Teaching Documentary in a Reality TV Environment: Taxonomies of Production versus Taxonomies of Texts

Curator's Note

I've been frustrated lately with frameworks through which I teach documentary theory and practice. As a filmmaker, I know that the documentary process in the age of reality TV has become more complicated than some traditional frameworks for documentary, like Bill Nichols's taxonomy (2001), allow. A historical overview of documentary movements doesn't account for the trends in postclassical film documentary (recently explored by Cagle in Cinema Journal) or reality television.

Until recently, I've taught modes of documentary through a bottom-up model. That is, I teach traditional modes via a modified Nichols taxonomy, then teach reality TV as a chopping/mixing up of those modes. We start with classic documentaries to exemplify modes, and then try to work backwards from the distinctly recombinant model of documentary production in reality television.

I've begun to rethink my strategy. I wonder if, in a postclassical and reality TV environment that is intensely self-referential, stylistically unpredictable, heavily staged and carefully constructed, the teaching of foundational documentary processes -- rather than taxonomies of texts -- might be more useful to students. To that end, I suggest a set of production practices that all producers of documentary, be they film documentarians or reality TV producers, choose from. With these tools, one could build any number of postclassical doc forms, from Obama's Griersonian 2008 campaign video to RuPaul's Drag Race.

(1) SHOWING. The basic juxtaposition of images in poetic or montage sequence. 

(2) TELLING. A narrator, text, or participant explains in an expository fashion. 

(3)  FOLLOWING. A relationship through which camera tracks or follows the movement of the subject. 

(4) ASKING. A relationship through which an interviewer directly intervenes by participating with the subject, often by asking interview questions.

(5) STAGING. The creation of an environment before filming for effect, from setting up an interview space to creating a "social experiment." 

(6) REFLECTING. A feature in which commentary is provided on the filmmaking process directly.

I'm not sure if these are the most useful touchstones, but I do propose that a production-based model for documentary pedagogy engages students more fully in the particular aesthetics and ethics of documentary shot by shot and interaction by interaction, rather than text by text.

The ultimate goal here is to demystify foundational documentary creation processs (as in this "reality TV 101" clip from Charlie Brooker --reductive, but great for sparking conversations in undergraduate courses) and better honor reality TV within documentary pedagogy.


I agree that taxonomies are relatively useless in this area. But there are some basic differences between Reality TV and Documentary approaches to the practices you outline so succinctly. Reality TV increasingly involves scripting to a format: see David Greene's excellent post here on narrative. So participants know how they should behave, so they perform pre-set roles and even make suggestions about how they could perform upcoming scenes. Documentaries value performance-as-yourself, trying to minimise the setting up in advance. The power relations are very different as a result. The differences extend into post-production, which is as important as shooting. Reality TV has formulas to work to; documentaries tend to be edited by discovering (or rediscovering) the story. Voice-overs are different (much more direction of the viewer and snide comments in reality TV) and reality TV editing tends to be much more fragmented. They are different things, as I try to point out in my book Documentary: Witness and Self-Revelation, using an approach derived from Goffman (the academy's man in Atlantic City...)

I would say that there's far more variability in reality TV strategies than a hard distinction would suggest, and also that there's far more staging (potentially) and certainly "acting with the camera in mind" in what we could consider more traditional documentary, too. When I see "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" or early episodes of "16 and Pregnant," I'm noticing a far more observational approach to reality TV production than (say) "RuPaul's Drag Race," where performativity is explicitly what's being explored. One could claim that there is staging in either of those examples, but I'm not convinced, and from what I've gleaned of actual doc processes, these are for the most part filmed like observational documentaries -- some minor set-up and staging but no "scripting" in the common usage of that word. The question of how subjects react to the filming conditions themselves need to be understood in a complicated set of relationships between subjects, authors, and audiences -- which is why I think only a granular approach to documentary process is one that can hold up as a coherent taxonomy. (Again, I'm not sure if my description of processes are quite right, but the idea is to move away from lumping, e.g., "Rupaul's Drag Race" and "16 and Pregnant" together in opposition to, say, Academy Award qualifying docs -- to me, the latter has far more in common with postclassical documentary strategies than the former, even though we also recognize it as reality TV.)

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