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Watching the World

Watching the World

Thomas Austin
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 220
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  • Book Info
    Watching the World
    Book Description:

    Screen documentary has experienced a marked rise in visibility and popularity in recent years. What are the reasons for the so-called 'boom' in documentaries at the cinema? How has television documentary met the challenge of new formats? And how do audiences engage with documentaries on screen? Watching the world extends the reach of documentary studies by investigating recent instances of screen documentary and the uses made of them by audiences. The book focuses on the interfaces between textual mechanisms, promotional tactics, and audiences' viewing strategies. Key topics of inquiry are: film and televisual form, truth claims and issues of trust, the pleasures, politics and the ethics of documentary. Case studies include Capturing the Friedmans, Être et Avoir, Paradise Lost, Touching the Void, and wildlife documentaries on television. This compelling and accessible book will be of interest to both students and fans of documentary.

    eISBN: 978-1-84779-448-2
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-11)

    Anglophone screen documentary has experienced a marked rise in visibility and popularity since the late 1990s. This book is both a response to these developments and a contribution to them, insofar as it attempts to extend the reach of documentary studies. It does so by pursuing a critical inquiry into some recent instances of screen documentary, and the uses and possibilities that they offer audiences. What can such an analysis discover about how viewers engage with documentary?

    I consider documentaries viewed at cinemas and on home video and DVD, as well as television programming.¹ The primary focus of the book...

  5. 1 Continuity and change: the documentary ʹboomʹ
    (pp. 12-33)

    In the period from late 2002 to early 2004, trade and popular film publications and websites in the United States and Britain began to identify a ʹboomʹ in documentary cinema.¹ Such commentaries were based initially on the commercial success of a handful of documentary features, most notably Michael MooreʹsBowling for Columbine(US, released October 2002, grossed $21 million in the US); the sleeper hitWinged Migration(France, a dubbed version ofLe Peuple Migrateur, released April 2003, grossed $11 million); spelling contest filmSpellbound(US, released April 2003, grossed nearly $6 million); and Errol MorrisʹsFog of War(US,...

  6. 2 Seeing, feeling, knowing: Etre et avoir
    (pp. 34-59)

    This chapter draws on a small study conducted in July 2003, using questionnaires submitted by self-selected and largely middle-class cinemagoers who watched the French documentaryEtre et avoir(2003) at an arthouse cinema in Brighton, England. My initial vectors of inquiry were cinemagoersʹ operative generic assumptions about documentary (whichEtre et avoirwas seen to either fulfil or to refuse), and their perspectives on issues of veracity and the so-called crisis over trust and the essential truth claims of the mode. Other issues raised by audience response to the film included a series of distinctions made between notions of the...

  7. 3 ʹSuspense, fright, emotion, happy endingʹ: documentary form and audience response to Touching the Void
    (pp. 60-83)

    Film scholarship needs to take audiences seriously as a means of deepening, and offering some new angles on, debates over the form, ethics and impacts of screen documentary. This chapter uses a case study of the commercially and critically successful mountaineering documentaryTouching the Void(UK, 2003) as a point of entry into further consideration of these and associated issues. Drawing on original qualitative research among cinemagoers, it follows two key lines of inquiry in particular. Firstly, it pursues how viewers responded to aesthetic aspects such asTouching the Voidʹs use of dramatic reconstructions alongside ʹtalking headsʹ-style interviews with the...

  8. 4 ʹThe most confusing tearsʹ: home video, sex crime and indeterminacy in Capturing the Friedmans
    (pp. 84-108)

    At Thanksgiving in 1987, Arnold Friedman, a musician and computing teacher, was arrested at his family home in Great Neck, Long Island, New York and charged with multiple counts of child molestation.¹ The convictions of Arnold and his youngest son Jesse, then aged 19, the following year were based on accusations of repeated abuse over a period of four years at computer classes held in the basement of the house. In what appears to be a bungled attempt at plea bargaining in the context of a media feeding frenzy around the case, both men pleaded guilty.² Arnold died in jail;...

  9. 5 Approaching the invisible centre: middle-class identity and documentary film
    (pp. 109-121)

    So far in this book I have considered various engagements with screen documentary made by viewers other than myself. In this chapter I turn attention to some of my own responses to documentary films, and explore how my identity, particularly its middleclass aspect, has shaped these reactions. The purpose behind this move is not to wallow in narcissism, nor to ʹrestoreʹ a middleclass, white and male subjectivity to the centre stage of film and media studies – if it has ever been truly displaced – although both these accusations might be levelled at me.¹ Instead, I aim to acknowledge, foreground...

  10. 6 ʹOur planet reveals its secretsʹ: wildlife documentaries on television
    (pp. 122-177)

    In recent years wildlife documentaries have enjoyed an enhanced profile and growing presence in theatrical and DVD markets, thanks to hits likeLa Marche de lʹEmpereur/March of the PenguinsandLe Peuple Migratuer/Winged Migration, along with IMAX films such asGalapagos(US, 1999) andAfricaʹs Elephant Kingdom(US, 1998).¹ But it is on television – both mainstream broadcasters and, increasingly, specialist channels – that wildlife documentaries have been a more enduring fixture, even while the genre has been subject to almost constant change. This chapter examines recent commercial and formal developments in wildlife documentaries on television. It also draws on...

  11. 7 Conclusion: documentary world views
    (pp. 178-183)

    In this concluding chapter I want to revisit an issue that has been raised intermittently throughout the book, and continues to appear in ongoing debates around screen documentary. This is the thorny question of the social and political potential of the mode, grounded in its promise to re-present something of the world to its viewers. Of course, it cannot be assumed that this potential is always and unproblematically realised. Furthermore, any attempt to explore the orientations towards the world proposed via documentary must attend not only to its capacity to invite and stimulate audiencesʹ engagement with, understandings of, and respect...

  12. Methodological appendix
    (pp. 184-204)
  13. Select bibliography
    (pp. 205-214)
  14. Index
    (pp. 215-218)