a party’s name.
So what does it mean? What are Germans like me voting for exactly when they’re voting on Sunday? This blog post and an essay spreadsheet I recently created exist solely for the purpose of finding that out. Let’s start (also, you might want to read that blog post on your desktop computer. Sorry.):
We can’t vote for our chancellor directly. Instead, we are deciding on the approx. 680 people who will move into parliament, and who then will vote for the chancellor and tons of other stuff in the next four years. To decide who these people are, I’ll make two votes on Sunday: The First Vote and the Second Vote.
The First Vote is for a person, who is often affiliated with a party and wants to represent my election district in parliament. Germany is currently divided into 299 election districts, which all have roughly the same number of citizens: 280,000 people:
These election districts only become important when they are elections. Most people have no clue about the size of their election districts. And because they only take inhabitants into account, this size can be hugely different. Hamburg with its 1.8 million inhabitants is divided in six election districts. Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, another state in the north, has also six election districts. Although the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is thirty times as big as Hamburg when it comes to size, they both have roughly the same number of inhabitants – and therefore the same number of election districts.
The First Vote in the 299 election districts works after a “The Winner takes it all”-system: Only the candidate who gets the most votes in their district will move into the parliament. That means that the parliament is already half full just with the 299 winners from the election districts.
For instance, in the election district “Hamburg Nord”, a candidate for the Christian Democratic party (CDU) won 39.7% of the votes at the last general election in 2013. The 2nd place went to a candidate from the centre-left social-democratic party SPD, with 34.8% of the votes. The CDU guy won and got a seat in parliament for sure. The SPD guy went home and cried (or maybe he didn’t. I don’t have any information on that, really.)
That’s how it looked like in 2013 in all election districts. The election districts are coloured according to the party of the person who won this district.
It’s pretty black. Black is the color of the CDU, the party of Angela Merkel. When you look at this map, you’re probably close to thinking: “So the CDU won like…what, 80% of the seats? That’s awful! The poor other parties!”
But don’t pity too early! There is hope: The election districts and the First Vote don’t actually determine how much percent of the parliament seats are taken by which party. That’s the job of the Second Vote. Only with the Second Vote we voters decide what fraction of the seats each party gets. The Second Vote is the reason why the Green party won only one of the 299 election district in 2013, but ended up having 13% of the seats in parliament – and why the CDU didn’t win 80% of the seats, but 40%.
2 How many seats? Also, who else?
The Second Vote is for a party; not for a specific person like the First Vote. Or, to be exact: The Second Vote is for a list of candidates from all parties in my state. In each state in which a party wants to be voted for, the party sends a list of candidates to the election administrator of this state and says: “Please put our party on the ballot in this state.” When I vote for a party with my Second Vote, I actually vote for this state list of the party.
So how do we get from these votes to the seats? Well, in each state, each party can earn a specific amount of seats. The number of seats per state is determined by the number of inhabitants, similar to the election districts. The German election administrator just takes the 598 seats that exist in Parliament and allocates them to the states: Hamburg gets 13 seats, Berlin gets 24 seats, etc.
The more voters in a state vote for a specific party, the more state seats this party gets. The Christian Democratic party won 32% of the votes in Hamburg in 2013, so it gets 32% of the 13 seats for this state (which is…um…5 people 1 ).
But who are these 5 people? Here, it all comes together. Remember the First Vote? And the guy who won an election district in Hamburg for the CDU? This guy gets one of these 5 seats. That’s the interesting thing: All candidates who win their election districts thanks to the First Vote, are part of the seats which a party wins thanks to the Second Votes.
Sooo…that means that the CDU has only 4 seats in Hamburg left to fill with their people. And here, the list that the CDU gave the election administrator earlier makes its appearance. The 4 remaining seats are filled with the first four candidates that are on the CDU-Hamburg-list 2. The fifth person (and sixth person, etc.) is out. Meaning, when a party wants to make sure that the party superstar gets a seat in parliament, they put her at the top of the list – then, if the party gets only one seat in that state, at least the superstar is in.
3 All the seats, in all the states
Here’s a quick summary of what you’ve just learned: Germans have two votes. The First Vote answers the question who will get a parliament seat to represent my election district. The Second Vote answers two questions: How many people of each party will be in parliament for my state? And: Besides the people who got elected directly with the First Vote, who else will get into parliament for each party?
Let’s zoom out. That’s how all the won seats looked like for every single state at the last election:
Here are the most obvious things this overview can show us about the German election in 2013 (these things were true-ish before and will also be true-ish this election):
1 More than any party, the CDU/CSU got almost all their votes in form of election district votes. Only 25% of their seats come from state lists. (In comparison: The Greens had to fill 98.4% of their seats with state list candidates; since only one guy won an election district for them.) 2 The Left party is far stronger in former East Germany than in the former West German states. That’s mostly because it has their roots there: The Left party developed out of an old East German party. 3 The SPD, the Left and the Greens won far more election districts in cities than in rural areas. These three parties won 70% of the election districts in the three city states Hamburg, Berlin and Bremen; but they won only 18% of the election districts in the rest of the states.
That’s it! Do I feel better about voting on Sunday now? Heck yeah. Here is the ballot again, this time translated into German. If you still don’t have a clue about what it all means, try this very nice visual explainer by the Bloomberg peeps. And please send me an email so I can try to explain it better: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
Here is where it gets a bit tricky. Actually, 32% of 13 seats are 4.2 seats, which is nowhere near 5 seats. But like most countries, Germany has an election threshold. That means that parties don’t get into parliament when they don’t get 5% of all german-wide Second Votes. In Hamburg, people voted a lot for these smaller parties that didn’t end up getting into parliament. In fact, only 86% of the people voted for parties that did end up getting into parliament. That means, we calculate the 32% of this 86% “big-party-voters” – which gives us 37.2% “effective” votes for the CDU-party. And 37.2% of 13 seats are 4.8 seats…which get rounded up to 5 seats. ↩
Sigh. I know. I totally left out that very inconvenient but probable case that a party has more direct candidates in a state than it got seats thanks to the Second Vote in that state. These extra seats are called Overhang Mandates and are a pain. If you like pain, you’re welcome to learn everything about them in this spreadsheet essay I built. ↩
Encrypted messaging apps like Signal, as well as WhatsApp and Viber, use your phone number as your main username. This means that if I want to chat with someone on these apps, I have to give them my phone number.
But we may have many reasons — both practical and principled — not to share our number with someone. These digits are personal.
Ideally, apps like Signal would allow us to use something besides our phone number as the main identifier we share with others. For example, a few competing encrypted messengers, such as Wire, allow users to choose a username.
This is a big deal. It means that users don’t need to choose between strong encryption, and protecting other personal information.
So let’s talk about a workaround.
Getting a Second Number
If you want to withhold your personal phone number, the good news is that you can use a secondary phone number to register for these apps.
You might think you have to use your mobile number, but you can really use any number you have access to.
Here’s the catch: You need to have persistent access to the number. If someone else gets access to it, they can use it to re-register Signal, and you will lose access. The new owner of the phone number can quickly become the new owner of your Signal number.
If you use an alternative number, you also need to keep it.
Here are a few options to help you access an additional long-term number:
Second SIM. You can register your app with an alternative SIM card, which will give you a new phone number. This second SIM must be kept active with regular account payments, or you will lose the number. To learn more, read this post by Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Note: While in many countries this can be reasonably cheap, in the United States, this typically means purchasing a bundled data and phone plan, which can be expensive.
Google Voice. If you’re in the U.S. and don’t mind using your existing phone number to sign up, you can use a free Google Voice number. This is easy to set up.
Twilio. Twilio is a web-based voice and text messaging service. Compared to paying for a traditional phone plan, it’s a relatively inexpensive way to set up a phone number with coverage in dozens of countries. Upon signup, Twilio asks you to put $20 into your account. After that, you pay a monthly fee for your phone number and the cost of exchanging messages — typically one or two cents. Twilio’s fees vary by country. For example, in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, the cost of a phone number is $1 each month, but in other countries, it may be more. Check out the cost in your country.
Let’s explore how to use Google Voice and Twilio for registering apps that require a phone number.
Setting up Google Voice
To sign up for Google Voice, visit voice.google.com, and log in with a Google account. At the bottom of the screen click “Choose Number” and follow the instructions.
Enter a phone number you can use for verification. After receiving a text message with a verification code, enter it to complete your registration. That’s it!
You can now use this number to register on Signal or WhatsApp. When you register with your new number, you will be asked to enter a verification code. You should receive the code in Google Voice and your Gmail inbox.
Once you’ve received the code, punch it into your messaging app to complete your registration.
Setting up Twilio
It takes a little more work, but for an inexpensive secondary phone number, Twilio is a great choice.
To get started, go to twilio.com. At the top, click “sign up.”
Fill out your details, you’ll be asked to verify your phone number.
After entering your number, you should receive a message or call. Punch the verification code into Twilio to complete your signup.
Twilio pays their bills with subscriptions. To get a phone number, we need to upgrade the account by paying a small monthly fee. Once you’re logged into Twilio, click “Upgrade” at the top of the screen.
To keep your phone number active, you need $20 in your account. Fill out your payment information, and add at least $20.
It’s time to choose your new number. Click “Buy a phone number” at the bottom.
From here, search for a number that best suits you. You can choose some parts of the number, including the area code.
Finally, we can forward voice or text messages from our Twilio number to our primary phone number. This lets us receive our Signal verification messages on our phone.
Using the menu on the far left of the screen, navigate to “All Products and Services” > “Runtime” > “TwiML Bins” (or let me link you to TwiML Bins).
Click the plus sign to create a new “bin,” which will automatically forward your messages and calls to your primary number. Replace the current code with the snippets below. You’ll need to replace “your phone number” with a number you’d like to use to receive your forwarded messages.
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?> <Response> <Dial> YOUR PHONE NUMBER </Dial> </Response>
Get creative with your names. Give it a totally crazy name, like “my voice forwarding.”
Finally, to receive our verification messages on our phone, we need to activate voice and message forwarding. Navigate to “All Products & Services” > “Phone Numbers” > “Manage Numbers” > “Active Numbers” (or click here).
Click on your Twilio phone number. Change the “A call comes in” field from “Webbook” to “TwiML” and switch to your custom voice forwarding settings by selecting the appropriate bin name (e.g., “my voice forwarding”). Do the same for the messaging settings.
Now you’re ready to use your Twilio number to register for Signal. You will receive your verification codes on the number you used for forwarding. While iOS devices should work with voice and text messages, registration on Signal and WhatsApp on Android is more reliable with voice calls.
One more thing: muting in Twilio Because each message costs money, after you’ve set up your number and registered for Signal or other apps, it might be worthwhile to silence incoming messages on your Twilio account.
To turn off incoming calls and messages, navigate to “Manage Numbers” > “Active Numbers” (or go straight there). From this page, click on your phone number to change the settings. Remove the web addresses from the “A call comes in” and “A message comes in” fields. Without these fields active, you won’t receive calls or messages.
That’s all! If you want to receive calls and messages, you can always turn this back on later.
Locking down your account
Now that we have a our new number set up, lock the account down.
It’s not unusual for people to reuse their passwords. Attackers count on it.
Whenever there is a large-scale breach, attackers love to try out breached usernames and passwords on multiple websites, probing for additional accounts they can log into. By preventing attackers from reusing your login details, assigning different passwords on each website minimizes damage from breaches.
Consider using a unique password on your Google or Twilio account.
You also want to set up two-factor authentication. What does this mean?
When logging in, you can require a second piece of information — a second factor, beyond the password. Typically this second piece of information is a code sent to your mobile device through text messages, or to an app, such as Google Authenticator or Authy. To better protect your account, consider setting up two-factor authentication on Google and Twilio.