Participatory Documentary is a strand within the documentary genre that pegs my interest mainly because it enables the filmmaker to become a ‘social character’. Borrowing from the reading, one of the hallmark traits of participatory documentaries is how this mode enables the filmmaker to engage with the subject as one of us.
This mode is not only encouraging the spectator to become a participant, it enables a very subjective interpretation of the issue/subject and its analysis thereon. One of the primary reasons as to why I prefer this strand of documentary is because of the likes Michael Moore’s ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ and Anna Broinowski’s ‘Forbidden Lies’. In both these documentaries, the filmmaker engages with the subject thereby becoming a social character who in turn influences our reading of the narrative in a certain fashion that is different from either an Observational or Reflexive strand of documentaries.
The Hallmarks of the Participatory Mode
The filmmaker becoming a ‘social character’ and a part of the narrative is the first and most important hallmark of this strand of documentary. In ‘Forbidden Lies’, Anna transforms into this investigative journalist who decides to crackdown on the truth behind Norma Khouri’s book ‘Forbidden Love’. In doing so, Anna becomes a part of us (although not entirely), the audience as she is left in the dark about what is to follow in the story.
The element of the filmmaker becoming a ‘social character’ makes most parts of the interaction/investigation the real, objective truth at a given moment. All the moments when a social character is in front of camera, he/she carries more or less the same doubts/queries/clarifications/readings as the audience does. This element of ‘Momentary Objectiveness’ makes this mode of documentary more exciting and credible for investigative matters.
For example: In ‘Forbidden Lies’, when Anna travels to the graveyard in Jordan with Norma, she eventually finds out that Norma has been lying about the death of her friend. This in turn forces a conversation between Norma and Anna which stems spontaneously, adding authenticity to the story and re-establishing the fact that Anna is still undecided on trusting Norma, much like the audience.
However, merely sporting ‘momentary objectiveness’ cannot really determine the authenticity of an issue as a whole. What gives this a better edge and thereby becomes another defining ‘hallmark’ of this mode is the ability of the filmmaker, the participant to acknowledge or celebrate the sequence of events. Since the filmmaker goes through the experience of engaging with the subject first hand, this mode enables him/her to prove/disprove/conclude or draw paralells on the issue at hand. This gives the filmmaker unlimited power to influence the story in a fashion they choose to. This facet is both exciting and unique, however it doesn’t rule out the possibility of a biased representation of the issue on celluloid.
What Attracts me?
The ability to transform into a ‘social character’ and engage with the subject directly and thereby influence the narrative seems like an exciting prospect. It is possibly the most effective way to investigate the issue at hand and the power that comes with wielding the creator’s eye along with being a participant enables the filmmaker to keep his/her vision intact. Also, further exploitations of this on platforms like the social media can keep the ‘social character’ as an ongoing phenomena. Thereby, the issues can vary but the character’s exploration of them will be a unique voice in a world of sensationalism.
Another vital documentary in this mode is the documentary on filmmaker Troy Duffy, titled ‘Overnight’. Wherein, Duffy’s journey from rags to riches and his premature collapse from fame is chronicled by his friends and band mates. The nature of the documentary is both observational and participatory, but the fact that the makers became characters and narrated and controlled the telling of the story made the film what it is, a cult classic. This mode boasts of a diversity in engagement, form and style and hence has inspired my interest.