Bill Nichols: How we watch documentaries

The concepts of engagement

In his comprehensive book on documentary filmmaking, one of the first things Bill Nichols talks about is how documentaries engage audiences. He suggests that there are three ways documentaries engage their viewers. The first way is for the documentary to depict their world and subject with an acquaintance to the real world, giving the viewer a connection to both their personal life, and the world in which the documentary takes place(24). The second way is when a doc stands up for something that is believed by somebody else and actually uses the documentary medium as a voice for others(25). The final way, Nichols’ concludes is for a documentary to engage their audiences by being designed like that of a court case by a lawyer: The film presents a clear thesis and argument on a subject, and the rest of the film is supporting said argument and said thesis(26). If I were to choose one of these concepts Bill has conceived to be the most impactful and effective, I would choose the last one. These thesis type films are the ones I’ve noticed making the most splash in popularity. Some thesis films are Food Inc, The Cove, and every Michael Moore movie. This concept is also incredibly important in the modern world because, in a time where freedom of speech in America is mostly celebrated, the medium of film is extremely effective to getting someone’s ideas out into the world.

Social actors

A large point that Nichols makes is that in many documentary films, real life interactions shown in the film, are always fabricated to some degree. He uses the example of ‘Social Actors’, where two people are supposedly having a true, unscripted conversation that further drives home the point of the film. I believe this to be quite true, but I can not endorse his hypothesis fully, simply because it is largely speculation. One can not know for certain if most documentaries use these so called Social Actors, even if this seems to be the most logical explanation for many interactions in documentaries.

The forms of alliance

In the first chapter, Bill describes a system of “alliance” in documentaries. This alliance is between the filmmaker, the subject of the film, and the audience. The first form of this alliance used to shape documentary films is when the filmmaker is verbally speaking on a subject to the audience. This is usually done through a disembodied voiceover with a proposition of how to solve the problem being presented to us in the documentary. The second formula is when the subject speaks for itself, about both the filmmaker and the audience of the film. This would be done when unbiased footage is giving us information about people. And people include the filmmakers of such documentaries. The last form that Nichols describes is when the filmmakers’ subject is themselves. The filmmakers will have a cause for this – weather it’s a social justice change or an autobiography film. The filmmakers are presenting themselves to the audience(35-8). These three forms indeed can be largely identified in modern documentary cinema. Nichols has excellently analyzed the algorithm that goes into constructing these films and presented it to the world in plain, readable english.