Authorial Ontology and Communicative Intentionality in (an) Observational Documentary Film
DOI: https://doi.org/10.33008/IJCMR.2019.05 | Issue 1 | March 2019
Author: Dafydd Sills-Jones, Auckland University of Technology
The aim of Y Dosbarth Melyn [The Yellow Classroom] in research terms was to explore in what ways the observational mode of documentary filmmaking might relate to the selfhood of the author. In particular, the work asks: how does the observational documentary mode enable an author to communicate aspects of their own ontological position? Screened at Wales International Film Festival, Camarthen Bay Film Festival, Wairoa Film Festival, and the Cardiff International Film Festival, Y Dosbarth Melyn [The Yellow Classroom] underlines the contingent and shifting nature of the connection between text and audience in the filmmaker’s mind. In particular, the work shows that observational documentary techniques can be used in a more fluid way than has been previously recognised and admitted by many of the field’s Direct Cinema practitioners.
The aim of Y Dosbarth Melyn [The Yellow Classroom] in research terms was to explore in what ways the observational mode of documentary filmmaking might relate to the selfhood of the author. In particular, the work asks: how does the observational documentary mode enable an author to communicate aspects of their own ontological position? Of course, no documentary film or media is a transparent window on to the world, and no authorial view ever has full agency. Instead, a documentary film’s ‘claim to the real’ (see Winston, 2008) and its ‘communicative intentionality’ (see Scannell, 2007: 174-176) are related and mediated through the notion of authorial ‘voice’ (Plantinga, 2005; Nichols, 2017).
Documentary’s claim on the real, that is, its basic ability as a form or genre to speak to historical reality with a heightened level of referentiality, is dependent on an established textual configuration that ‘counts’ as documentary, in the eyes of a community of makers and viewers (Nichols, 2007: 13-14). This in turn sets up an agreement between author(s) and viewer(s), as to how such a text works and what is to be communicated through a certain form. The author(s) execution of this through form is then the communicative intention of the text. Voice is then a further concept, used here in the sense of a wholistic aesthetic approach by which the form is used to execute a communicative intention. However, this voice has a close relationship to the ontological position of the author(s) and its execution may well be partly (or sometimes mostly) a question of instinct, affect and embedded tacit knowledge on the part of the author(s).
The question remains, then, to what extent is the texts’ communicative intentionality determined by the form, and to what extent can an author challenge that form, without destroying its implicit communicative ‘contract’. Here the difference/relation between communicative intentionality and communicability is key. Without communicative intentionality (or the ‘knowingly public’ element of a text), a text’s communicability is adversely affected and with it the efficacy of the author’s ‘voice’.
My earlier films eschewed the ‘realist documentary apparatus’ (i.e. interview, observation, narration) in favour of formalist and musical techniques. This was in order to respond to criticism of the realist apparatus (see Winston, 2008; Bruzzi, 2006), and to test the coherence and communicability of other techniques. For Y Dosbarth Melyn [The Yellow Classroom], I returned to the realist apparatus of documentary – or, more specifically, to one main element of it, observation – in order to see how that formal apparatus inflected my authorial voice. Would the techniques of Direct Cinema – itself describing the recording of events in which the subject and audience become unaware of the camera’s presence, characterised by the likes of the ‘observational mode’ and a fly-on-the-wall-aesthetic, as theorised by Leacock, Pennbaker, Drew and Wiseman – work to present an ‘open’ depiction of the ‘real’ with room for various interpretations? Or would the drawbacks of this Direct Cinema style – i.e. its need for inherent drama, or its ‘prison house of objectivity’, as Winston (2008: 44) names it – cause the author to make allowances, adjustments and changes to the observational mode? What, then, would be the effect of such changes to the relationship between form and communicability?
Y Dosbarth Melyn [The Yellow Classroom] had three ostensible thematic strands:
the cultural divide between Welsh and non-Welsh speakers in a Welsh community ;
the emergence of selfhood in the context of the socializing and ideological apparatus of a school system’s use of space ;
and the role of ‘nature relatedness’ in a school’s strategies of socio-educational conditioning .
There is not enough room in this statement to discuss how all three of these strands were affected by the merging of an observational filmmaking approach and my a priori ontological position, so I shall discuss the issue where the inflection was clearest and most significant: the issue of Welsh language acquisition. I myself am a native Welsh speaker, brought up by two Welsh-speaking parents. My own children are brought up in a mixed English-Welsh language home. Therefore, my ontological position on this issue involves internal tensions around bilingualism and national identity, tensions between language advocacy and a respect for individual choice, between a belief in the importance of collective identity (i.e. Welsh nationhood) and the specificity of the individual experience (i.e. the experience of a Welsh non-Welsh speaking child in a Welsh speaking school). This position affected my decisions and my authorial intention, and therefore the balance between form and communicability in the following examples.
Firstly, in the first ‘maths’ scene (01.16-03.29), I kept one camera position in order not to disrupt the lesson in progress. However, as is usual with Direct Cinema, I did shoot a variety of angles and focal lengths in order to ‘cover’ the cuts one would have to make to create a seamless scene. I gave in to the temptation to narrativize away from the pro filmic and to re-order and to create secondary meanings not immediately in evidence, using the surface of reality to create metaphors for discussing what lay beneath, thus invoking the contentious Direct Cinema notion of ‘being there’.
As I had expected, and sought to avoid in earlier films, this sense of ‘being there’ was only achievable through the quasi-dramatic practice of time compression and casting into proto-typical character roles. Given the drawbacks of this approach – Winston (2008), for example, asks what is left of reality after such a treatment – my motivation for this was clear on this occasion. I wanted to reflect the centrality of the teacher in the dynamics of the room, and in particular the centrality of this specific teacher’s method within the overall process of language acquisition, and even further distanced the importance of this kind of teaching for the success of balancing national and individual aspirations.
If the maths scene represented non-interventionist observation (at least when recording), and its attendant problems in dealing with coherence, at other times I did intervene, breaking the ‘rules’ of observationalism (04.31-06.05). In order to reflect the effort and sincerity with which the children approached their use of Welsh, almost always a language alien to their homes, I took on board what Nichols calls a more ‘participatory’ role, engaging some children in conversation. It was a question of the nature of the political meaning of the profilmic; had I not spoken, would the children have conversed in Welsh or English? If in English, would that have appeared to carry the meaning that the classroom was Welsh, and the playground English, a common criticism of Welsh language schools in English speaking areas? My intervention again came from a personally-held belief that the middle ground needed to be expressed between those who oppose Welsh language education, and those who espouse mono-lingual Welsh education for fear of losing the language. And in the middle of that battleground are the children’s lived experience. My response was to enable the children to show that they could speak Welsh in the playground, whether they would have done otherwise or not.
These two examples exemplify a number of things. Firstly, the observational mode of the realist documentary, however removed, requires an affective commitment by the author. Secondly, this affective commitment carries with it an imprint of the self which in turn carries a trace of the ideology at large within the habitus of the individual. I could not escape my ontological position, especially in the heat of observational and technological ‘action’. These first two points may not be new, but are confirmed in this example.
Thirdly, whilst I did rely on my own ontological positioning at times within the filming, the close adherence to an established realist documentary mode such as observation can help to loosen the grip of the author’s individual ontological position, allowing moments within the film to remain ‘open’ and available for interpretation in a way another mode might not. An example here might be the final scene when children recite The Lord’s Prayer before they leave the school (12.18-13.05). This is framed at eye level, to preserve an empathy and solidarity with the children. The shot is long, without a cut or imposition of nondiegetic (or quasi-diegetic) sound. The resultant meaning is open; what kind of social fabric are the children being stitched into? Do they resist this? Knowing what the audience might know about how their own experiences at this age that have or have not stayed with them, the question hangs as to the efficacy of such a school.
In conclusion, the relationships between the form (or, in other words, the cultural contract between maker and viewer), the author’s communicative intention (or their sincere attempt to speak through a text), and the author voice (emanating from their ontological position), are held in balance by observational techniques. On the other hand, in this example, at least, this balance is more possible when the author is able to break the rules, and adapt the form.
In terms of dissemination, Y Dosbarth Melyn [The Yellow Classroom] has been screened at Wales International Film Festival, Camarthen Bay Film Festival, Wairoa Film Festival (New Zealand), and the Cardiff International Film Festival, where it was a merit finalist in the category ‘Promotion of Welsh Language and Culture’. It has also been presented as a research project at Aberystwyth University (Wales), and Auckland University of Technology (New Zealand).
The main significance of this project is that it underlines the contingent and shifting nature of the connection between text and audience in the filmmaker’s mind. The realist apparatus has often been used as a guarantee of screen truth, usually through the socially and legally authorising function of institutions such as broadcasters. This example shows that observational techniques can be used in a more fluid way than recognised and admitted by many Direct Cinema practitioners. Indeed, the project suggests that observation cannot act alone as a technique/approach, and always requires the author’s active, subjective and affective engagement. This in turn suggests that the ‘agreement’ between audience and text in the case of observational documentary material is far more complex and contingent than is often presented.
While it is hard to accurately gauge the influence of a short film of this kind (with the whole notion of audience effect and influence being a complex discussion for which there is no room in this publishing format), it is hoped that this film has had an influence in three separate areas. First, that the community immediately surrounding the school can come together around the text, with both teachers and parents being able to see the school’s methods, in terms of language, space and relational socialisation. Second, that this audience, and a wider audience, may realise that there is a ‘middle way’ between polar positions adopted towards Welsh language education in predominantly English-speaking communities Wales . And third, that the academic/professional milieu that encounters the film and its verbal presentation in a journal format thinks again about the ways in which observation and authorial subjectivity comingle and complicate the notion of evidence and screen language, hopefully moving discussions forward towards an ever more nuanced understanding of how, where and when reality exists and can be represented on screen.
This research was conducted at Aberystwyth University, and supported by the TFTS Department, in association with the TFTS Screen Practice Research cluster (@screenaber).
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Zelenski, J M and Nisbet, E K (2014) Happiness and Feeling Connected: The Distinct Role of Nature Relatedness. Environment and Behavior 46(1): 3-23.
 Drawing on Gwyn Alf Williams’ historiographical notion of a ‘shadowline’, cutting from North East to South West Wales, re-emerging in many ways over time in Wales’ history (Williams, 1985).
 Drawing on Broberg, Kyttä and Fagerholm’s notion of ‘Bullerby’, and the effect of differently configured spaces on child development (Broberg, Kyttä and Fagerholm, 2013).
 Drawing on Zelenski & Nisbet’s understanding of the effect of nature relatedness to cultural connectedness (Zelenki & Nisbet, 2014).
 The recent rhetoric-based campaign by Kate Hopkins in the British press, is the most recent and extreme example of how this issue is often used by hard-right commentators to spread fear and hatred amongst non-Welsh speaking parents of Welsh-educated children.