Posted in Film, Filmmaking

The Power of the Personal Documentary


Everyone is fascinated by personal stories. When it comes to movies, most viewers need personal human stories to be told well on the screen, or else the viewers begin to tune out. For example, while big-budget action blockbusters can be entertaining and fun, there is generally little to take away from them. Films that deal with real human issues and are told in unique and clever ways are the kinds of films that viewers take the most away from. When it comes to documentaries, viewers will often try to confide in personal stories told on screen and be most moved by stories that affect them or their personal lives in a way that might affect another person differently.

It’s important to look at the power and possibility documentaries have not just on audience viewers but on intelligent, articulate individuals in society who can take the issues brought up in these kinds of film and share them with others. While one can learn something from a great non-personal documentary, there is something truly special about discovering characters in these kind of films, because it is almost as if the viewer is getting a glimpse of a life or lives in real time.

The first great aspect of personal documentaries is the intimacy the viewer has with the personal subjects and/or documentary filmmakers. Because the filmmaker is so well connected to the figures featured on screen — in some cases, that figure can be the filmmaker himself — the audience feels the intimacy just in the way the film is put together.

The second aspect that truly lends power to the proceedings is the nature of the subject’s behavior in relationship with the filmmaker that he or she or them actually know or knows in real life. When it comes to documentary film, it is very difficult to have a clearly pure observational view of a personal life.

Take Michael Apted’s acclaimed Up series for example. Every seven years, Apted interviews the same group of English individuals, checking up on their lives and seeing what they are accomplishing and feeling regrets about. This is one of the most pure types of documentary cinema because we are not actually following the subjects all the time, like in Peter Weir’s fictional The Truman Show; we merely check in with them every seven years. We are under the impression that these people are living their lives without any response to the series of documentary films being made about them.

Still, there is that slight possibility that the subjects are doing things in their lives that they wouldn’t ordinarily do if their lives weren’t being captured on film every few years. It is also possible that the subjects want to impress filmmaker Apted with recent happenings in their lives. It is almost a given that this theory isn’t the case, and that the subjects in the Up series really do lead their lives without any interference from the movies that are made about them, but it can’t be proven one hundred percent.

When a personal documentary is made, there is a special relationship between the subject and filmmaker, and that kind of relationship makes for a much different kind of viewing experience. Imagine a filmmaker who walks down a sidewalk and asks various anonymous people questions about important issues in America today. The kind of answers that filmmaker receives from anonymous people he doesn’t know will be far less personal and involving than if he receives answers from a personal family member or friend, documented in a way that provides intimacy and context for the viewer. The most personal documentaries are the most involving for viewers because the film works in two ways, one as an exploration into a subject or subjects, and another as a special relationship between subject and filmmaker.

The third aspect that articulates the power of personal documentary is the manner in which commentary and actions on screen become so deeply personal that the viewer almost feels as if he or she has stepped into the immoral act of voyeurism. Before there were personal documentaries, there was James Stewart looking out an apartment window into other hotel rooms with a giant pair of black binoculars in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

Voyeurism is something that everyone experiences in their lives — there is something intriguing about looking into the lives of others when they don’t know you’re looking at them. Voyeurism has been used in fictional film for decades, and it can be a great tool to create suspense because, really, all movies are voyeurism. We sit in the audience anonymously looking up at the screen as observers to characters who don’t know that we are out there in the audience. Personal documentaries represent one of the greatest uses of voyeurism because we are witnessing heartbreak, happiness, real life. It can be almost as if we are walking by a person and overhearing a conversation or seeing a life-altering event. The more personal and more voyeuristic the circumstances on screen, the more we think we need to turn away but truly can’t stop watching.

Documentary filmmakers can construct their own personal documentaries in a variety of ways. They can strip away a small layer from the interviewee on film, merely showing the exterior of the person and not digging deep. They can allow the interviewee to open up to his or her discretion, finding out intimate details through conversation. They can go far and allow the audience an intimate view at a life that is truly worth investigating and exploring. They can take the film so far that it reaches the point of unabashed voyeurism, seeing every aspect of a person’s life, and hearing from that person’s lips all the fears and joys that made his or her life the kind it turned out to be.

There are many kinds of personal documentaries, but the best are the ones that stay true to the source and that make the audience learn a little something right along with the filmmaker. The power and possibility of the personal documentary has barely scraped the service, and the future holds many more great pieces of work that will open audience’s eyes up to more fascinating questions and ideas.

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