About Radio Diaries
Radio Diaries is an interesting take on radio documentaries. This technique, like the documentary is focused on telling real life stories but from the perspective of the persons who the story is about. I’ve listened to Davids Isay’s “Ghetto Life 101” which is a radio diary about two boys who live in the projects in Chicago and the documentary is heard from their perspective. Isay gives them recorders to record their lives and how they experience their neighbourhood. Isay keeps his own voice out of the documentary but he worked with the boys on the script and did much of the research for the documentary. The boys largely decided what they wanted to record. I think that this is an interesting take on a documentary as it allows the “subjects” of the story to tell the story as they see it.
Ghetto life 101 is one of those radio documentaries that allow you to walk with and walk into the lives of these two boys. This sets this form of documentary apart from the tradition documentary in that the “subjects” are given authority in telling their story of their lives. LeAlan Jones begins by saying “good morning, I’m walking to school” and he takes you along on his journey to school “showing” you what he sees on his way there. The rest of the documentary is much the same and there are many instances where the recorder seems to disappear and we see into their life, an insider’s perspective into their lives. A clear example of this was when one of the boys goes to his grandmothers bedroom to talk to her. This conversation is not confrontational and doesn’t at all sound planned like some of the encounters in this documentary. It’s rather relaxed and I think draws one in to the normality of their life. This is something that would be difficult to achieve if there was a journalist in the room, or would require a great amount of time spent with the family and subjects to be allowed in to that private space. They also manage to get the people in their lives that they interview to tell very personal accounts of their lives and towards the end LeAlan manages to get his grandmother to sing for him. She has a minor complex with her own voice but because she was talking to her grandson, he manages to convince her to sing anyway; a journalist may not have managed to inspire the same willingness.
The limitation of radio diaries technique, especially since it uses young boys as the journalists, is that as much as they are able to show us things that a journalist would otherwise never find out, they are still young and sometimes hesitant to push the adults in their lives for answers. For example, LeAlan asks his mother about his father and she offers him very little information and simply says “he’s probably dead”. You can almost hear him ask the next question but decides not to push his mother and simply says “thank you”. I think that being close to the people in his life means that as much as he has assumed the role of journalist, he still knows the limitations and rules that govern his household and the relationships he is in.
Critics spoke about how this documentary perpetuated stereotypes and some critcs accused Isay of being uninformed of this community and that he had coached the boys from an ill-informed understanding of the ghetto. This may have some validity, yet one can also argue that the point of the documentary was to widen the knowledge of life in the ghetto from the lived perspective of these two boys. Considering that they largely decided what to record, I would say that this documentary represents what these boys saw as things that are visible in their lives and true to them. The boys also took part in writing the script so they had a hand in shaping how they would be portrayed. The second documentary that they made called Remorse also depicted the violence in their neighbourhood through the year long exploration of the killing of a five year old boy in the neighbourhood. This documentary didn’t receive the same criticism as ghetto life 101, but was another reflection of the life in the Ghetto as explored and known by these two boys. This I think is important, stereotypes or not because it is one truth that exists and people should be aware even if it is just to widen their knowledge base. Mathew Erlich puts it best by saying, “Even if the two radio documentaries in some ways conformed to stereotype, it does not negate that they also reflected hard truths.”
I think that it would be far too much to expect on documentary to look at different perspectives of the story and to then challenge the stereotypes that exist as well as to find those accountable for the poor living conditions the people of this community find themselves in. As much as the radio diaries limit all of this, I would say that it is in this limitation that we are able to get a better perspective of what these boys experience on a day to day basis and thus our knowledge base is broadened. This in effect begs for many other documentaries to follow up on the questions that this one perspective raises and affords many critics an opportunity to document the other sides of the story.
The historical documentaries
Documentaries can deal with history in profoundly different ways. They can take a person back to an event, making you think about your own response to historical happenings as if you yourself had been there. Or they can simply give you information about that event that allows you to understand it better. It is with these thoughts in mind that I listened this week to two documentaries that both serve as a record of the Soweto uprisings, on June 16 1976. One was Part 3 of Joe Richman’s radio diary, made for an international audience, called Mandela: An Audio History, the other production by ABC Ulwazi.
Each is sound rich, filled with a variety of sound sources, drawn from archival material as well as interviews. Prominent people are interviewed such as Nelson Mandela with the voice of Desmond Tutu as the narrator. Presumably these voices are fore grounded because they are well known to an international audience. One would imagine that they carry a great deal of authority for this audience, giving the documentary and the subject matter a form of authentication.The ABC Ulwazi production looks at this day from a very different perspective. In the opening sequence, it is explained that the documentary aims to serve as a record of the events leading up to the day, as well as those that occurred on the day itself, told from the perspective of the people who were present on that day. As the documentary unfolds, this message is constantly reinforced; that this account is based in the experiences of those who participated in the event. Each speaker introduces themselves, claiming the dignity of having a name, and state how they were involved in the day - for example, as a teacher or a student. Here we see the interpretivst nature of the individuals being allowed to be authorities on their own experience of this day. It is as if they are saying “this is why I have a right to speak about this event”.
This is different to the Richman documentary, where the speakers rarely introduce themselves. In some instances, this is because it is taken for granted that we know the speakers and voices because they are well-known journalists or political figures. In other cases, where the people who speak are not so well know, the assumption seems to be that names are irrelevant. . One is left with the impression that this is the story of an anonymous mass of people. In contrast, in the case of the ABC Ulwazi documentary, each speaker presents themselves as an individual in their own right. And it is striking that each speaker also has their own unique perspective on the events of the day. Such is the vividness of the images they paint of their surroundings that one can see them in their offices, their homes and in the crowd of marching students. In this way, the documentary succeeds in giving you a sense of the day from beginning to end, in a way that leaves you feeling as if you understand the feelings of each person involved.
The Ulwazi documentary seems, then, to be driven primarily by an interest in content rather than richness in sound - and because of this foregrounds the descriptions provided by witnesses to the exclusion of most other sources. It makes sparse use of other sound elements, such as archival material and ambience. The Richman diary, in contrast relies on sound-richness, drawing for this on a variety of sources, including ambience and archival material. One is left with the impression that the ABC Ulwazi documentary was made for people who, as South Africans, already know about the event, and have a vested interest in hearing about it in more detail, without needing to be ‘hooked’ in through the use of rich sound. The ambience used includes struggle songs that can be understood by a local audience. Richman’s diary on the other hand has the international audience in mind, and here there seems to be more of a need for intricate crafting, in order to hold this listener’s attention explain what is being spoken about.
The first time I listened to the ABC Ulwazi version, I hardly heard the ambience as I was interested in what the individual speakers had to say. I think that the ambience is less prominent because this documentary does not need to be carried by it. It almost feels like I’m sitting in a room filled with people I know who experienced this event and are talking to me as a young person which is what the documentary sets out to do as the opening statement talks about recording June 16 “... for our children to know what it was”.
My personal philosophy is that people should be allowed to tell their own stories as authorities on their own lives and experiences and this is achieved well by both documentaries. I think that I will conduct my interviews for my documentary with this historical mode in mind. I think that getting my interviewee to tell descriptive stories will help carry my documentary as has been similarly done in these documentaries.
The poetic and the expository modes
This week, I listened to four documentaries that make use of very different strategies of persuasion. These included Zoom Black Magic Radio by Gary Covino; Witness to an Execution by David Isay; Mei Mei a Daughter’s Song by Dmae Roberts and View from a Bridge by John Hockenberry. The difference in their approach to persuasion can, I think, be explained by referring to two of Bill Nicholl’s documentary ‘modes’ (1981). I would say that Zoom Black Magic Radio and Witness to an Execution are examples of what Nichols describes as the ‘expository’ mode. Mei Mei, a Daughters Song and View from a Bridge can, in turn, be said to fall into the ‘poetic’ mode.
Nichols explains that exposition is found within the domain of rhetoric, where a particular case is put forward and then argued for, by means of a range of strategies of persuasion. Within the context of documentaries, a key strategy is the mustering of evidence; particularly through the identification of sources who can argue for this case that the documentary is making. Within this mode, the viewer is addresses directly and the “voice of God” type of narration is used (Nichols, 2001: 105). The argument put forward by the expository mode appeals to the “common sense” of the viewer.
The poetic mode moves away from the conventional way of having continuity and knowing where the documentary is located and uses “temporal rhythms and spatial juxtapositions” (Nichols, 2001). So what we see with this mode is that the documentarist will not necessarily try to persuade the viewer to take a particular stance in the way the expository mode would. That is to say there is no argument for an “objective” reality. Instead, the emphasis is on the subjective reality of the documentarist.
The documentary Zoom Black Magic Radio is about an illegal radio station run by M’banna Kantanko. He broadcasts from a corner of his living room to people in his Springfield Illinois neighbourhood. He does some political commentary, speaks about race and social justice, and also plays music. Unsuccessful attempts to shut down the station have been made by the local police as well as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). I would say that this documentary is expository in its nature because the documentarist puts forward an argument that this pirate radio station may be around longer than the authorities think because it has a determined creator as well as good following. The argument also seems to be that time and resources are being wasted on trying to shut down this pirate radio station. The interviews with Katanko are used evidence to substantiate the argument. This is apparent from the very beginning, which takes the form of a narrated description of Springfield neighbourhood. It almost feels like the narrator is saying, “there’s a story in that neighbourhood and I’m about to show you that it is there” as if implying that if you don’t believe him, he can prove it to you by taking you there. This format, in which the producer makes a statement and then summons up evidence to substantiate it, is traditionally associated with news reports. The expository mode is, indeed, strongly associated with the conventions of mainstream journalism.
Witness to an Execution traces through one execution with the different people involved speaking one after another, taking the listener step by step through the day of the execution. This documentary makes a strong normative statement about the acceptability of executions, by describing the process of execution as it exists in the state of Texas. The producer argues, in particular, that there are too many executions happening in Texas; that they traumatise the people involved in the process of execution and that this points to a fundamental moral problem with the legitimisation of execution. The narrator, Jim Willet, who is also the overseer of all executions in Texas, starts by saying, “sometimes I wonder if people really know what goes on down here and how it affects us”. This is then followed by a series of accounts of the execution process, by the many people involved in this process. They describe what happens during the execution, and how they there are affected by it. “After the execution I felt numb...” one voice says; “At some point there’s a detachment,” says another, and“I wrestle with myself about the fact that it’s easier now.” Willet later says about witnessing executions that “... it always bother you”. This is said before introducing the case of Fred Allen who was part of the team that ties down inmates for executions. Allen, we are told, has had to resign from his job because he had a mental breakdown. These statements are offered as evidence of what the narrator has argued. The other way the argument is made is by means of detailed descriptions of every step that leads to an execution. This, again, operates as evidence of the truth value of the documentary. The listener is left with the sense that the executions are far too frequent and emotionally taxing on those involved, exactly what was being put forward by the producer of the documentary.
Mei Mei, a Daugthers song is a subjective documentary. Roberts says from the onset that this documentary is about her mother and about growing up with her. And this is indeed, as we then find out, a story about Roberts and her mother and their trip to Taiwan. The descriptions in this documentary are poetic in their expression. You notice this with the one voice that begins by telling “a story” speaks poetically. The repetition of significant phrases such as “Buddha, the lady Buddha” and “Buddha gave me power, Buddha gave me power” add a rhythmic feel to the documentary. It takes the listener from one place in the documentary to another and back to another place. The listener and the story in effect is never located in one place. Music is also used to add to the rhythmic and poetic feel of the documentary. Roberts is not giving an argument about anything per se, but giving the audience a subjective view on her feelings about her mother and in so doing, showing us her relationship with her mother. Yet, you understand that growing up with a mother who had a difficult upbringing during the Second World War has made Dmae’s own upbringing a frustrating experience.
This is similar to View from the Bridge. No argument is explicitly made using the convention methods of persuasion as with the expository mode but the audience gets a subjective understanding of what it feels like to do everyday tasks and activities while living with a disability. This is itself an argument that many tasks may be done differently to people without disabilities, but there’s a new feeling and perspective that comes with living with a disability. We see this, for example, when Hockenberry gives a description of being on a bridge with a wheelchair and he describes an exhilarating feeling. He then interviews other disabled people about their experience of being disabled. The most powerful interview for me was one Hockenberry does with a blind skiing instructor. What’s poetic in this case is the sound of the instructors voice shouting instructions along with the sound of the wind as they ski helps create images in the listeners mind and in effect “shows” what is going on.
What I get from these documentaries is that the intentions of the documentarist determine what the documentary will sound like and whether it will be argumentative or poetic in its delivery. Both forms of documentary are in my opinion, very successful. From Mei Mei, a Daugthers the poetry of the documentary allows us to get a sense of Roberts’s relationship with her mom without her explicitly saying that it’s her intention. It’s also very emotive and I was able to get a sense of her feelings throughout the documentary. I had a similar reaction to Witness to an Execution, but different in that, because an argument was made beforehand and everything that followed was evidence in that effect, I felt the emotion of the people involved. The difference with Witness to an Execution is that this documentary makes you question the death penalty and is geared at awareness. Mei Mei, a Daugthers simply gives you a perspective on someone’s life and perhaps makes you empathise in some way with the producer and her mother.
I think that both these modes are not only useful but important as forms of documentary. I think that with my own documentary, I would like to use elements of both. My documentary as I see it, is about Mfundo, his life and his fictional story. I think I’d like to find ways to incorporate a poetic ‘feel’ to the documentary, perhaps in the structure of his life story. I think that I wouldn’t necessarily be making an argument for something, but through my narration and telling of the story, I’d like my audience to be left with a question perhaps about the second chances and opportunities that they can afford to themselves and others.