Online Response 4: Participatory
Participatory documentary is like a journal. As you watch, you read the diary of the filmmaker in their process of making the film, and see the film unfold as they saw it unfold. The first reflexive documentary I ever saw was Ross McElwee’s Bright Leaves, which some have lauded as a documentary about the negative effects of tobacco, but which I saw as a discovery of one man’s family history. It is, of course, both; he set out to learn about his ancestor’s story, but wound up discovering much more about the impact the tobacco industry on American society and health. He participates openly in the process of making the documentary, explaining what he’s doing with the camera, where he’s going, why he does what he does. As Bill Nichols described it, he “speaks with them for you [the audience],” rather than “speaks about them to you.” It is a more personal form than simply throwing out information through narration over some illustrative images.
This clip from Bright Leaves illustrates the process of recording an unusual interview, and the filmmaker’s discomfort in the off-putting experience of being forced into a wheelchair and pushed around by the brilliant but eccentric Vlada Petric. Participatory filmmaking exposes the documentary process as part of the storytelling itself.
Bright Leaves was Ross McElwee’s first film in participatory style, but not his last; Photographic Memory is structurally similar, as he carries his camera with him on a journey of self-reflection and rediscovery. Both show us what it was like for him to make the films as much as it shows us what he saw while researching the stories that he wanted to tell, a more intimate approach to cinéma vérité than Rouch and Morin’s A Chronicle of Summer. Rouch and Morin were still tied to the formalistic documentary procedure while adopting their revolutionary approach in openly illustrating the mechanics of the production as part of their film: the viewer is still dependent on a well-dressed individual with a microphone to direct their attention, whereas in more recent works of participatory film such as McElwee’s, we see the filmmakers as individuals, in their lives as they are, insecure and vulnerable.
A still from Photographic Memory shows both the filmmaker’s son, who is key to the point of the story, and the filmmaker himself in the reflection of the window. Throughout participatory documentary we (as the audience) are reminded how the film came to be. From Harvard Film Archive