In this essay, I will be identifying and comparing the codes and conventions of two different documentaries and explaining what effect they have on the presentation of the subject matter of the programmes.
The definition of documentary is somewhat hard to define as the meaning has changed over time. Documentaries question real events and people, placing the audience in a position to form an opinion to decide what they believe or whose side they take. All documentaries are united by intent or stated intent to remain factual or non-fictional. In recent years documentaries have become increasingly popular, and have a major influence in educating us, and persuading and provoking people to change how they see the world.
The purposes of documentaries are to present factual information about the world, through visual aids, factual information and evidence, interviews, recorded or staged events. Documentaries are often biased- twisted into what the documentary maker wants us to see and believe. This leads us to believe the information presented to us is accurate. The audience is asked to trust the documentary maker’s intentions, although the truth is often manipulated to change our opinions.
There are many different categories of documentaries such as institutional, reportage, docusoaps, reality, nature/wildlife and docudramas. However, there are three main types of documentaries:
Compilation film- where the film is made up of an assembly of images, such as newsreel footage.
Interview- where people are recorded to give their testimonies on the event/s they were involved in.
Direct Cinema- where an event is recorded as it happens, with little or no interference from the documentary maker.
Sometimes a single documentary will have elements of all these forms.
Typical codes and conventions of a documentary are a documentary crew often consists of one camera operator and sound person, and they usually have a narrator, that you can either see or hear. Other codes and conventions would be things such as editing, bias, camera angles, lighting, characters, interviews and reconstructions, thus telling us a story through all these aspects.
In the past documentaries were seen as dry and stuffy, dealing with topics that were too heavy. But until only recently they have been seen in a new light, educating and entertaining people everywhere.
The first documentary that we looked at was Boys Alone. It is a reality and docudrama about a social experiment, to see how ten boys aged 11-12 would react when left alone in a house for a week, with no rules or adults. They were however, allowed to ask for medical assistance if needed and given lessons on how to cook and clean. There was a camera crew filming throughout. The target audience would be people that are interested in that sort of social experiment, or maybe people that have children of that age.
The opening scene shows the boys entering the house. They are all very excited, but there is calm music in the background, which contrasts the boys’ mood. The music could be interpreted as the calm before the storm, as the audience gets the impression something is going to happen. We are introduced the voice of the narrator, who tells us about the contextual information of the documentary. Some camera angles that are used are the long shot and a shot where the boys are framed by the door, which creates a spotlight effect. There is a handheld camera at the boys’ level, tracking their every move, which make the audience feel involved. This helps to attract the audience’s attention because they feel like they are actually there.
In the documentary, the characters are portrayed in specific ways, causing the audience to develop certain feelings or emotions and towards them. For example, Sim is portrayed as the loner and innocent outcaste, bullied by the others. We, as the audience, feel sorry for him.
George is portrayed as the leader of the group and the audience immediately takes a liking to him. Character portrayal helps the audience to show the boys popularity, what they think of themselves, their self-esteem and hierarchy in the house. For example the louder boys are at the top of the pecking order, and the quieter boys are at the bottom. However, the footage we are shown has been edited to show bias. The audience is asked to trust what they see, even though we are not given the full story. Even though this may be the case, the audience still finds themselves forming an opinion on each character.
As the documentary goes on, we see that the boys separate into two different groups- the loud boys and the quieter boys. Conflict develops between the groups, and the boys start to display hostile and aggressive behaviour towards each other. The music in the background changes from chilled out to sinister as things in the house start to get nasty. There are close ups of the quieter boys faces to show real anger and upset towards the louder boys. This makes the audience take the quieter boys side because they are portrayed as the victims and the louder boys are portrayed as the bullies.
Before the end of part 1 of the documentary, the narrator says, ‘war had been declared between the two groups’. This sentence helps to create a dramatic tension and also helps to sustain the audience’s attention because we want to find out what happens next and if the conflict is resolved in the end.
As soon as the boys enter the house, they start to run riot and destroy anything in sight. In the penultimate scene, the camera pans over the destruction and mayhem they caused, and there are straight cuts from room to room, while playing more chilled out music in the background, again contrasting the scene. There is a cross edit from the destruction, to the boys sleeping peacefully in their beds. I think this technique helps to create a shock factor for the audience. I think this also proves the main point of the documentary- without law or rule society crumbles. The documentary maker uses fade to black edit to show time gaps.
The last scene shows the parents reaction towards the boys when they come out of the house, which is what the audience had been building up anticipation for throughout the whole documentary. Their initial reaction is loveing greetings and hugs, but then the parents start to question their children- why cause so much destruction? The last few shots are very effective. They show the parents looking through the windows into the house, at the mayhem their children had caused. There is a close up shot of the shock on their faces, before the final scene fades to black.
The second documentary we studied was Damilola Taylor. It was about a ten year old boy who moved to an estate Peckham in England from Nigeria, and was brutally murdered by a gang of youths just a few yards from his front door. It was a reportage documentary about a real life story seen on the news: Damilola Taylor, his life, his last days and his fight for justice. I think the target audience for this documentary would be mainly adults, because some of the scenes in the documentary are too hard- hitting for children to understand, and maybe people interested in the murder case itself.
In the opening scene, we start to learn a bit about Damilola, and start to build up a picture of what he was like. He is straight away presented as the innocent victim- that attracts the audience’s attention because you are immediately on his side. We are shown pictures and home videos in slow motion of Damilola in happier times, before the camera flashes to his grieving parents, showing a contrast of emotions. I think the slow motion shots help to emphasize Damilola being a happy, normal boy. There are point of view shots of his parents, which help to create the factor of real tragedy. The music in the background is chilling and mournful which creates a solemn atmosphere.
We are also introduced to the narrator, who gives us contextual information and a running commentary throughout. We can actually see the narrator, who follows the story of Damilola’s life and last few days, which makes it more realistic and believable. Also actually seeing the narrator in person makes it easier for the audience to trust him. The opening is very powerful and hard-hitting. We are introduced to Damilola’s family and can see their pain; which grabs the audience’s attention and makes you really feel emotion towards them.
There is a very effective scene where Peckham and Nigeria are contrasted by camera angles. The bright, warm colours of Nigeria: African drumming in the background, Damilola happy in his native country. These pictures then fade into a tilt shot from the sky down to the dull, solemn skyline of Peckham, down to the death and misery of London, where Damilolas life was taken. The contrast of the two scenes almost creates a sense of heaven and hell.
The narrator tells us of the Untouchables, a gang of about a dozen out of control youths, suspected to have murdered Damilola. Immediately, the audience forms an opinion of hatred upon them. We are told by victims of other attacks by the Untouchables, such as rape and racial attacks. This helps to reinforce our opinion of them. The victims telling their stories have their faces blurred to protect identity, and in their voices we can hear their terror when they talk about the Untouchables. Even in the background we hear sinister music when the Untouchables are mentioned.
We follow Damilola’s last days up to his death. Through the documentary, we visit the places he went to in his final hours, retrace the steps he took. Again, this creates a sense of reality. We hear the frantic phone call that was made to the ambulance services when Damilola’s body was discovered. In the background we see footage of the moon, creating a chilling contrast of calm and frantic. We also see shots of the city, the evil city where Damilola’s life was taken from him. Again this builds up a picture of death, destruction and hell, as Damilola’s life slowly slips away in the background.
The most emotional scene in the documentary is the memorial. We see Damilola’s grief stricken parents in a home video, visiting the scene where their son died, and haunting cries of his father in the background. I think they used a home video to make it seem more realistic and hard-hitting, trying to help the audience to take in that this tragedy actually happened. There are shots from the actual memorial, which is extremely powerful and sad.
The last scene is very chilling, again showing shots of Damilola’s smiling face, seeing him in times of happiness. There are repeated voiceovers, which represent the haunted memories. The narrator also helps to create a real sense of injustice, which is so powerful it makes the audience wish they could do something to help. The last scene is very effective because it is memorable and leaves the audience in a state of emotion and shock by the horror of Damilola Taylors murder.
The opening scenes of each of the documentaries are both eye-catching, but in very different ways. Damilola Taylor is on a much more serious note, whereas Boys alone is less intense. Comparing the opening scenes, we see there is a contrast of emotions: Damilola Taylor is very solemn whereas Boys alone is excitement. I think both openings symbolise the beginning of journeys: The Beginning of Damilolas fight for justice, and the beginning of the week home alone for the young boys. This helps to attract audience’s attention because we want to follow their journeys and see if lessons can be learnt from them.
Both opening scenes create the impression that something major is going to happen, which helps to sustain the audience’s attention throughout the documentary because you want to see the result. Both documentaries use suspense to create an atmosphere, which also helps to keep the audience interested. I think Damilola Taylor is the more successful documentary in sustaining audience attention because its contents are far more poignant and powerful, really hitting home what a terrible tragedy his death was. I think the Damilola story would appeal to a wider audience because it was such a big case: having heard about it on the news and now having a chance to find out the real full-length version of what really happened.
Some examples of codes and conventions in boys alone are there is a narrator, who runs through the contextual information about the documentary. A narrator is very important and I think this has been included so that the audience is aware of what is going on, throughout the documentary.
A narrator was also used in Damilola Taylor, but instead of a voiceover narrator we actually meet the narrator in person. I think this technique was suitable for this type of documentary because it helps the audience to gain the narrators trust, which is important because it is such a tragic story.
Other codes and conventions of the documentaries are they both use background music to contrast or set the scene, and to create an atmosphere. For example in Damilola Taylor, when they do interviews with his relatives, they play solemn music in the background to create an atmosphere of sadness and grief. In boys alone, when the boys are causing mayhem and destruction in the house, chilled out and calm music is playing in the background.
Both documentaries use character building to help the audience form opinions of each character. This is very important because how the characters are presented to the audience affects their views on them. For example, the Untouchables are presented as Out of control, evil and destructive, so the audience formulates an opinion of hatred on them. In boys alone, Sim is presented as an outcaste and victim of bullying by the other boys, so we feel sorry for him. Character building is a very important code and convention because it makes the audience feel more involved in the documentary, by forming emotional connections with certain characters.
Overall, I think the Documentaries were very effective in attracting and sustaining the audience’s attention. I think the Damilola Taylor documentary was more memorable because it was so powerful and really made me feel a variety of different emotions. I think the codes and conventions used were also very effective, such as the solemn background music, and helped to present the subject matter of the programme. Boys alone was successful in its own way: the documentary maker used a lot of editing to help the audience form opinions on each of the characters, which I thought was very effective. I found myself forming views on the characters. I really enjoyed watching both documentaries.