When cameras were first invented, presumably the early daguerreotype (had to look the spelling of that one!), there was a sense that we were now recording snapshots of reality. There were unlike paintings which merely sought to replicate reality, until some people felt that realism wasn't that important, which lead to impressionism, pointillism, cubism, and all manners of modern art.
We know, of course, that photographs can be set up, lit, and tell as artificial a story as something drawn or painted. I recall a striking picture of a woman, all dressed up, possibly in front of a large painting, with a white horse, up on its hind feet appearing ready to stampede on her. The contrast of fashion photography with the dynamism of a white horse created a good deal of drama, but was not a scene you'd pass by in real life.
Documentaries also have a sense of capturing reality, but even documentaries can shade the truth one way or another. Indeed, many successful documentaries have elements that they share with fiction. In particular, there are story arcs that measure a beginning, middle, and end. Rarely do we step in the middle of something and finish without drawing some conclusion.
March of the Penguins, one of the more successful documentaries, shows the harsh lives of penguins, who must trudge through miles of icy terrain to a fragile sheet of ice where they must attempt to reproduce, which means mate, find time to get food, and keep an egg warm enough so that it does not ice up and kill the baby penguin inside.
Even so, the story is told as a love story, as narrated by Morgan Freeman. This film has been criticized as anthropomorphism, the act of giving human like qualities to animals or inanimate objects. These are penguins bent on survival. Their wiring may cause them to mate with a sense much stronger than having common astrological signs, favorite movies, and dining preferences. Humans, having more or less lost or never had this sense of reproductive imperative, at least the kind that pulls a species to the same location year after year, don't understand how it feels to have to do this.
When it comes to making a documentary, the director has to decide what story to tell. It's not like training a camera into the middle of, say, a living room, and hoping to tell a story by incidentally hearing what's going on. While that may also be true to life, it would take a great deal of time to fathom who is who, their relationship to one another. Even shows like Big Brother often start off introducing each person, and then put strangers together, where they must interact with one another. The audience learns who is who just as the participants do.
About a year ago, Lerone Wilson was picked by Joel Spolsky (and gang, presumably) to film four summer interns at Fog Creek Software, chronicling the ups and downs of creating software that would eventually be Copilot, a tool meant to help computer experts help their computer neophyte parents or friends fix their computers at a distance.
Wilson must have wondered how best to present this stuff. He's a filmmaker and a songwriter. Presumably one thing that he is not is a software developer. Thus, one of the first decisions he must have made was to think "there's no reason I should really delve into the process of software development--I don't get it, and frankly, it's boring". Questions such as "How does Fog Creek develop software? Do they do anything special?" or "How does a bright software guy solve problems faster than an average Jos programmer?".
Instead, we're treated to the lives of the interns outside of coding. One guy likes to juggle. Several run. One plays the piano. They show an example of solving a problem such as "could we leap far enough to save ourselves were the building on fire?". At one point, the film takes this sharp detour as we're shown life with the kids working with Paul Graham, and the scene is nearly as abrupt as watching an X-Men movie that eventually meets up with Superman and Batman for a while, before heading back to the X-Men.
We also have a few talking heads. For example, the guy who invented Visicalc comes in and intones about software development process. There's Paul Graham. Betsy Weber shows up during a usability test.
Some of what happens is revealed as you listen to the "cast" commentary. They had two interns paired up to do two consecutive commentaries (four people in all). For example, none of them knew who the Visicalc guy was. They thought Paul Graham was a bit freaky. Lerone re-enacted some scenes showing the arrival of the interns.
In the end, while I learned a little bit of who was who, I didn't get any sense of how project development occurred. Did Spolsky and gang layout the project ahead of time in enough detail that only the details of implementation were required? How was it working with FogBugz? Any agile methodology at work? How was testing done?
Some documentaries have treaded the reality by doing re-enactments for a large part of the film. Touching the Void has actors playing the role of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, two British climbers who, twenty years ago, while climbing Siula Grande in Peru were met with an awful decision. Simpson had broken his leg. Yates was letting down rope having Simpson skid down, then hold himself as Yates came down after him, repeating the process over and over.
Alas, one of the times, Yates was sent over a cliff hanging on a rope. Unable to lift his weight off since he was dangling in free air, Simpson had to wonder what would happen. Yates was unable to see down the slope very far due to the snow, and was puzzled why Simpson wasn't carrying his weight off. After an hour, with Yates slipping, he decided he had to cut the rope, otherwise, they would both die.
The story follows the miraculous attempt by Simpson to climb and crawl his way back on a broken leg back to the base camp, while losing a great deal of weight, hallucinating, and hoping the whole time, that Yates had not left the camp, which he hadn't.
The real climbers narrate the story, but actors play roles in flashback. It creates the kind of drama that you wouldn't get by just having the climbers tell the story, and yet, their storytelling also enhances the versimilitude of the story, which could have been completely dramatized and fictionalized.
Documentaries, I've discovered, tell stories too, and much of that is based on what kind of story that the director wants to tell from the footage available.
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