Observational documentary cinema avoids any kind of exposition or commentary and instead serves up a fly-on-the-wall approach. This phase of cinema verite and direct cinema are made up of purely observational moments, as if we are seeing something unfold for the first time, and that we aren’t being pulled emotionally in any way by the filmmaker. There is a strong sense of immediacy, with the performers generally (but not always) ignoring the camera as if it isn’t there and just being in the moment, creating a reality that one couldn’t find in any other kind of film. Two examples of observational cinema are two wildly different, and at the same time, very similar films entitled The Story of the Weeping Camel and Grey Gardens.
There are many aspects to observational cinema. One aspect is long takes to capture the action. Since there is far less editing in observational cinema, it makes sense to let events unfold for awhile in long takes. This adds to the sense of immediacy, and it makes the audience feel to an even greater extent that they aren’t being manipulated in any way by the images on the screen.
Another aspect is that the camera is handheld. This also adds to the sense of immediacy because if the camera were locked down on a tripod, the events unfolding before the audience would feel staged. Since the performers are just being themselves in the frame, they’re not going to stay stationed at a specific place in the frame. The performers will be unpredictable, moving all around, darting left or right if they feel like moving. Therefore, to capture the moment, the filmmaker must go handheld, or they might lose some of the action in the frame.
A third aspect to observational cinema is that sound is synchronous, recorded on location. More than any other feature, this one truly makes the fly-on-the-wall approach complete. If there were any sort of sound effects, music, or clean sound in the film, the manipulation factor would make itself known. Since the sound is purely what is recorded on location, the audience feels like they are truly there with the performers, and not listening to some tracks that a sound designer put together months after production wrapped. Although the sound may sound mediocre or downright awful, it’s important to preserve the moment just as it sounded at that time and place. It’s more important to let the sound be as it is and not interrupt the natural sound of the moment.
In addition to the less-than-desired sound quality, there may be blurred, out of focus visuals and poor lighting. Out of focus shots particularly call attention to themselves because we are so used to never seeing such shots in major films. Typically when we see out of focus shots we are taken aback, and we may think that we’re seeing a film from a less-than-competent filmmaker. In observational cinema, however, the quality makes the visuals more real because the camera operator is trying to capture the action in the moment, and thus he is bound to make some mistakes with focus.
There are some drawbacks to observational cinema. The most noticeable drawback is that, despite the claim that observational cinema truly observes without making the camera or camera operators known, it is impossible be true observers of people. It is, however, possible to be pure observers of other things, like animals, plants, insects, etc. When the living object in front of the camera is completely unaware that it is being filmed, then the viewer is watching a true observational moment. With people, however, it is difficult to get them to pretend like the camera doesn’t exist and not react to the camera, A camera is present at all times on a documentary film shoot, and therefore, the performer, unless insane in some way, is aware of the surroundings and will not act in the way he or she would act with the camera not present. An argument to this is that, without the camera, there would be no movie. In order to preserve a moment and document certain individuals at a point in time, one needs to have a camera present, or there will be nothing to showcase. It seems necessary to break the fourth wall just a little with the camera in order to capture something that never would have been captured to begin with.
Another drawback to the medium of observational cinema is that the lack of context may make the movie less successful at causing social change. A major difference between observational documentary cinema and the kind of cinema that came before it is that observational cinema gets rid of any kind of commentary and information and just lets the viewer watch events unfold. While this is a more immediate kind of storytelling, the audience at the same time doesn’t get spoon-fed volatile information. When an audience is out of the loop on information, the social change may be less likely to occur. For example, say there is a country in Africa where millions of people are suffering from disease. An expositional documentary would provide commentary and voice-over and would likely get viewers riled up and ready to take action and help out in anyway possible. An observational documentary would merely show the people in Africa, show how they cope day in and day out with the disease, and not provide a clear context for what the audience is watching. While the audience would feel sad watching the latter form of documentary, there would be no social change because the desired information isn’t available.
The first of the two films of the observational cinema form to discuss is The Story of the Weeping Camel, written and directed by Byanmasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni. The 2004 release, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, stars Janchiv Ayurzana, Chimed Ohin, and Amgaabazar Gonson. The film takes place in the Gobi Desert in southern Magnolia, and it follows four generations of nomadic sheep herders. They have no modern conveniences — no TV, no electricity — and truly emulate a time of many centuries ago. They are happy and jovial and spend most of their time awake herding the sheep, goats, and camel. One of the sheep gives birth to a white colt but immediately rejects it, refusing to let the colt drinks its milk. The rest of the film documents how the Mongolian people work together to get the camel to bond with its little colt and weep to music along the way.
The Story of the Weeping Camel meets many, but not all, of an observational film. The film has absolutely no commentary on the proceedings. We watch events unfold truly like observers, allowing the events to unfold slowly before us. At times it is almost like we are watching things unfold in real time, with no camera in between the audience and the events. It isn’t particularly clear why the directors chose to not bring in any kind of commentary, as it might have cleared up some questions about the lives of the people and the practices put into care for the sheep and camel. Alas, the filmmakers chose a certain style and went with it, delivering a film that asks questions more than answers them. The film absolutely depicts the everyday, where events unfold like real life, and the camera works as the main eye and the ideal observer.
Not everything in The Story of the Weeping Camel, however, is an example of the observational form. Technically, the film doesn’t resemble the observational form but instead resembles a major theatrical polished film. Technically the film is competent. It looks like it’s shot on a clean 35mm camera, which is unusual for this kind of movie. When the film begins, the viewer may mistake it not for an observational documentary, or even a documentary for that matter. Documentaries typically are shot handheld, with shots out of focus, and sound synced at the sight.
The Story of the Weeping Camel, however, is shot very exquisitely, with emphasis on beautifully composed shots and wide takes that emcompass a giant landscape. After awhile, a shot out of focus or any kind of handheld momentum would take us out of the movie. The film sets up a kind of technical structure from the very first scene, and we expect that structure to remain the same throughout the rest of the picture. Also, and more importantly, The Story of the Weeping Camel brings about the ethical issues of how much a filmmaker should intrude on its subjects.
Is this film truly observational? One could argue that the filmmakers do intrude on the proceedings from time to time. All the events involving the camel seem genuine, but some moments with the family seem a little forced. The movie begins with a scene where one of the Mongolian people breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience, immediately showing us that not everything will be purely observed. All the moments with the Mongolian people talking to each other seems genuine, but one has to wonder if they are acting for the camera and not totally being themselves. At the end of the film, there is an added scene where the kids, who up until that point were without a television set, receive a TV set and jump around in joy. Did the filmmakers give them this TV set? If so, what is the audience supposed to take away from this development in the children’s lives? The point of this added scene is a little unclear. All in all, the piece is fairly observational, but these are just some factors of the questionably observational form to be discussed and made known.
The second of two films of the observational form to be discussed is Grey Gardens. The film is about two eccentric older women, cousins to the Kennedys, who live in a giant manson in unsanitary conditions. They constantly bicker back and forth and have both devotion and disgust for one another. The elder of the two is Edith Bouvier Beale, about 75 years old, and her daughter, who’s in her 50s, is named simply Edie. Family charity is the only thing that has kept the two from being homeless, as they just ramble on and accomplish next to nothing throughout their days. They live at Grey Gardens, the name of their rundown estate, and they wither away by themselves, similar to the old woman in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.
Grey Gardens is a clearer example of the observational form than The Story of the Weeping Camel. Unlike the exquisite cinematography and 35mm look of Camel, Grey Gardens has a more grainy handheld 16mm look to it that constantly goes out of focus and becomes distracted throughout various long takes. Not only do all of these technical aspects enhance the immediacy of the events, but it also draws attention to the fact that Edith and Edie are truly in the moment, performing for the camera, always trying to find a way to draw attention to themselves. The grainy 16mm look works better than the more beautiful 35mm because the look shouldn’t be too nice. We are invited into the rotting home of two eccentric old people; the storyline itself calls for a camera that doesn’t seem too full of itself. The graininess of the film draws even more attention to itself and works well under the circumstances. The handheld tendencies of the camera operator make it seem like there is a third person in the room — the spectator — who is merely recording all the speeches and movements of these two people. The camera goes out of focus a lot, and this is probably unintentional, because the two women are moving around and darting back and forth so much, it has to be difficult for the camera operator to keep the camera in focus at all times. Unlike filming a camel, which doesn’t move very much, filming a person walking and talking is very difficult for focus pullers. The out of focus quality is just another aspect that enhances the immediacy of the moment.
Furthermore, all the sound is recorded on location. There is never a feeling that there is some kind of sound, sound effect, or music creeping in from a different time and place. For those long ninety minutes, we are stuck with the two women, talking at each other, sometimes screaming at each other, and all the sound we hear is coming from them and the ambience of their giant mansion. In observational cinema, the editing is supposed to enhance real life, and that is especially true in this case, because the editor will simply cut wherever he or she feels like. There is no sense of structure to the editing, yet it still works in the context of this film. The editing, more than anything else in the movie, draws attention to itself at times a la Breathless, but it, like many other aspects of the movie, work well for the picture. These and many more aspects confirm that Grey Gardens is a startling piece of observational documentary cinema.
Both The Story of the Weeping Camel and Grey Gardens are excellent examples of the observational cinema, and both films have gone on to great acclaim and long-lasting life. Camel went onto win various awards and get nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and Grey Gardens has gone on to become a Broadway musical. Talented singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright also encapsulated the film is his song “Grey Gardens,” which begins with Little Edie’s line, “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and present You know what I mean?” But most importantly, the films features various qualities that work best for the observational cinema, and they are prime examples of the form.