Documentaries: Activity 4

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Exploring Our World

Documentaries help the audience understand the world they live in. They may focus on scientific discoveries, animal behavior, the environment, natural phenomena, human behavior, medical advances or the scientists themselves.

Documentarians often find it easier to interest audiences in difficult scientific or technical subjects by depicting the human stories behind them. Susanne Simpson and Ben Burtt’s 1996 IMAX film Special Effects explains the science and technology behind movie special effects, while at the same time paying tribute to the imagination of the artists and filmmakers who created them.

Filmed in the large–screen IMAX format, Everest (1998) followed a group of mountain climbers who ended up trapped in a deadly blizzard, creating an unexpected plot twist for the filmmakers whose lives were also endangered. Courtesy of MacGillivay Freeman Films.

Sound and Fury (2000) discusses the controversy concerning cochlear implants, devices that can stimulate hearing in a deaf person. Rather than present a dry discussion of the pros and cons of the device, the filmmakers look at the rift that develops in one family as the members passionately debate whether to give the implants to two deaf cousins.

Another way to involve audiences in scientific subjects is by using the latest technology to show the audience what they would otherwise not be able to see. The 1975 documentary The Incredible Machine uses groundbreaking medical photography to depict the human body from the inside out.

Five teams of filmmakers spent three years filming birds in flight, on the ground and on the sea for Winged Migration (2002). Many different kinds of aircraft were used, including traditional gliders, remote-controlled craft with computer-operated cameras, helicopters, Delta planes, and balloons. An Ultra Light Motorized aircraft was developed specifically for the film, giving the camera almost a 360-degree field of vision.

Many nature documentarians also try to educate the audience about the fragility of the environment. Cane Toads (1988) uses dry humor and a witty musical score to make a serious point about the environmental damage caused in Australia by invasive, imported cane toads. A different kind of environmental warning is raised by Maryann De Leo, the director of Chernobyl Heart (2003), about the continuing consequences of a nuclear reactor explosion in Ukraine.

The controversy and confusion surrounding artist and sculptor Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, is profiled in Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (1994). Photo courtesy of American Film Foundation.

Ethnography is the scientific description of specific human cultures. Robert Flaherty’s films are early examples of ethnographic documentaries. Unlike Flaherty, who frequently asked his subjects to recreate past events, other filmmakers focus
on what people do in the present. The 1991 Oscar winner Birdnesters of Thailand, for example, looks at the lives of the men who struggle up cliffs and into caves in search of ingredients for bird nest soup.

Although their approach may not be as scientific as that of ethnographic documentarians, other filmmakers turn an investigative eye on groups inside our own culture. In 1962, director Michael Apted worked as an assistant on the British documentary Seven Up, in which a group of 14 English children from different backgrounds talked about their values, prejudices and hopes for the future. Apted went on to film the same children at 14 and has made a new film with most
of the same subjects every seven years since then. Taken together, the documentaries present an informative group portrait. They depict universal issues of growing up, as well as a bit about the English class system.

Salesman, a 1968 film by David and Albert Maysles, observes four door-to-door salesmen as they try to sell Bibles to working-class Catholic families. The Maysles brothers filmed the salesmen as they share stories with other peddlers and attend management and sales meetings, portraying a tiny but fascinating subculture in American society. Spellbound reveals the diversity of the United States as it follows eight teenagers from different backgrounds and parts of the country, who are competing in the 1999 National Spelling Bee. Penelope Spheeris’ 1981 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization chronicles the Los Angeles punk rock scene of the late 1970s. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004) by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, profiles the music group Metallica as they work on an album and undergo group therapy.

In some cases, documentarians involve their subjects in the filmmaking process by giving them video or still cameras to record the events they find important. In the course of taking pictures in a red-light district in Calcutta, India, photographer Zana Briski became interested in the prostitutes’ children. As documented with co-filmmaker Ross Kauffman in the 2004 Oscar-winning film Born into Brothels, Briski gave the children simple cameras and offered photography lessons. The photographs taken by the children not only present an inside portrait of their lives, but also reveal their talents, suppressed by poverty and social censure.

Show your students a scientific, nature or ethnographic-style film. Ask them what techniques, such as humor, participation of the subject or innovative photography, interviews, use of archival material, observation camera, sound and music and the like, the filmmakers use to make the topic interesting to the audience.

Supplemental Activity

Ask your students to create a family history. Have them interview family members, collect family photographs and videos, diagrams of family homes or anything else that is available.