Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 19, June 2001



Stephen Charbonneau

A Documentarian's Call to Arms

On Vaughan's _For Documentary_




Dai Vaughan

_For Documentary_

University of California Press, 1999

ISBN 0-520-21695-4

215 pp.


'Documentary reality is a construction; and some of the viewer's blood goes into it' (87).


It is rare to find a book on nonfiction film that is, overtly anyway, emotional and intellectual, bombastic and scholastic, personal and restrained. But Dai Vaughan's recently published collection of essays, _For Documentary_, is an intensely provocative read to which I found myself constantly either shaking my head in disapproval or nodding in unrestrained enthusiasm. The quote above, I believe, offers a glimpse into Vaughan's tendency to make strong intellectual points with the energy of a propagandist. The result is an impassioned work that will hopefully promote further debate regarding the status of documentary film and video, both aesthetically and socially.


Vaughan's status as both a scholar and a producer of documentaries empowers him to offer readers a unique and polemical collection of essays on nonfiction form. Most interesting is his ability to draw upon his production experience in such a way that it enhances his scholarly project. Note, for example, the way Vaughan cites his experience as an editor on the _Space Between Words_ documentary series to make a point about objectivity and subjectivity. Moments of apparent technical pragmatism (such as when a sound recordist can't pick up the words of a teacher in the midst of a noisy classroom) are shown to construct a particular interpretation of the situation. Had circumstances been marginally altered, perhaps an equally legitimate but radically different conclusion could have been reached. In similar instances throughout his book, Vaughan refers to his experience as a film editor to underscore both the fluidity with which meaning arises from documentaries and the fruitless struggle to stop the subjective from emerging out of the objective.


Defining the documentary is one of the key projects of the book and Vaughan does so with originality and insight. He insists on determining the character of a documentary not in terms of any formal elements or claims to objectivity, but from the vantage point of the spectator. 'A crucial fact about the definition of documentary', he notes, is that it is characterized as a 'mode of response' by the viewer (58). And such a response would perceive the image 'as signifying what it appears to record' (58). By arguing thus, Vaughan enables the discourse on documentary to transcend banal distinctions between subjective/objective and fiction form/nonfiction form. As a result, the definition of a documentary is opened up on the formal front to allow for many different kinds of films, as long as they embody at their core a direct relationship to the 'pro-filmic' for the viewers (59).


The implications of this view are further addressed in his chapter, 'The Aesthetics of Ambiguity'. Vaughan acknowledges that this definition hardly makes a film student's job any easier. He notes the inevitable 'implication that [documentary] is blind to the falsity of labels' (59). If the documentary film is founded upon the viewer's perception of the images as being connected to the real world in some fashion, then a betrayal of that trust is always imminent. And, Vaughan emphasizes, it will always be the viewer's job to determine the authenticity of a documentary 'on the basis of signals intended or unintended' (59).


An obvious strength of Vaughan's definition is its refusal to rely on formal elements alone. Suddenly, fiction films that appropriate visual cues from the documentary no longer frustrate our definition of the latter. Recent films such as _The Blair Witch Project_ (1999), _Best in Show_ (2000), and the earlier _Bob Roberts_ (1992) can remain categorized as fiction with ease because they merely play with our understanding that documentary retains a professed authenticity betwixt that which it records and that which is real (the use of stars in the latter two examples highlights this playful quality). And, conversely, Vaughan's definition creates space for nonfiction films that hijack fictional strategies. The films of Errol Morris (_The Thin Blue Line_, _Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control_) come to mind, with their heavy reliance on formal elements such as slow motion, color, and camera movement.


In addition to his definition of the documentary, Vaughan's discussion of formal tools such as the zoom and slow motion are illuminating. This is the case particularly when one considers the fact that, more than any other type of film, the documentary has been straitjacketed by critics in terms of stylistic formulas. But what Vaughan's aesthetic analyses demonstrate is that documentary film is very much compatible with so-called fictional strategies.


His chapter on the zoom effect, 'Rooting for Magoo: A Tentative Politics of the Zoom Lens', is an excellent meditation on the unlimited applicability of a particular technology. Vaughan traces the history of the zoom effect's varying interpretations, which encompasses everything from 'spatial dislocation bordering on the supernatural' to 'journalistic endeavour' to 'bad manners' (145). But while there is a wide spectrum of variation in the development of the zoom effect, Vaughan is able to discern a fundamental essence that renders the device most compatible with the nonfiction film. And that essence has to do with the zoom effect's implicit affinity for spontaneity. A zoom is suggestive of improvisation on the part of the camera operator. It is an action that breaks with principles of continuity editing by calling attention to the hand behind the camera. But by asserting that the zoom effect tends to signify the 'unrehearsed', Vaughan underscores the risk inherent in its use (147). Since documentary is defined by the 'viewer's attribution of relevance to the anterior event', the deployment of the zoom and the viewer's reception of it is a very precarious situation (148).


Vaughan also conducts a fruitful comparative analysis of slow motion techniques in two different documentaries, both of which are concerned with the Olympic games. One, Leni Riefenstahl's _Olympische Spiele_ (1938), deploys the device in conjunction with low camera angles to add dramatic weight to an event (in this case, the pole vault). The competition is transformed into an operatic performance in which the rhythm and sensation of the athletic endeavor is to be marvelled at. The other, Kon Ichikawa's _Tokyo Orinpikku_ (1965), embraces slow motion to further the sense that the athletic event is a de-mystified product of human labor. Vaughan notes how Ichikawa's film uses slow motion throughout the build-up for, and the aftermath of the event (a marathon in this case). The use of slow motion in this regard tends to characterize an Olympic event as an attainable human goal, rather than as a sphere solely reserved for larger-than-life super athletes. As a result, Ichikawa's film arrives at a rendering that is entirely antithetical to Riefenstahl's, despite the fact that they are both resorting to the same formal device, slow motion.


The textual analysis engaged here by Vaughan is welcomed by this reader, particularly for its ability to underscore a quite obvious, yet often neglected point. And that is that formal strategies, like slow motion, can produce a variety of effects depending on the context in which they are deployed. Vaughan writes: 'Slow motion, like most other elements of film language, is capable of being invested, by its function within a given text, with meaning peculiar to that text . . .' (96). Perhaps this sentiment is slightly at odds with his essentialist reading of the zoom effect, but it is an important point nonetheless.


Lastly, another key theme that emerges out of Vaughan's essays is technology. Shifts in the means by which documentaries are produced have spawned debates and proclamations concerning the new aesthetic that inevitably results from technological advances. For example, D. A. Pennebaker's innovations with regards to the portable recording of on-site sound fostered the 'direct cinema' movement of the sixties whose adherents included Frederick Wiseman (_High School_, _Basic Training_) as well as Pennebaker himself (_Don't Look Now_). Such innovations granted a documentary film crew increased mobility and spawned a refusal in some nonfiction filmmakers to overtly 'author' their films through stylistic flourishes and distracting voiceovers.


And the degree to which production conditions impact nonfiction films is much greater, Vaughan argues, than the degree to which they impact the stylistic strategies of fiction films (63). One can understand how this is so by returning to Vaughan's definition of the documentary film. If it is the case that a documentary film is a film in which the viewer perceives a direct relationship between the image and the real world, then the reality of technological constraints -- at the moment of filming -- plays a determinative role in fostering that relationship. One anticipates illusion from fiction film, whereas one anticipates a form of reality from nonfiction film. This necessarily liberates fiction film to transcend production restraints in whatever manner deemed necessary (for example, dubbing sound and dialogue into a scene in post-production that was unattainable at the time of shooting). While, on the other hand, adhering to the limitations of production conditions helps foster the viewer's belief in the reality of the image, which is critical for a documentary.


In keeping with the theme of technology and the documentary film, Vaughan also turns his attention to digitalization and its ramifications in his essay entitled, 'From Today, Cinema is Dead'. This was the most frustrating and disagreeable essay in the whole book. The language in this essay grows rather apocalyptic and simplistic in its rush to heed the pitfalls of digitalization. While noting that manipulation has been inherent to photography since day one, Vaughan asserts that, with the aid of digitalization, we are increasingly approaching a state of affairs in which we will no longer be able to rely upon the 'privileged relation between a photograph and its object' (188). And when that happens, Vaughan continues, it will have been 'because the accumulation of countervailing experiences . . . have rendered null that 'trust' for which the idiom has simply been our warranty. And once we have lost it, we shall never get it back' (189). Vaughan even goes so far as to question our ability to sustain a democratic progressive movement in light of the diminishing causal relationship between an image and its referenced. Note these closing comments:


'If I am right, then documentary is the taproot of cinema, even of those forms most remote from it; and if this were allowed to die, all else would wither. It is more than possible that the cause is already lost, along with that of social progress with which photography and documentary have throughout their existence been strongly identified' (192).


These remarks are unfounded and extremely melodramatic in my opinion. Despite the fact that Vaughan acknowledges that distortion and misrepresentation have been intrinsic to photography since the beginning (187), he insists on prophesying the end of our trust in the image. But even if this were the case, would it really be the horrible case-scenario he describes? I doubt it. Given the monopoly powerful interests enjoy over society's images, I believe the reality of digital manipulation renders overt the distortion and misrepresentation that dominant interests have always enacted upon the image. The loss of the so-called 'trust' in the image is a two-way street. In effect, it could mean that we, the viewers, would perhaps develop a healthy skepticism towards what we see.


Aside from a few frustrations with the book, _For Documentary_ is ultimately a stimulating read that forces the reader to hone and rethink their perspective on nonfiction film. Each essay feels fresh and pertinent to the present state of affairs in the global film industry. At a time when we need passionate arguments for the continued investment (financial and creative) in the nonfiction film, _For Documentary_ offers a persuasive foundation from which such arguments can build. A better testimony to the importance of the documentary film is difficult to imagine.


Portland, Oregon, USA



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001


Stephen Charbonneau, 'A Documentarian's Call to Arms: On Vaughan's _For Documentary_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no. 19, June 2001 <>.




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