Audio Essay

The documentary defined

Documentaries are a form of journalism that can be used in many ways that can be powerful in telling a story. I have always enjoyed watching and listening to documentaries as they go a little further than news reports in revealing layers underneath what may appear to be an ordinary story. It’s interesting to read about documentaries and the different theories that exist as to what constitutes a documentary. Micheal Rabinger gave a talk at Rhodes University about documentary making and he personally defines a documentary as “a corner of nature seen through a lense.” He made a point to mention that there is no single agreement on what a documentary is. My individual task has been to look at various definitions around documentaries and find common themes and different ideas in these definitions in order to find my own guiding theory for what my documentary will be about.
Attie Snyman begins by looking at the definition of “document” in the Oxford dictionary. It is defined as “a piece of written, printed, or electronic matter that provides information or evidence of events” from this he points out that information and evidence are key to this definition and therefore to the definition of a documentary. This means that documentaries for them to acquire this name must be informative and evidence based. This seems to fall in the positivist paradigm, as if all what is to be documented is in existence waiting to be observed and recorded.
Rick Moody describes radio documentaries as “...bits of programming composed of investigative pieces, where producers go out into the field, record in exotic locales (anywhere that is not a studio), meet people, and combine narrative reportage with field recordings and the voices of others. The documentary impulse means not only to describe events, but also to represent particular milieus...” I like this definition as it includes the word “represent”. This implies that the images that one would portray through the documentary will stand in place of the actual reality, not in itself being the reality.

Hogarth explains that the understanding of documentary by the 1930’s was that it was “a uniquely educational, entertaining and efficient way of telling stories about the nation.” I think this definition describes documentaries best for me. its about telling people’s stories and its longer than three minutes because of its educational purpose, it can’t be a documentary without wanting to say something and teach something. This is a way of widening the knowledge that people have about certain things but all the while entertaining them. Govier disagrees somewhat with this notion of entertainment as he believes that documentaries must simply be good enough to stand their ground when competing with entertainment programs on radio. Both speak in some sense of a documentary being a story and Govier describes documentary makers as “storytellers.” He further defines documentaries as the result of the search for truth that journalists embark on. So he sees documentaries as coming from that in depth analysis and going beyond the layer of truth that is seen and finding the other truth “a new perspective on life as it really is or was”. This seems both positivist and critical positivist in that it holds that this truth can be found, but critical in that it speaks of searching for answers beyond the surface of what is seen and can be found. From his definition I would go as far as saying that documentaries are ways of telling stories about the truth. This is where the difference of documentaries to propaganda falls in. Propaganda is in my understanding all about limiting ones access to knowledge and forcing people to subscribe to single perception about a topic. Documentaries are there to broaden human knowledge on a particular topic.

Documentaries by Soundprint standards should “engage listeners aurally in such a way as to allow them to "see" a story through creative sound design—often a complex, multi-layered mix of ambient sound, music, narration, and sound bites from event participants.” This focuses on the listener’s ability to understand what is being portrayed. This would be a critical paradigm definition as it speaks about multi layering of sounds and people. It is also about people seeing the many layers that do exist in the story. I think puts it best when he uses the phrase “theatre of the mind”. I think that in this definition and phrase, lies the definition I would adopt for my own documentary that is a work in progress.  What I essentially want to do is tell a story. By story I mean the version of truth that is held by the subjects who are the focus of the documentary. I also want my documentary to be interesting and entertaining in and of itself as Govier suggests. I endeavour to make my documentary help take the audience to a space where the theatre of the mind becomes a reality and representations of people’s lives and stories can be created and expand peoples knowledge and understanding of other peoples truths.

On fieldwork
Steinar Kvale (1996) in his book on interviewing outlines seven stages involved in this process, one of which I have found relevant to my own strategy for interviewing. Kvale presents “thematizing” as the first part in which the purpose of the investigation and the conception of the theme must be formulated before the interviewing process begins. Simply put, the why and the how must be answered before one embarks on the process of interviewing.

For me, that means my proposal and interview plan has to be perfectly prepared and revised as the need arises. Once beginning the interviewing, DiCicco-Bloom and Crabtree (2006) say that in-depth interviews are important for drawing out stories and getting the interviewee to give narrations of events. To achieve this, Herbert, Rubin and Rubin (2005) point out that interviewing builds on conversational skills that you already have. The fundamental of a conversation is that someone asks a question and listens to the answer; this is about being in a relationship and sharing information. The relationship part of the interview comes in with building rapport with the interviewee so that openness can be achieved ( DiCicco-Bloom and Crabtree, 2006).  DiCicco-Bloom and Crabtree (2006) point out that rapport because the interviewee is expected to share information about themselves and so respect and trust from the interviewer are essential.
It has been easy building rapport with my interviewee Mfundo. He is very open and willing to talk about himself and his experiences. The part that is a work in progress is the getting more detailed narrations from Mfundo; he tells stories but sometimes goes off topic and the detail of the point he was making seems to get lost or go untold. To achieve this, Taylor and Bogdan (1998) speak about an interviewer needing to listen empathetically and gently guiding the course of the interview and “feeling” their way through the interview. For me, that means that I have to look for ways to grow as an interviewer throughout this process and be more deliberate about guiding the direction of the conversation.
Another tactic that I have found works quite well is what Doctor Rita Berry (1999) describe as an interview that resembles a chat; this is an informal interview during which the informants may sometimes forget that they are being interviewed. Most of the questions asked will then flow from the immediate context (Berry, 1999). This informal interview has been useful in my initial interview for building rapport and trying to pinpoint angles and stories to pursue in a more structured interview. I can take this further by doing what Berry describe as the guided approach, which is creating a basic checklist to make sure that all relevant topics are covered. The interviewer is still free to explore, probe and ask questions deemed interesting to the researcher (Berry, 1999). This type of interview approach is useful for eliciting information about specific topics (Berry, 1999). This will be useful in making sure that I reach all my objectives and can bring up questions that have been left unanswered the next time I interview Mfundo.

What's the story?

I have come past Kvale’s (1996) first few stages of interviewing in terms of making my documentary. These stages in brief were: thermatizing, designing, interviewing, and transcribing. I am now at the analysing stage. Although transcribing is a stage before analysis, I found that it formed the beginning part of my analysis. Kvale (1996) explains that this is true because it allowed me to get an overview of the material I had collected. Kvale summarises the analysis stage as asking myself: how can I take the story that Mfundo told me and turn it into the story that I want to tell my audience? As I scripted my documentary, I have kept both Kvale and Trisha Das in mind
Das’ says that as you script, the aim is to come to terms with what you have managed to gather and work with that. My process of doing this included transcribing, as I have mentioned, listening over the actuality several times as well as reading the interview transcriptions. I had a picture of what my documentary was going to look like based on my proposal and research, but what I thought I had and wanted to do with the documentary was in some ways different from what I actually came out from the interviews. I also realised that I was trying to achieve too much, I had two aims; to discover to what extent Mfundo’s life related to that of the main character in his novel and therefore contrasting Mfundo’s story with his fictional story. I also wanted to answer the question “What is it about Mfundo Jacobs that caused him to decide to choose a better life for himself after getting heavily involved in drugs?”
Micheal Rabiger once advised us in a seminar he held at Rhodes University that as you do your interviews, what you remember after the interviews is really the story you ought to tell; it’s the story that is begging to be told. What stayed with me after my interviews with Mfundo, was how he came to change his life. The book was only a reflection of this change. The natural thing to do was to find one focus and I decided it would be about how Mfundo had managed to change his life.
While scripting, I became attached to certain portions of the material that I thought were stories that Mfundo told so well about himself and the book. I then spent time editing and keeping Das’ advice in mind. She advises cutting out “little darlings” of actuality that don’t help to tell the story I’m trying to tell my audience. I found this hard to do, but the more I went through my material, the more honest I was at deciding which portions of actuality  simply made the story longer than necessary and took away from the story.  
To answer Kvale’s question, the story I want to tell my audience is one about change. It is what Mfundo stressed in his interviews as I kept asking him what brought him to the point of change and his response was simply “if you want change dude, you will change”. That is Mfundo’s story and it is his story that I wanted to tell my audience.