Documentary Comparisons

Comparing four individual documentaries with the intention to contrast and analyse their varying styles and structures will enable a more rounded understanding of how, although using different techniques, all achieve compositions enriched in the elements of what makes a good factual programme.

Taking ‘Trevor McDonald’ Inside Death Row‘ as the first example, centered around the inmates of Indiana’s State Prison; telling the stories of those incarcerated with the knowledge they will all but likely face the death penalty. As well as focusing on those looking at facing the death penalty, a broader spectrum of individuals from prison wardens to inmates not on death row are also included.

Out of all four documentaries, Inside Death Row’s structure comprises of more traditional methods and journalistic foundations (unlike the two VICE documentaries which use more unorthodox subjects and ‘Gonzo’ style of portraying their pieces), including overlaying narrative on top of footage to give the audience a deeper overview of impending scenes.

As Trevor meets the prisoners, his questioning style is closed, but leading. In a further episode however, his questions become more direct. Examples include; ”Does being on death row bring an emotional or physical toll?”, but then a more direct, open question asked would be, ”Tell me about the incident which landed you here on death row?”

His line of questioning benefits from the broadness and frankness of the inmates, who quite openly reveal the fullness and ‘richness’ of their past. This, in turn, seeing murderers speak so thoughtfully and eloquently, creates a paradoxical impression on the audience as they find it hard connecting their previous actions to the people who are being focused in on Inside Death Row.    

In asking these questions, and in turn the objectivity of the entire documentary, the programme remains impartial by letting the inmates tell their stories in their own words, but near the end of the second episode were Trevor interviews Frederick Baer who confesses he killed a young mother and her child. After hearing this, Trevor McDonald makes the statement that he is against the death penalty, but in the case of Baer, then the penalty is just and fair. However, his underlying beliefs do not feel as if they are influencing the narrative of the series.

From the subject matter, an emotional connection can be established from the subject, but also imposes the thoughts of mortality and death in to the audiences minds. There are scenes of prison guards constantly being vigilante to attacks not just between inmates, but to themselves as well, which draws empathy from the viewer. There are questions raised from the programme imposed especially on a British audience about whether Capitol punishment should be brought back in the UK and the fates of those shown- there are also hypothetical questions surrounding how someone would respond to being on death row only to be found innocent and the emotions they would encounter.

Life In A Day is a unique documentary from Tony and Ridley Scott taking 4,500 hours of footage from people from around the world to see what humanity does in one given day in the world, recording what took place on 24th July 2010.

There is evident structure to the film; starting at midnight and running right through to midnight in ascending order of time. Each aspect of the day is covered with perspectives of how different people from different walks of life deal with everyday normalities. It is not only seeing what we all do day-to-day; like waking up, eating and brushing our teeth etc. but the cultural variances of them and how others practice them, either by choice or due to necessity; for example seeing people waking up in various locations from the warmth of a bed to sleeping rough on the streets.

The subject of the film is simplistic yet powerful; seeing everyday life from many angles from around the world. Inside Death Row or the two VICE documentaries, there are no obvious questions asked; be it physical or subliminal, but there are points which could be raised in why an audience should witness a cow being slaughtered. Those would argue it is important as, though it may be disturbing to see, events like this happen on a daily basis and to convey every aspect of life to achieve the films purpose of how this generation lives, and more importantly how we live, on a daily basis, to what makes up our lives; birth, death, fighting, working, relationships, laughter and turmoil.

The woman who recorded her segment at 23:57 at the end of the feature summed up the tone of the film perfectly by saying, ”I’m running out of time…I spent all day waiting for something special to happen- but the truth is, it doesn’t always happen. I want people to know I’m here, I don’t want to cease to exist.”

Next, VICE’s The Business Of War: SOFEX documentary presented by Shane Smith who took to Amman, Jordan to enlighten its audience about SOFEX (Special Operation Forces Exhibition), which is a trade show for weapons hosted by King Abdullah II of Jordan and welcomes 300 delegates from 85 countries.

Sticking to its widely renowned status as being a global, controversial and urban organisation, the persona of Shane Smith conveys this with his informal presenting style that includes openly swearing and talking freely about his own state in a given situation; for example, when he ventures in the training exercise where ordoured gases are deployed to give soldiers realistic senses of what they could encounter in a mission,  he says, ”This is like the worst thing I could possibly think of right now, being hung over, and they’re going to make it smell like rotting flesh.” Unlike Trevor McDonald, Smith puts across his own viewpoint across to the audience and steps out of a given situation to both increase the emotive aspect and connection you gain from joining him in a way throughout the documentary.

Admitting near the start of The Business Of War that he was ‘a magazine guy, not a gun guy’, whereby he brings ex-marine and Iraq War Veteran Matt Ruskin along to help him with the array of weaponry showcased, his questioning style mirrors this in its purpose to be observational. Two questions he wanted answers to were what was for sale, and who was selling it, and by walking around the exhibition, training sites and talking with key personnel achieves this. Types of questions asked because he wants to get a greater understanding of the topic, and to uncover an event widely unreported in the West, are mainly open and leading questions. Examples of both of these are when he is talking to head of PR for ‘Global Dynamics’ Jennifer Ann-Wallace Montesano as they take a tour of a combat training facility. Shane Smith asks an open question, ”So they bring people from the SOFEX here, why?” Then that is followed by a leading statement to try to evoke a stronger response, ”Is there ever a worry that baddies would ever come and use the area as training? Because you know, you have Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria…you just wonder who gets to train.”

Over the course of the documentary, its felt that it loses its impartiality; from the emotiveness of Shane Smith as he comes in to contact with equipment capable of killing unimaginable numbers of people and this is brought even closer to home when Matt Ruskin discusses the fact that the company ‘Norinco’s’ booth, whose rockets were used against the Americans in the Iraq War, were next to an American arms display. After failing to get a response from the Chinese representative, a marine speaks frankly about his feelings on the exhibition; ”You know, its weird man; its like, everybody’s real cordial with each other. But, like, at the end of the day, we’re, like, buying weapons to destroy each other.”

This fickleness, and how indiscriminate SOFEX is as long as anybody has the money to buy the equipment on show, resonates in the documentaries closing evaluation as Smith leaves the audience with anti-war themed questions of what good is there to be had of exhibitions and training sites like the one shown in Jordan and summarises quite bluntly that the money countries spend on these weapons are used to kill.

Finally, the VICE Guide To Travel- North Korea, which is again presented by Shane Smith, sees him journey into the most secretively country in the world during the time of dictator Kim Jong-Il. Although Life In A Day was arguably the most abstract, its structure was the most fluid and seamless. However, VICE’s Travel Guide documents the events strongly; chronologically detailing the events from arriving on the South Korean side of the DMZ before travelling across the border and recording his findings and events whilst over there. Due to the states secretive nature, most of the documentary is filmed using a concealed camera. To compensate for the low quality of footage, the piece normally cuts to talking head shots with Smith retrospectively talking in greater detail of what he saw and encountered; fleshing out the rare, treasured film they were able to obtain in North Korea.

The use of propaganda footage, and library film of figures such as George Bush Jnr and historical events is also incorporated into the documentary. Right from the beginning, the stereotypical view od North Korea is imposed on the audience from the Cold War-inspired music accompanied by a military display overseen by Kim Jong-Il.

Although showing signs of it in The Business Of War, the VICE Guide To Travel is fundamentally Gonzo in its style. We can class it as being Gonzo from the fact Shane Smith can be seen as being part of the story and ‘produced without claims of objectivity’. Furthermore, the subject matter, tone and the manner the documentary is captured lends itself into this category.

Due to the clandestine manner in which it is shot, not many questions are put towards the people seen in VICE’s Travel Guide To North Korea, instead, there is more of a conversational style- trying to capture moments as they occur; be it in the surreal dining room where plates of food were brought out to give the impression of food being in large supply, or the tour Shane Smith goes on aboard the US Naval Ship, he is restricted in what he can ask and what he can see. When he does get the opportunity to ask questions they are mainly closed due to the points just mentioned, examples include the one put towards the DMZ tour guide, ”Do you think one day they’ll (North and South Korea) be unified?”

In a situation like the one captured in this documentary, impartiality is hard to find because of the extremes Smith finds himself in. Constantly he mentions the danger he feels entering North Korea and how threatened he is by the ‘Political Indoctrination’ of that country that is brought up from birth to become ‘Anti-American’ and ‘Anti-West’. One example of this is taken in the US Naval Ship where he is forced to sit through a video denouncing the US. As a western audience, the lack of freedom and liberty feels completely alien and one where you feel compassion for the countries inhabitants. This is no clearer than when Shane comes across the tea lady in the tea rooms amidst an almost abandoned town lacking basic resources like electricity. Assuming the young lady hadn’t seen anyone in six months or longer, the moment the two of them play pool and ping-pong is heart-warming and you cannot help but sympathise with her.

Questions from this passed onto the audience vary from cultural, domestic and the plight of North Korea in general. Should the West intervene? Or should we respect their way of life? No matter how bizarre it may appear to be?

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