4.2 – Ways of representing  reality (language)



Nichols and the modes of representation

Nichols’ model has been the most extensively studied and criticized in the area of contemporary film theory. His categories are based on the combination of variables of filming styles and material practices. The first classifications were based on the narratological distinction between direct and indirect styles, which evolved until there were four basic documentary modes: the expository, the observational, the reflexive, and the interactive (Burton, 1990). The origin of the four modes began as a distinction between the direct and indirect modes in Nichols’ work Ideology and the image. Julianne Burton reviewed and put the finishing touches to the initial distinction, and made it into a four-part categorisation, in “Toward a History of Social Documentary in Latin America”, in her anthology The Social Documentary in Latin America (1990).

In her subsequent work, she changed the interactive mode for the participatory mode and introduced two new modes – the poetic and reflective. Finally, in her third book, she revises and extends her previous work and incorporates the performance mode.

According to Nichols says (1991:65), situations and events, actions and issues, can be represented in different ways. The modes of representation are basic ways of organizing texts in relation to some recurrent characteristics or conventions. The author insists that his analysis and categories have a historical chronology, as new models are developed as a result of dissatisfaction with the predominant model in a given period, although this does not prevent the coexistence of specific movements or documentaries within the same period. Nichols put it as follows:

“New modes convey a fresh, new perspective on reality. Gradually, the conventional nature of this mode of representation becomes increasingly apparent: an awareness of norms and conventions to which a given text adheres begins to frost the window onto reality. The time for a new mode is then at hand” (Nichols, 1991:66).

In his more recent books, Bill Nichols talks about the rhetorical nature of the documentary, although he does so hesitantly and with some inconsistencies. In Representing Reality (1991) he separates rhetoric from style: “Rhetoric moves us away from style, to the other end of the axis between author and viewer” (Nichols, 1991:181) and he associates it with argumentation and persuasion of a more ideological and almost misleading nature: “rhetoric involves making a persuasive case, not describing and assessing damaging or less appealing facts, though their disclosure would be necessary” (Nichols, 1991:183).

In his book Introduction to documentary (2001), Nichols continues to argue, less forcefully but directly, that the documentary is a rhetorical form and cites several classical figures, such as Cicero, Quintilian and Aristotle to justify this claim. Furthermore, he argues that the voice of the documentary is the voice of oratory: the voice of the filmmaker who adopts a position on aspects of the historical world and who is convincing about his own merits. This position contradicts the aspects of the world that are open to debate (i.e. those not based on scientific evidence, which depend on understanding, interpretation, values and judgment). Nichols points out that this mode of representation requires a way of speaking that is fundamentally different to logic and narrative. This is rhetoric, although he once again associates it with argument, and clearly separates it from scientific and literary discourses, which are also always present (Nichols, 2001:49). There are six modes of representation in the documentary described by Nichols:

– The expository mode. This is associated with the classic documentary, and based on illustrating an argument using images. It is a rhetorical rather than an aesthetic mode, aimed directly at the viewer, using text titles or phrases to guide the image and to emphasize the idea of objectivity and logical argument. It emerged from the disappointment generated by the poor entertainment quality of fiction films. Key examples of this mode are the socio-ethnographic expeditions (anthropology in documentary films, especially in the work of Robert Flaherty) and the British documentary movement (social objectives in documentary film, led by John Grierson and the documentarists of the British school) (Nichols, 1991:68-72 and Nichols, 2001:105-109).

– The poetic mode. Its origin is linked to the emergence of artistic avant-gardes in cinema, and that is why it uses many of the devices typical of other arts (fragmentation, subjective impressions, surrealism, etc.). It is a mode that has reappeared at different times and which is experiencing a resurgence in many contemporary documentaries. It aims to create a specific mood and tone rather than to provide the viewer with information, as is the case with the expository and observational modes. This mode includes the avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s (the aesthetic objective in documentary film led by Walter Ruttman, Jean Vigo and Joris Ivens) and the films verging on art and neo-realism (the artistic and poetic purpose of the documentary language as embodied by the contributions of Arne Sucksdorf and Bert Haanstra) (Nichols, 1991:72-78 and Nichols, 2001:102-105).

– The reflexive mode. The purpose of this mode is to raise the audience’s awareness of the means of representation itself and the devices that have given it authority. The film is not considered a window on the world, but is instead considered a construct or representation of it, and it aims for the viewer to adopt a position that is critical of any form of representation. Nichols considers this to be the most self-critical and self-conscious mode. It arose from the desire to make the conventions of representation more evident, and to put to the test the impression of reality that the other modes usually transmitted without any problem (in his first study in 1991, Nichols established four basic modes based on the book The Social Documentary in Latin America by Julianne Burton). This is the most introspective mode – it uses many of the resources found in other types of documents, but it takes them to the limit, so that the viewer’s attention is focused on both the resource and the effect. This mode includes the news documented in Russia in the early years of the twentieth century (the ideological objective in documentary film, led by Dziga Vertov) and some more contemporary authors such as Jill Godmilow and Raul Ruiz, among others (Nichols, 1991:93-114 and Nichols, 2001:125-130).

– The observational mode. This mode is represented by the French Cinema Verite and the American Direct Cinema film movements, which despite their major differences, both benefited from technological developments (portable, lightweight and synchronous equipment) in the early 1960s. Together with a more open and coherent set of filmic and narrative theories, these enabled a different approach to the subject matter, and the directors prioritized a spontaneous and direct observation of reality. It arose as a result of disagreement with the moralizing aim of the expository documentary. This mode allowed the director to record reality without becoming involved in what people were doing when they were not explicitly looking into the camera. Of particular interest in this category are the Cinema Verite movement in France, the Direct Cinema movement in the U.S.A. and Candid Eye in Canada (the sociological focus of the documentary film, led by Jean Rouch, Edgar Morin and Mario Ruspolli, among others) (Nichols, 1991:66 and Nichols, 2001:109-115).

– The participatory mode (in its interactive origins). This mode was mainly used in ethnographic film and in social theories of participatory investigation, and presents the relationship between the filmmaker and the filmed subject. The director becomes an investigator and enters unknown territory, participates in the lives of others, and gains direct and in-depth experience and reflection from the film. This mode of representation is present in films such as Celovek kinoapparatom (Vertov, 1929) and Chronique d’un été (Rouch and Morin, 1960). The observational mode limited the director to the present and required a disciplined detachment from events. The participatory documentary makes the director’s perspective clearer, involving him/her in the discourse that is being produced. The directors wanted to make contact with individuals in a more direct way, without returning to the classical exhibitory format, and this led to interview styles and various interventionist tactics, which enabled the producer to participate more actively in the events. He could also become the narrator of the story, or explain what happened by means of witnesses and/or experts. These comments were often added to archive footage to facilitate reconstructions and to prevent endless and omniscient commentary. The outstanding figures were Jean Rouch, Emile de Antonio and Connie Filed, among others (Nichols, 1991:78-93 and Nichols, 2001:115-125).

– The performance mode. The final mode introduced by Nichols, which appeared relatively recently, calls into question the foundations of traditional documentary film and raises doubts about the boundaries that have traditionally been established by the genre of fiction. It focuses interest on expressiveness, poetry and rhetoric, rather than on the desire for realistic representation. The emphasis is shifted to the evocative qualities of the text, rather than its representational capacity, and once again focuses on more contemporary artistic avant-gardes. This new mode of representation emerged from the previous modes and the shortcomings or flaws in the classic modes, according to various authors. An obvious example is the American director Michael Moore, among others (Nichols, 1994:92-106 and Nichols, 2001:130-138).

In short, Nichols says that each mode uses the resources of narrative and realism in a different way, and uses common ingredients to produce different kinds of text with ethical issues, textual structures and standard expectations among the viewers. The following overview (Table 3.1) provides a comparison of the main features of the classifications by the three authors studied, plus those by Crawford (1992) and Ardèvol (1995 and 1996).


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