Wednesday, August 25, 2010


From the Arcata Senior Lunch Program segment.

What is "observational documentary"?

In this documentary style, filmmakers do not intervene in what they’re shooting, but simply use the camera to observe. The editing approach is to present real life, at the moment, and in real time. No voice-over commentaries or background music are added, and there are no reenactments or interviews.

This style developed primarily in Europe, with the advent of mobile, synchronous recording 16mm equipment. According to Bill Nichols in Documentary Modes of Representation, the style developed in reaction to the “moralizing quality” of expository documentaries. The focus is “unobtrusive” documentation of people “not explicitly addressing the camera.”

“The typical documentary structure in the U.S. is to have a story, with closure at the end,” said HSU film professor Ann Alter. “But in this style the camera merely observes. It’s kind of the opposite of what Michael Moore does, when he uses to camera to provoke and elicit information.”

The most prominent American filmmaker who has worked in the observational style is considered to be Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies, La Danse) although he rejects the term. D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back) Albert and David Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens) and Richard Leacock are well known American filmmakers from the Direct Cinema movement which has roots in Observational documentary.

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