Catalin Brylla is an editor and media lecturer who believes film theory has much to teach TV documentary makers. In the latest in an occasional series of articles he introduces Bill Nichols’ Interactive Mode.
In this article we focus on interactivity. Not in the realm of computers and internet, but the interactivity of filmmaker and subject. Before I continue, let me stress that the modes we are talking about are NOT genres. They are rather different ways of treating a topic and a character, and they often occur in combination.
The interactive treatment allows the filmmaker to interact not only with people but also with the environment of the documentary world (or ‘diegesis’ as a fiction filmmaker would say). A typical example is the interview, especially interviews in which the filmmaker’s presence is emphasised (see more about interviews and interviewing styles in another article). The focus of the interactive mode is on character interaction, rather than on theme or argument as in the poetic mode. When I say ‘character’ I mean the filmmaker (or presenter) and the subject(s). Often, this interaction (or participation) is the actual theme or topic of the film. If you watch interactive documentaries, such as Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me”, you will realise that the documentary is not really about Roger Smith or General Motors. No, it is about Michael Moore on a journey, interacting with people and institutions in his search for an interview with Roger (the then CEO of General Motors). It even appears that Moore knew all along that an interview was unachievable, so the exploratory journey and (often ironic) interaction with people becomes the actual issue at hand. So, here we are at the core feature of the interactive mode: the filmmaker is the social actor of the documentary. (S)he is the catalyst, the lens and the membrane of the film. We as the audience KNOW we witness events thorough his/her eyes, and thus, interactive documentaries turn opinion, bias and subjectivity into a virtue. We as the audience don’t just KNOW that someone is making this film. We are deliberately TOLD that someone is making this film, and that we should perceive events through their eyes.
Stylistically, everything is allowed that reveals the filmmaker to the audience: Boom/camera mics, the camera, the filmmaker him/herself, questions being asked by the filmmaker off-screen, characters looking off-screen (acknowledging the filmmaker) etc. Interestingly, most interactive documentaries use a real-time flow of action and a strong coherence of space. They heavily depend on continuity editing (establishing shots, shot/reverse shots, reaction-POV shots, elliptical cuts etc; more on continuity editing in another article) to establish a time and space that makes the viewer feel as if (s)he was there, but in the role of the filmmaker. So, the viewer is not just an observer (like in the observational mode), but an inter-actor “acting” in a certain space at a certain time. Therefore, the style is observational, using continuity editing and calling little attention to itself. Montage editing, such as the use of cutaways and jumping between different times and spaces, is very rare. Also, re-enactments are usually avoided since they would undermine the subjective nature of real people.
Let’s look at an example: Lift (by Marc Isaacs)
In this documentary, documentary maker Marc Isaacs films people in the lift of a London tower block. All filming is done in the lift with people that happen to use the lift. The first 5 minutes are almost archetypical of an interactive documentary: we see close-up shots that reveal Isaacs (his sneakers, his reflection in the lift’s mirror), we hear him asking a woman about why people don’t usually talk in the lift, challenging a guy who is half-drunk, observing an older grumpy woman forbidding a young guy to enter the lift (because of Isaacs filming her), a zoom-in to that woman’s face laughing at what she just did but then turning into an uncomfortable silence when being watched etc. These fragmented episodes beautifully show the different way Isaacs uses to interact with his environment: he is observer, provocateur, interrogator, intruder and interviewer. This dynamic treatment does not only make it very interesting to watch, but it also places me as the viewer in an active and awkward position: What is the filmmaker (who is my screen persona) doing next? Do I agree with him/her? Does (s)he take too much control? What is his/her responsibility towards the people? Do I want to know more about them? If yes, do I agree with the filmmaker intruding into their lives? And so forth. As you can see, this makes the viewer an active participant and creates some kind of fear or unease, but don’t we just love uncertainty and surprises as an audience? It’s all about being stimulated and becoming an active viewer, rather than a passive couch potato.
One last thing: a documentary is not interactive just because one can see (or hear) the filmmaker or the camera. It is about making interactivity the topic of the documentary, showing how the filmmaker’s presence and participation can influence, trigger and openly manipulate events. Like in any other of Nichol’s modes, it is not just about style but how that style relates to content. If you look at John Pilger’s documentaries, you will see him (or hear his voice) a lot throughout the film, for example when he interviews his subjects. However, his overall treatment completely negates any subjectivity and bias in favour of preaching and spoon-feeding the audience with information that pretends to be objective, but is actually not (see more on this in the article on the expository mode). This has nothing to do with the interactive mode. Interactivity is about openly acknowledging that you as the filmmaker are on a journey; you are exploring an issue; you have your own faults, your own inner demons and your own fears, but you are human, like me, the viewer; you are not here to preach or convince, but rather to take me on a journey and show me how the world works, and how it changes when being explored.
Read the other articles in the series:
Catalin Brylla is a freelance editor, media lecturer and post-production consultant. He teaches post-production practice, film and documentary theory, and documentary production at the International Film School Wales, the London Academy of Radio, Film and TV and Insight Education.
As a film scholar his research includes narratology and cognitive film studies. His article on narrative endings has been published in Image and Narrative and broadcast on RTV Croatia.
As a practitioner he has edited a variety of documentaries (feature and short), promos and short fiction, which were selected and screened at international film festivals and broadcast on Swedish, Swiss and Brazilian TV.