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

by Ethan Tussey

by David Cooper Moore for IN MEDIA RES

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.

Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe

Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe

from Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe (2007)
Creator: Charlie Brooker
Distributor: BBC Four
Posted by Ethan Tussey
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