Comparisons Between 3 Documentaries

Factual programmes are as unique and diverse as the subject matter they portray to an audience. However, even though they are different, one thing remains constant; the makers abide to elements, which range from creating intellectual and emotional ties to its viewer to the devices it implements, which culminate into documentaries of the highest quality. By looking at 3 different text, we can analyse the structure of this genre in a wider context.

The documentaries in question were chosen to encompass the range of formats they appear on; BBC Panarama’s 2007 Television programme Scientology & Me, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), and the foreign film Waltz with Bashir (2008).

The issues raised across the 3 documentaries are vast and varied. Scientology & Me looks at religion and the boundaries between that and whether it could be seen as a cult. From the making of the programme, moral and ethical issues are raised from a filmmakers perspective in the way the BBC are treated by those who they are portraying. Fahrenheit 9/11 raises many themes associated with the events of 9/11, including the attack itself, terrorism, war, the impact on commercial airlines and a conflict of interests presented from America’s links to Saudi Arabi to name just a select few. Finally, Waltz With Bashir raises issues founded on an individuals experience of war which are given flesh by fellow veterans he served beside. These themes include how soldiers cope with after conflict and their mentality. Throughout the film, Israeli culture and music are a constant. Over a scene depicting bomb blasts by armed forces, a song with the lyrics, ‘I bombed Beirut today, I bombed Beirut everyday.’ is played- giving a perspective of the media landscape of that era and place.

Questions asked in Waltz With Bashir are conversation-like in Ari Folman’s approach, in part down to the filmmaker knowing numerous interviewees from his time spent in the armed forces together. This connection helps obtain richer answers to supplement his line of questioning. An example of this is seen as he visits Ronny Dayag, ”On the first day of the war, I transported the dead and wounded from tanks on the coast road. I’m looking for people who were with me. Could your men have been among them?” With the intention to find answers from Folman’s past, his questions are direct and investigative.

Michael Moore’s questioning technique is very similar to Louis Theroux’s; implementing leading statements to draw out a response from individuals. Questions are not put solely towards those appearing in the film, but to the audience in the form of hypothetical questions and hypothetical scenarios that are employed to involve the audience and gives them opportunities to think about what information they have just retained.

Due to the seriousness of all 3 documentaries and the themes they explore, great empathy is felt with certain individuals. In the case of Scientology & Me, John Sweeney interviews a mother whose daughter became all but lost to her after embracing Scientology. This heart-rendering story was later removed from the final edit due to fears for the daughter’s health, which only goes to justify the notion that the religion is sinister and dangerous. Groups presented on-screen include those affiliated with Scientology- both past and present, the local community of Clearwater and also celebrities like Juliette Lewis who practice the religion.

Those affected by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center are represented in Michael Moore’s film, as well as politicians, the African-American population, media personal and soldiers, including Captain Abdul Henderson who served in Iraq and stated he would not go back. At the end of the documentary, he would join Michael Moore on Capital Hill to see how many members of Congress would enlist their children to fight in Iraq, proving the hypocrisy of politicians who send other sons and daughters to their deaths.

Waltz With Bashir represents the people of Israel and those of the 1982 Lebanon invasion. Again, soldiers, veterans and those coping with traumatic events are shown as well as mental health practitioners.

At their core, each one is investigative; trying to shed light on the topic that it covers- whether that be looking at Scientology’s shrouded reputation, to the events leading up to the World Trade Centre terrorist attacks of 9/11 and finally, retrospectively looking back on the 1982 invasion of Lebanon in search of answers from fellow Israeli veterans.

In terms of structure, Scientology & Me takes a traditional, linear approach in how the piece is assembled; possessing a distinct order from beginning to end that is chronological. In contrast Fahrenheit 9/11 and Waltz With Bashir demonstrate a non-linear structure- alternating between time periods and interchanging from the present and the past. An example of this is from Michael Moore’s film, starting from the 2000-2001 time period and then heads back towards the 1980’s and 90’s to give his narrative a pretext. The later utilizes flashbacks and dream sequences that break up the true continuation of the time frame.

Having fairly common devices used in both Fahrenheit 9/11 and Scientology & Me, for instances library shots, talking head shots and narration that is a staple of documentary, the Israeli film, directed and starring filmmaker Ari Folman, is presented in the form of an animated piece- this artistic, stylized format not only makes the text more aesthetically pleasing but helps to increase audience engagement.

Waltz With Bashir: Ari Folman's thoughts etched onto the window.

Waltz With Bashir: Ari Folman’s thoughts etched onto the window.

Using this code enables metaphors and themes to be more easily portrayed. For instance, choice of colours can depict moods- this is found in a flashback where the boys are heading out of the water, drenched in bright gold. This could symbolise the purity of these young men and how they appear to be baptised from peace into a new time of war, that is represented by the waterfront becoming engulfed in darkness as they emerge.

Another example of this is when Ari is sat in a taxi from Amsterdam airport, as he watches the world pass by, thoughts of past warfare are visualised on the reflection of the glass. By using this technique, characters internal notions can be envisioned to an audience; both dramatizing the documentary and building a greater understanding of events for the audience.

Both Waltz With Bashir and Fahrenheit 9/11 share subjectivity in regard to the view points they take. Filmmaker and former Israeli soldier Ari Folman, uses his own perspective, and those veterans serving close beside him, to help inform the viewer on their experiences of the Lebanon invasion without giving a balanced overview or the counter perspective from the Lebanese.

Fahreheit 9/11: George W. Bush moments after hearing of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre...

Fahrenheit 9/11: George W. Bush moments after hearing of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre…

Michael Moore’s distinctive style of directing documentaries is evident from the opening moments of the film; using a satirical, humourous approach, Moore’s humiliation of George W. Bush solidifies the bias presented in the piece. Showing library footage of election night in the year 2000, Michael Moore narrates over scenes of Al Gore prematurely being named winner of the crucial state of Florida, ”…and everything seemed to be going to plan.” Revealing huge bias towards the Democrats. Throughout the text, Bush’s character is continuously questioned and tarnished that is driven home by extensively researched statistics, like the fact that the first 8 months before 9/11, the former President was on vacation 42% of the time.

Scientology & Me’s unusual set of circumstances contributes to a shift in objectivity. With the intention to delve within the mysteries surrounding the religion, yet manages to give balance; bringing aspects of the Church’s view, ”The church claims years of auditing and study can take followers to a state of grace.” followed by a counter argument, ”…But critics say followers have intimate details of their lives used against them if they cross the Church.” This degenerates from constant harassment from the Church and leading figures such as Tommy Davis (Former head of the churches Celebrity Centre in Los Angeles), that transpired into the BBC being investigated by the members of the religion within Clearwater.

Presenter John Sweeney and Tommy Davis clashing at the end of 'Scientolgy & Me'

Presenter John Sweeney and Tommy Davis clashing at the end of ‘Scientology & Me’

After Davis is adamant presenter John Sweeney should not use the word ‘cult‘ to describe Scientology, and claiming the Panarama reporter has ‘no objectivity whatsoever‘, tempers reach boiling point in the Scientology exhibition ‘Psychiatry: An Industry of Death‘. Sweeney voices his own subjective thoughts on the group, ”I find Scientology’s high-jacking of the holocaust sickening. After 90 minutes I feel as though they are taking over my mind and I can’t bear another second of it. Then Tommy Davis launches in again…” that follows with the two arguing aggressively. Sweeney later admitting he had ‘lost his voice and lost his mind’ that is far from conventional behaviour for a reporter attached to an internationally renowned corporation.

These documentaries from around the world, although focused upon differing subjects, engage and inform its audience thanks to adapting the core principles discussed, to produce compelling factual programmes of the highest level.

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