Interrogation about documentary #6: documentary rhetoric
The spoken word plays a vital role in most docos, but they ‘speak’ usually with a combination of words and image, including the speaker’s body language, expression and interaction with filmmaker (Nichols, 42). The voice of a documentary then is the way the particular view of the world represented is made known to us (Nichols, 43). There are many formal elements contribute to the voice (Nichols, 44-45), including:
- when to cut, edit, what to juxtapose and how to frame or compose a shot
- whether to record synchronous sound during the shoot or whether to add dubbed, music, foley etc
- whether to adhere to accurate chronology or rearrange events
- whether to use archival or other people’s footage etc
- what mode of representation to use (expository, poetic, observational, participatory, reflexive or performative) (Nichols, 46)
Commentary is the most explicit aspect of voice (Nichols, 47). It may be explicitly partisan or apparently objective etc. Or the position can be much more implicit, eg in the poetic mode. This is the voice of perspective; evidence slowly accrues (Nichols, 48)
The voice can make a case or present an argument as well as convey a point of view. The voice requires an ‘informing logic overseeing the organization of the doco’ (Nichols, 43).
Voice, then, is a question of how the logic, argument, or viewpoint of a film gets conveyed to us’ (Nichols, 43).
In the rhetorical tradition, ‘eloquence serves a social as well as aesthetic purpose’ (Nichols, 2). Documentary rhetoric has a special function because ‘The bond between documentary and the historical world is deep and profound. Documentary adds a new dimension to popular memory and social history’ (Nichols, 2).
‘Rhetoric is the form of speech used to persuade or convince others about an issue for which no clear-cut, unequivocal answer or solution exists.” (Nichols, 16) “Rhetoric … may readily make use of poetic, narrative, or logical elements. They are, however, put in the service of convincing us about an issue for which more than one point of view or conclusion is possible.” (Nichols, 16)
5 classical departments of rhetoric—invention, arrangement style, memory and delivery – all relevant in doco rhetoric
- invention—’the discovery of evidence or proofs in support of a position or argument’ (Nichols, 49)
these can be artistic/aesthetic/emotional, not just scientific in docos (Nichols, 50)
–you must be credible, convincing and compelling (Nichols, 51)
- arrangement—the structure. One common arrangement for docos is the problem/solution structure (Nichols, 56)
A classical structure is outlines on page 56, but it doesn’t suit hypertextual docos.
- style—includes all the techniques and aesthetics you have at your disposal, both in terms of language and filmings and editing (Nichols, 57)
- memory—a film is an historical document; it also calls upon the viewers own memories to help interpret what they see (Nichols, 59)
- delivery—the elements of delivery include voice but also gesture, body language, eloquence, decorum. Eloquence is ‘the index of clarity of an argument and the potency of an emotional appear, and decorum as the effectiveness of a particular argumentative strategy…for a particular audience” (Nichols, 60)
Skill in the use of the rhetorical techniques for creating credible, convincing, compelling accounts depends on knowing one’s audience and knowing how to enlist its common sense attitudes and pre-existing stories for specific ends. (Nichols, 64)
Social software and moral panic
A US woman has gone on trial accused of using a fictional online personality to bully a 13-year-old girl who later killed herself. Lori Drew, 49, allegedly posed as a boy on the MySpace website to befriend Megan Meier, who hanged herself after their virtual relationship ended.
–Lori Drew cyberbullying trial: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7738982.stm
Also see Tyra Banks on the Lori Drew case
There are sociopaths and psychopaths, and they will work out how to do bad things regardless of available technology. I like this comment about the Lori Drew case by GMonkeyLouie (1372035):
… If this were done through any medium other than the internet, she would have gotten the charges you mentioned: harassment, maybe manslaughter, maybe accessory to a suicide. But since it’s the big and scary internet (and who knows what your kids are doing on there) it’s clearly her unfair voodoo use of MySpace that receives the most focus. Just imagine if she had written that teenaged girl a letter instead. Nobody would be saying that the big issue here was violating the ToS of the Postal Service.
As we saw last week, adolescent use of social software is very controversial. Sometimes adolescents do get burned by social software, and they themselves recognise it. But it is even more common to hear disparaging remarks from those outside the social software phenomenon. The ‘moral panic’ surrounding social software and adolescents might have been instigated by ignorant parents who eventually see the results of cyber-bullying, but it has been coopted by politicians and mainstream media. The rather defensive responses include:
- internet filters (a political response)–EG, ‘Net alert’ which is a web resource as well as hotline for young people and other concerned parties to access if they encounter any issue pertaining to internet safety of which cyber bullying is covered. The Australian Communication and Media Authority has launched the ‘Cyber Detectives’ website to develop children’s awareness of internet safety and cyber bullying (thanks to Jim Selim).
- (limited) police investigation, eg into the case in the 4 Corners report.
- school and university policies banning use of social software and mobile phones
- parental censorship
- mainstream media witch-hunts (possibly including this 4 corners program)–The role of the mainstream media in these moral panics is interesting. Arguably, they have a vested interest in keeping kids off the internet (and watching TV instead?).
However, all this adult surveillance of, and condemnation of adolescent behaviour ultimately seems to stem from a great deal of generational ignorance. What these groups seem to ignore, or not want to know, is why their children want to use social software in the first place—nobody is forcing them to. As I said last week, the social software backlash seems more interested in banning the behaviour than in educating young people to deal with the negative consequences of being so exposed on social software. It is good to take an historical perspective on moral panics and media technologies–the telephone, the radio, the tv and even the printing press were similarly greeted with disdain.
That’s not to doubt that social software can go wrong, especially for an age-group who is spreading its wings, but still quite vulnerable. But the way this moral panic is framed needs to be re-considered. For what we are dealing with here is not ultimately about technology. Adolescent behaviour is a site of social tension, in which community sub-groups fail to understand each other. Communications technology gets the blame for lack of communication (thumping irony there)?
Bullying is not reliant on technology, but in this 4 corners doco that I’m about to show, the technology itself is demonised. The narrator at one point says that although technology hasn’t invented bullying, the internet has changed its scope—it no longer ends at 3:30 in the playground, but it goes home with the child and spends the evening in his or her bedroom.
Perhaps because as a society we still find social software so novel, many people lack the filtering skills required to lessen its negative impacts. Moral panics such as these probably are not helping us reach that level of literacy and maturity with our new technologies. The lack of literacy and maturity is not limited to teenagers.
The Bullies Playground, reporter Quentin McDermott, 4 corners, 05.04.09
(start at 20 minutes for the ‘cyberspace bullying’)
interlude about documentary #7
In my opinion, this is a bad documentary. I don’t mind that the doco clearly has a very critical point of view about adolescent subcultures and is highly sympathetic to the parent’s point of view. If McDermott just came out and said that honestly, that he wasn’t about to defend the subcultural point of view, I’d at least feel it was honest. But instead, I just feel manipulated by it. The re-enactments are extraordinarily tacky, with the spot lighting to suggest isolation. There is no attempt to sympathetically penetrate the psychology of the subculture. I think it’s basically a lazy piece of work, a bad example of the observational style. McDermott is relying on his (adult, parental, middle class, ABC viewer) audience already agreeing with him, and if you happen to believe the situation is more complex than that, then you are alienated from his representation of this issue.
I’m not, of course, saying that the parents don’t have a right to be distressed—of course they do. What I’m criticizing is the laziness, or even lack of documentary ethics, on the part of the doco makers.