Documentaries and intentional film-stock degradation

A good documentary is one that blurs the line between reality and fiction in film. Recently, there has been a wave of documentaries that leave this line barely visible if not completely eliminated. When the audience can barely figure out the difference between the two, it is safe to say the film has done its job. Surprisingly, while films are sometimes supposed to act as an alternative to reality, in this instance the closer they are to reality the better. Catfish (Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman, 2010, USA) blurs the line between reality and film fiction by using various amateur film techniques.

In the opening shot Yaniv ‘Nev’ Schulman is clearly using self reflexivity to point out that the film is documentary. Using dialogue to point out that this is a documentary already establishes voyeuristic atmosphere in the film. It feels like someone just grabbed a simple cheap camera and started filming an unwilling subject. Nev complains that he does not want to be filmed but the person behind the camera keeps on doing so. There are several simple quick cuts that violate the 30 degree angle rule. It is then followed by a couple of zoom ins and outs with no particular purpose while the camera is shaky. This establishes the notion of an amateur film maker who has no idea about basic film making techniques. Diluting the film by making it look more like an amateur stock encompasses the film claim of amateurs deciding to film for the sake of filming. It is reality at its best, doing something for the sake of doing it. To drive the point home, the filming person replies to Nev complaints are barely audible. They are complemented by subtitles. The voyeuristic approach adds realism because the audience feels they are eavesdropping on a conversation. And there is no better way to accomplish that than by the camera eavesdropping itself.

A good documentary, in terms of blurring the line between reality and fiction, should not be perfect. Faults are a well known human condition and are bound to appear on a regular basis. If Catfish had been made perfectly with no goofs, it would end up looking far from reality than it wanted. Imagine seeing the film with perfect sound, perfect lighting and perfect dialogue. It would feel scripted very much distinguishable from real world. To do so would mean condemning it to the fictional world. In the scene where Nev realises that the song sent to him is fake, the sound quality degradation is clearly used to this effect. Nev first plays song with sound coming from his computer. At first it is not even clear how the original song from a website and that sent to him are similar. Surely they sound similar but it takes multiple listening to prove so. In the film Nev plays the songs multiple times and even by then it is not clear how they do sound the same. It would have been easier for any filmmaker to add the sound onto the film in the editing process in order to clear up the confusion. In this case however, recording the sound directly from the computer in the filming process adds doubt to his case. Nev uses the oldest technique in the book by asking the camera “Is this not the same recording?” It is not that dissimilar to popular horror pseudo-documentaries, when characters ask “What was that?” in a scene where nothing is clearly seen. The suspense added by such a statement increases doubt to the audience. To play the music clearly would be a grave and, ironically, amateur mistake.

As previously mentioned, by deliberately inserting mistakes in the film, the filmmakers achieve an unprecedented amount of success in blurring the line. Just as in the music scene above, the filmmakers will constantly make ‘amateur’ errors instead of editing them out. There are several scenes where the camera is just laying around while filming nothing in particular but rather recording the sound. In reality one would rarely pay attention to the camera 100 percent of the time. An amateur filmmaker will, from time to time, forget about the camera and pay attention to other scenarios. The difference between an amateur filmmaker and an experienced one will be the footage that makes it in the final cut. In the car scene where Nev finally arrives in Angela’s house, there are multiple shots taken with the camera lying in absurd angles. It applies that the camera was just thrown on a car seat while still on. At the same time, it adds continuity in the filming process. One feels like he has been watching the whole adventure continuously without any cuts. These mistakes do wonders in achieving the voyeuristic reality in the film.

Achieving a good documentary that blurs the line between a film and reality requires deliberate mistakes. One has to film as if s/he is an amateur filmmaker regardless of their experience. The final product is desired to look low quality and in an ironic twist achieve a superior effect to the audience in comparison to high quality one.

One thought on “Documentaries and intentional film-stock degradation

  1. After reading this post, I thought of the movie “G.I. Jane” with Demi Moore. At the end of what was a pretty good film, the director made the decision to have the camera shake. I couldn’t believe such an amateur move being used deliberately. For me, it totally ruined the film.

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