Documentary and Civic Culture: Now That Television Is the Primary Medium for Distributing Documentary, There Is Growing Debate about the Challenge of Engaging with Complex Social and Political Realities through Documentary Practice. (1)
Williamson, Dugald, Metro Magazine
In making documentary available to large audiences, television has rung its own changes on the form. Hybrid types of popular programs, easily emulated and increasing in number, borrow documentary techniques less to explore (and thereby possibly influence) real-life contexts, than to reap their spectacle value. Or they make an exhibition of situations contrived for the program itself, as in 'reality' programs incorporating a game-show element of competition.
Whilst it might be argued that this hybridization has sparked new audience interest in documentary, many practitioners and commentators see it as having a negative effect. Russell Porter has claimed, ironically, that it means 'the documentary as a distinctive and readily identified species is in serious danger of extinction'. (2) On his account, documentaries that grapple with social problems, respond to diverse real-life experiences and test ideas and beliefs, are 'fading from fashion'. (3) Then there is the concern that the demand to find the most entertaining story angle, and conform to the limits of the standard hour or half-hour program, makes it difficult to treat subjects with the subtlety they deserve.
The problem is not just whether documentaries can entertain as well as inform audiences. It is also a question of how much 'elbow room' there is for well-researched and imaginatively crafted documentaries in the world of broadcasters' schedules and competitive production funding systems. (4) This article focuses on this problem by discussing the institutional contexts and production histories of some documentaries made for television in Australia that have grown out of wider cultural negotiations or had some distribution beyond this medium. But first, some general issues surrounding documentary form amid institutional changes should be outlined in more detail.
Documentary or documentary lite?
Let me call the combination of television factors alluded to so far--programming pressures, hybridization of genres and changing audience tastes--'documentary lite', and specify a little further the problem it poses for the so-called serious social documentary. Asking how television changes the prospects of documentary implies a historical perspective. The generic influences shaping the development of documentary on the small screen in Australia have been multiple. They include the practices of social observation associated with cinema verite that emerged in television in the USA in the 1960s. Other influences include journalistic forms that have become established in public and commercial broadcasting, overlapping with current affairs programming, and the academic and other professional collaborations through which relatively popular types of science, nature and history documentary programs have evolved.
The institutional bases for documentary developments in Australia relating to television have also been diverse. They have included broadcaster in-house production of documentary and related factual programming (admittedly varying significantly within and between particular organizations). Institutional government film production, notably at Film Australia, has been another changing source of documentary representations of social, political and economic life. From the 1970s, these representations came increasingly to reflect interactions with the television market. (5)
Since the late 1980s, the convergence between the institutional sector of state-based production and public broadcasting and the independent filmmaking community, has had a significant effect on documentary practice. (6) Independent filmmakers have gained greater access to production funding and potentially wider audiences than before, while government subsidization of production has become oriented primarily towards the distribution of works through television. This convergence has produced a new production dynamic--a force-field of creative aspirations, programming imperatives, methods of working, and cultural and industrial practices, which may or may not be in practical accord with each other in particular circumstances. Changes in institutional philosophy, such as a greater stress on program entertainment values, can have knock-on effects for practitioners who work outside but in certain alignments with the given institution.
One of the concerns of documentary-makers is that broadcasters will assume that their audiences have a low tolerance for documentary watching. This reflects a longer-term association of certain kinds of documentary with the didactic dissemination of information, and tendencies in journalistic programs to treat subjects in safe and predictable ways. (7) It is reminiscent of debates over the legacy of a cinematic and institutional history of 'civic documentary', where reference is often made to the legacy of John Grierson and the British documentary movement. Brian Winston, for example, has argued that the Griersonian practice caused documentary to become identified with well-intentioned and earnest efforts to promote the causes of democratic citizenship and social progress, but which failed to enter into a genuine dialogue either with the people it represented (ultimately presenting them as victims by failing to analyze the political causes of social problems) or its audiences. (8)
Winston's solution is for the filmmaker to abandon the stance of the artist as seer and become a 'facilitator' who pursues an ethical and creative role by developing appropriate relationships with the participants in the development of the documentary--respecting 'the rights, needs and aspirations of the people being filmed'. (9) This change relates closely to another shift that Winston sees as crucial, a shift towards a more active recognition of the role that the audience plays in understanding the 'mediations of the film-making process', (10) and hence in negotiating the kinds of truth of which documentaries are capable, in the playing out of particular social relationships.
Arguably, there are problems in Winston's own claims. The extent to which the Griersonian, aesthetic documentary may have provided a model among others for television practitioners and independent filmmakers is also open to debate. However, Winston's claim that practitioners (and audiences) have to battle the perception that documentary can be 'worthy but dull', indicates a problem that the form faces in the television domain. (11)
In the Australian context, it is arguably a shared sense of the historical diversity of institutional and independent documentary that has made the fate and fortune of the form in the television contexts such a searching preoccupation. A measure of the extent to which pluralist concerns persist in the documentary field is found in those policy and industry arrangements that are designed to support non-mainstream projects, and make resources accessible to practitioners of different cultural backgrounds, regional location, age and levels of practical or industrial experience.
This is not to overlook the limits of cultural subsidy. Recurring concerns include the scarcity of funding for project 'development' as against 'production', and the need for mechanisms to facilitate the management of production overheads in ways that would provide greater continuity, especially for small independent production companies. Within this field of possibilities and constraints, what happens to social documentary projects is contingent on a range of interactions between filmmakers, funding bodies, commissioning editors and other policy and industry players in different circumstances. This can be explored further by considering issues in the changing relations between the independent filmmaking community and the public broadcasting sector, to which it looks for its main support.
Government forms of production assistance for documentary, such as the production investment Accord and non Accord schemes of the Film Finance Corporation (FFC), link with both the ABC and the SBS, as major 'end users' for those programs which have secured the pre-sale required to unlock production funding. (12) However, the degree of support that these broadcasters provide for documentary programming that results from engagement with the independent filmmaking community, where many social documentary ideas and prospective projects are generated, varies with circumstances. Discussing issues including the reduced levels of funding and prime-time slots available for documentary programming, Steve Thomas stresses a range of characteristics that justify support for independent social documentaries. (13) These include the 'complexity and depth' with which they can treat issues because of the 'long lead-in time for research and the careful working of the material in the edit suite', the capacity to develop a 'questioning stance' or 'strong point of view' and the documentary-maker's 'accountability' to his or her subjects. (14) Given these arguments on the importance of such considerations in documentary practice, let me take up questions about the interrelations of documentary form and institutional and cultural context with reference to some production histories.
Relations of form and context
In this environment of shifting relations created by the convergence of institutional and sponsored-independent practice discussed above, two interrelated themes may be noted. These can assist reflection on the current possibilities for television documentary and are explored further with reference to a few programs below.
The negotiation of the social and institutional conditions of projects and documentary authorship
The aforementioned convergence means that independent filmmakers enter into complex relations with funding agencies and broadcasters that are formalized through contracts, production cash-flow arrangements, delivery dates for the 'product' and so on. They may need to negotiate with multiple agencies. For instance, it may be necessary to seek development funding from bodies such as State film and television offices but also apply for production funding from another organization such as the FFC. The funding or broadcasting categories and mechanisms impose constraints. They may also provide opportunities. So, for instance, in the case of Tales from a Suitcase, (15) the maintenance of the series as a scheduling format allowed an extension of the original focus on post-war immigration stories to an unpredicted but timely focus on the contemporary 'Afghan experience'. (16) In short, the design, development, production, post-production and distribution of documentaries by independent filmmakers involve interaction between a range of authoring and authorizing participants and agents.
The negotiation of form through research, according to the filmmaker's relations with the participants and considerations of audience
The independent-institutional convergence also means that some documentaries have their provenance in collaboration with independent producers and writers, or with community and professional groups, and through dialogue and exchange with people whose knowledge, experience or viewpoints may not otherwise be made so readily accessible to or through the media. For All the World to See (Pat Fiske, 1992) is an example of a production from the early days of the Accord scheme with broadcasters. Fiske and producer Megan McMurchy worked through pre-sale commitments and content issues with the ABC, while arranging extensive support gained from non-media groups. Their journey of collaboration was based on the director's friendship with the eye surgeon Fred Hollows, whose work and life the film is able to document in complexity and depth by using a range of narrative, observational and interactive processes. (17)
For independent filmmakers, the art of documentary--finding the appropriate mode of presentation and technically arranging the materials--is often an expression of these engagements with participants. This search for form also has implications for the audience. It is by translating the understandings gained through research and collaboration into the organization of images and sounds, that the documentary-maker is able to forge a context, and a framework of intelligibility for the events or states of affairs. This then offers viewers the possibility of developing their own reading of the complexities and ambiguities of a situation.
These concerns with form do not necessarily match conventional expectations of a television documentary or a commissioning editor's documentary idea. (18) In making a documentary about the Sydney Opera House, The Edge of the Possible (Daryl Dellora 1998), Dellora's independent production company, Film Art Doco, had protracted negotiations with the ABC. At issue was whether the film should be an Accord (local interest) or non-Accord (international pre-sale) work, and the participation of architect Jorn Utzon in the project. Independently, the filmmakers undertook extensive historical and archival research, and interviewed Utzon's former colleagues and other experts. The achievement can be seen not in getting the involvement of the 'star' of the story (Utzon finally agreed to an interview); rather, the achievement is in the development of a narrative and expository treatment of the practical and political complexities faced in the design and construction of the building, a treatment that did not depend solely on the participation of a single person, however important his historical role. (19)
To examine these themes further, let me discuss some aspects of the provenance, authorship, social interactions and negotiation of documentary form in two other works.
The Fair Go (Pat Laughren, 1999) grew out of consultations between the Open Learning Agency of Australia (OLA) and the ABC over the possibility of a documentary relating to the OLA's 'Discovering Democracy: Civics and Citizenship' project. Rather than an exclusively educational program, this was conceived as potentially engaging a prime-time audience. The consultations were therefore with the ABC commissioning editor for documentary, Geoff Barnes. In addition, the program proposal was expected to have the approval of the Civics Education Group that was supporting the OLA project. (20) The general brief was to explore the institutional processes and grass roots forms of participation and activism that are the distinctive parameters of a civic culture, that can sustain the processes necessary for peaceful resolution of conflict along with the constitutional, political or legal capacity for change.
The program could have attempted to render these themes conceptually and dramatically in various ways. A catalyst for the creative treatment of the issues was a decision to focus on the 1967 Referendum. This referendum considered whether the Commonwealth should be allowed to make laws for Aborigines and include them in the census, as a way of exploring issues relating to the recognition of political, civil and social rights and capacities of Indigenous people. The filmmaker's role was to find a creative translation of interests between the broadcasting and educational concerns.
Adopting a television-style approach, a range of contemporary participants presented direct recollections, recounting 'how it happened'. This approach foreshadowed an extended work of narrative editing to create a strong story line with a form of closure--with a happy ending in the overwhelming 'Yes' vote--that meets genre expectations of the television documentary. But it also allowed the inclusion of rich contextual material, so that a complex film essay develops on the interrelations between the institutional and grass roots civic processes. Because of this combination of narrative, interactive and expository modes, the 'civic education' concerns are not presented in a narrowly didactic manner.
The interview-based treatment and multi-vocal storytelling, interspersed with narration by Deborah Mailman and integrated with archival footage, allows a complex and nuanced understanding of events to emerge. Through a mixture of social and personal narrative, reflection and evaluation (Charles Perkins says of the referendum that it was the only time 'the fair go' in Australia meant something), Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants recalled the community and constitutional developments. The participants are framed in a context of historically complex experiences, struggles and processes of redefining social identities, statuses and relationships.
After Mabo (John Hughes, 1997) was funded by the Australian Film Commission, with support from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. It gained a pre-sale with SBS Independent and while its contracted length was a television hour, it ended up as a feature-length documentary. The project began in August 1996. Richard Frankland, the filmmaker and then senior executive of Mirimbiak Nations Aboriginal Corporation (the Victorian representative body for native title), phoned John Hughes to ask him to help make a film about the Australian Government's proposed amendments to the 1993 Native Title Act. (21)
For Hughes, finding the appropriate form for the documentary depended on working out a protocol to deal with the situation where a non-Indigenous filmmaker makes a program that deals with Indigenous issues. The protocol was that Mirimbiak would own the film, Frankland would be executive producer, and he and Mirimbiak would have editorial control. As writer, director and co-producer, Hughes had creative control in a role that he identified as that of a 'technician' (a term perhaps reminiscent of Winston's 'facilitator'), charged with working out how to make the film. If there was a problem about what was 'creative control' and what was 'editorial control', that was 'an editorial decision'. This protocol allowed the documentary to develop at once as an 'advocacy' film, 'making an explicit argument in favour of the native title holders' position', and as a film about 'how the political process at that time was negotiating arguments around native title'.
Rather than 'representing Aboriginality', the documentary is thus a complex articulation of objectives and creative-editorial interests. Hughes was 'quite happy for the documentary to be as strange as it wanted to be if what it was doing was performing on the screen some kind of Indigenous/ non-Indigenous collaborative process in the film'. The creative treatment of events unfolding, as the film itself was being made, included taking account of feedback from the community 'authorizing' the documentary, and finding the compositional means to make 'a work that performs the negotiation process as one of its subtexts'.
One of the technical means deployed was the 'screen design' of images (including superimpositions of archival and present materials) that invite the viewer to read the layers of historical and contemporary relationships between varied representations of events and people. Further, the film refuses 'the conventional treatment solution', which is 'to find one central character' to embody a conflict, build the narrative around, and thus offer as a point of identification and dramatic resolution for the audience. Instead, the attempt was to:
Build a structure where a whole range of Indigenous spokespersons put positions. The role of the central character shifts from individual to individual ... to build the idea that what we are dealing with here is an Indigenous leadership, for want of another word, that is comprised of a whole range of people in dialogue. (22)
Extending the interactions beyond production, the documentary had community screenings and theatrical screenings around NAIDOC Week--as well as going to air on the eve of the Senate debate on amendments to native title legislation. The examples discussed above can only be indicative of the negotiations of institutional conditions, broadcasting imperatives, ethical relations with participants, modes of formal presentation and audience address that documentaries engaged with social issues have achieved and are capable of achieving. But they show how documentaries that do negotiate these factors can explore complex cultural and political issues in a way that contributes to a civic ethos in their treatment of social themes and the sociable conduct of the relations entailed in filmmaking. They also underscore the need to maintain institutional support for the development, production, distribution and broadcasting of programs that respond imaginatively to the challenges now facing social documentary.
This article was written in the context of collaborative research on Australian documentary with Trish FitzSimons and Pat Laughren. Thanks to the filmmakers with whom we have conducted the interviews that are cited here, in particular John Hughes and Daryl Dellora for additional comments, and the anonymous Metro referees for their comments on the article. Responsibility for any problems or errors in it is my own.
This article has been refereed.
(1) See, for example, John Corner, 'Civic Visions: Forms of Documentary', in his Television Form and Public Address, Edward Arnold, London, 1995, pp.77-104; Russell Porter, 'What Are Documentaries For? (or The Dumbing Down of Docos)', Documenter, 1998, http://www.documenter.com/back011/011 porta.htm, accessed 16 October 2000; Steve Thomas, 'Whatever Happened to the Social Documentary?' Metro, no. 134, 2002, pp.152-160.
(2) Porter, op. cit. p.1. See als0 John Corner on problems in the transformation of documentary into a form of entertaining 'diversion' on television, 'Documentary in a Post-Documentary Culture? A Note on Forms and their Functions', European Science Foundation, 'Changing Media--Changing Europe' program, Team One (Citizenship and Consumerism) Working Paper no. 1, 2000.
(3) Porter, op. cit. p. 2.
(4) ibid. p. 3; Thomas, op. cit. pp.157 and 159.
(5) Albert Moran, Projecting Australia: Government Film Since 1945, Currency Press, Sydney, 1991, especially pp.104-156.
(6) Trish FitzSimons, Pat Laughren & Dugald Williamson, 'Towards a Contemporary History of Australian Documentary', Metro, no. 123, 2000, pp.62-72.
(7) Cf. David MacDougall, Transcultural Cinema, edited and with an Introduction by Lucien Taylor, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1998, pp.224-230.
(8) Brian Winston, Claiming the Real: The Documentary Film Revisited, British Film Institute, London, 1995, pp.40-56.
(9) ibid. p.258.
(10) ibid. p.253.
(11) Cf. Porter, op. cit. Porter maintains that despite its problems, the Griersonian documentary movement did make possible an 'on-going debate about ways of thinking about and representing "reality"', and argues the need for structures of filmmaking and television to support documentaries that chronicle and interpret "tectonic" social shifts and cultural "hot spots" of fundamental change, which current affairs and reality TV programs are unable to deal with meaningfully'. (p.3).
(12) Trish FitzSimons, 'Accords, Slots, Slates and Series: Australian Television Takes on Independent Documentary', Metro, nos 131-132, 2002, pp.172-183.
(13) Thomas, op. cit. pp.155-157.
(14) Thomas, op. cit. pp.159-160. See also Marion Jacka ('Making a Difference', Metro, no. 134, 2002, pp.142-147) and Tina Kaufman ('Glenys Rowe: SBS Independent Beating a Path to the Creative Film-maker's Door', Metro, no. 134, 2002, pp.148-151).
(15) Tales from a Suitcase (multiple directors, Australia, Look Television Production Pty Ltd in association with SBS Independent, 1996, 2000, 2002).
(16) On the change of focus across this series, see Will Davies and Andrea Dal Bosco, Tales from a Suitcase: The Afghan Experience, Lothian, Melbourne, 2002, p.xii.
(17) Trish FitzSimons, Interview with Pat Fiske, Sydney, 28 April 2000.
(18) Issues about the extent to which social contextualizing material should be included are discussed with reference to Rats in the Ranks (1997) in an interview with the producers and directors: Trish FitzSimons, Interview with Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson, Sydney, 1 May 2000.
(19) Dugald Williamson, Email Interview with Daryl Dellora, November 2001.
(20) The quotations and information about The Fair Go are drawn from planning documentation summarized in Pat Laughren's program proposal of December 1998. The documentary was broadcast in the now discontinued 'Inside Story' series.
(21) Dugald Williamson, Interview with John Hughes, Melbourne, 2000. The following points of information and the quotations from John Hughes about After Mabo are also based on this interview.
(22) Cf MacDougall, op. cir. p.146 on issues concerning documentary conventions and 'conflict structure' in transcultural cinema, and pp.199-223 on the tensions between the protocols of anthropological and ethnographic filmmaking and the camera and editing style expected conventionally in television documentary programs.
Dugald Williamson is Head of School in English, Communication and Theatre and coordinates the Bachelor of Communication Studies degree at the University of New England.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Documentary and Civic Culture: Now That Television Is the Primary Medium for Distributing Documentary, There Is Growing Debate about the Challenge of Engaging with Complex Social and Political Realities through Documentary Practice. (1). Contributors: Williamson, Dugald - Author. Magazine title: Metro Magazine. Issue: 143 Publication date: Winter 2005. Page number: 61+. © Not available. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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