A camera changes things


Documentary, as a genre distinct from fiction, does not exist. This is a conclusion I’ve come to via two recent interviews which appeared on the excellent Guardian Film Weekly podcast. The first was with Nev Schulman, co-creator and star of Catfish, who responded to the debate over the authenticity of his film by claiming that since it was entirely genuine and unreconstructed footage, it was in fact ‘pure documentary’. Woah there. Does such a thing exist? Is Catfish it?

A month or two earlier I’d heard Clio Barnard on the same programme, speaking about her use of a dictaphone with the subjects of her film, The Arbor (which I loved). Barnard’s interviews consisted of audio alone, later to be embellished by actors’ lip-synching, which meant they were ‘more intimate’ than in more conventional film documentary. ‘A camera changes things’ was her simple statement – something that is perhaps not always apparent when we watch this genre of films.

What is ‘documentary’? If, as Barnard describes, filmmaking mediates reality, how is what we see in Catfish any more real than (say) the events filmed by Tom Hooper when he made The King’s Speech? After all, Schulman and Colin Firth are both equally aware of the camera’s presence – and both produce ‘performances’ that are subject to the editing process and addition of sound which shape the final product.

Firth has a written script, true – but he will divert from it to varying degrees when it comes to actual delivery. Who’s to say that Schulman doesn’t also have a rough ‘script’ in mind, an idea of how he wants to tell his story, before the camera in Catfish starts to roll? How much of what appears on camera in Catfish the real Nev Schulman? And, equally, how much of Firth’s own off-screen self will inevitably creep into his acting performance?


Essentially I’m arguing that any difference is qualitative rather than quantitative; Catfish and The King’s Speech exist not in two opposing categories but at different ends of the same scale. As soon as a director turns a camera on – whatever the genre – he introduces an imagined audience and has begun to create the artifice of film.

I think this was the problem with I’m Still Here, Casey Affleck’s film about his friend, Joaquin Phoenix. With a plot consisting entirely of rich men acting like a boorish goons, any dramatic tension relied entirely on the question of whether the action was ‘real’ or all a hoax. But the fact is that Phoenix did get fat, grow a beard, rap terribly and act like a twat in front of the camera. Acting, acting up – what’s the difference – and as Barthes would tell you, the author’s intention is of no consequence anyway. All there is is the text, and this one was terribly tedious.

By contrast, Catfish is so successful is not only thanks to its compelling narrative, but because as a text it embraces its own slippery mix of life, performance, film and fantasy. In what feels like a key scene, the two Schulmans argue in front of the camera, Nev telling his brother (Ariel, the director) that he’s fed up of being bossed about. ‘I’m directing a film’, says Ariel. ‘Yeah well sometimes I don’t feel like being directed by you’, retorts Nev. What’s he referring to here? Their life in general? The filmmaking process? Their characters in film’s narrative?

A document

Even the woman at the film’s centre, the apparent victim of the whole process, quickly becomes willing participant once the brothers’ camera discovers her – or once she has lured it in, with increasingly obvious fakery and intensifying expressions of sexual desire. ‘I had a feeling you guys might so something with this’, she tells them, apparently aware that they were filmmakers.

What becomes clear is the banality of the video camera in our society – no-one bats an eyelid when one appears, and all are happy either speaking to it or performing in front of it. CCTV, disposable digital photography and pocket-sized equipment mean we’re entirely used to being recorded. And where do many of these images and videos end up? On Facebook – which, as this film so acutely shows, is our own ever-evolving, mediated, public presentation of ourselves through text and image.

Perhaps, therefore, Catfish’s greatest achievement is that it provokes a further question. It is simply the case that documentary cannot exist as record of real life, unmediated by the process of filmmaking? Or is it that no ‘real life’ exists that doesn’t already imagine itself as documentary?

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4 Responses to A camera changes things

  1. Joe says:

    Just a quick blomment on this compelling theory – documentary perhaps only exists as footage from CCTV cameras. And moreover only those CCTV cameras of which we are unaware. And only in footage that will never be edited together at a later date by, say, ‘CCTV nightmares’ on Sky.

    You’re right that documentary is generally under attack from both sides of the camera, and it is terribly, terribly fragile as a result, but we can’t write it off entirely. It exists, but only if nobody is looking.

    • JamieR says:

      I thought that too, but then I thought one could argue that even if we’re unaware of a particular CCTV camera, we still know of the existence of CCTV (or a mobile across the street, etc) and of the possibility of being filmed. Perhaps the pervasiveness of modern media in fact conditions us to ‘perform’ (to varying degrees) with this heightened sense of self-awareness at all times – even in private? George Orwell must be turning in his grave.

  2. zed says:

    You write that “Documentary, as a genre distinct from fiction, does not exist”. I would suggest that there is a difference. At the very least they lie along a spectrum, though I’d argue that there is actually a distinction between the two.

    We are each the products of our history, created by the constant interaction between external events and our conscious and unconscious personal understanding of, and relationship with, these external events. In this way we live in accordance with the script(s) written by our history. As in a documentary, we believe ourselves to be being ourselves. By comparison, in a work of fiction, we pretend to be that which the script, written for us or by us, requires of us.

    The camera may well influence the people being filmed in a documentary, who then ‘fictionalise’ how they are. However, it has been argued that people being filmed in their normal environment, going about their daily business, often ‘forget’ that the camera is there and ‘act naturally’. At the very least, those being recorded in a documentary believe themselves to be being authentic and even if they ‘play to the camera’ they will do so as from their own perspective. In contrast, a script which produces the work of fiction requires us to literally play a part, to pretend to be someone other than who we believe ourselves to be.

    I am worried about this blurring of the boundaries between what is real, as might be portrayed in a documentary, and what is fiction, a portrayal driven by the imagination of the script writer. ‘Knowing’ about what is real and what is imagined is one differentiation between sanity and madness. I am not suggesting an impermeable and rigid boundary….poor we are indeed if we are only sane. Culture, playfulness, discovery, adventure all lie in between what is real and what is imagined, between what is sane and what is mad. Good fiction plays in this borderland, and a good documentary might record that playfulness. But if we ultimately cannot distinguish between what’s real – generally what’s shared by most others – and what’s make-believe, we are in danger of leading a virtual existence….and ultimately madness.

  3. Pingback: Watch it: ‘The Act of Killing’ (2012) | 2d film club

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