While the goal of documentary filmmaking is to depict a true story with an authentic message, so much meticulous planning and careful decisions go into the creation of these films. Between the stylistic choices and the specific technical conventions of a film, directors have the power to emphasize their message beyond the characters’ physical actions by creating a specific mood. My experience this year at Full Frame unexpectedly taught me so much about the technical aspects and compositional elements of filmmaking.
After talking with filmmaker, Jackie Olive, the director of Always in Season, I learned so much about the impact that seemingly miniscule stylistic choices have on the film. When showing us clips from her film, I realized how important editing techniques such as sound and score are to films. I previously never considered the dramatic role that sound has in films or the complex process of creating and choosing the sounds that will spark the intended reaction from the viewer. One scene that had such a profound effect on me was when passionate humming supplemented a woman’s dramatic 911 call about a black boy she found hanging from a swing. While the content itself is shocking, the sounds added to its emotional impact and made the scene resonate even more with me. The soundtrack of a movie is not just background noise to fill empty spots in the story, it transports the viewers into the story with the characters by creating an atmosphere that accompanies the visuals of the film.
Sound was also effectively utilized in the film The Ambassador’s Wife, which is a short film that follows the daily life of the wife of the French ambassador in Burkina Faso. In this country, wives of the ambassadors are not permitted to work, so this woman loves a life of seclusion and loneliness in even though she lives a very affluent lifestyle. One scene that struck me particularly emphasized her feeling of being endlessly trapped; she was swimming alone in her pool with the sounds of workers on her property banging hammers on cement as they fixed her tennis court. The sound was repetitive and gradually became louder and faster, and it went on for minutes without any action on the screen. This sound was so irritating and painful to my ears that it infuriated me while I was watching, and all I wanted was for it to end. While this made the viewing of the film incredibly unpleasant, it placed me in the position of the ambassador’s wife, and I was able to have my own authentic experience and emotions.
Other than sound and score, visual and compositional techniques can take a film to q meaning beyond what it physically taking place. In the film, Ressaca, which followed a dance company in Rio as they protested against the injustice facing art at the hands of their government. This film was interestingly completely in black and white even though it is a modern day film. In a world where color films are the norm and are completely expected by viewers, seeing a film in black and white was immediately jarring for me. However, I think this decision actually added to the film by making the meaning seem more poignant without the distraction from the events that color would have created. By eliminating the extraneous element of color, the composition felt very cohesive, which corresponded to the themes of unity in the film where all sorts of people, young and old, black and white, men and women, all came together to fight for their common passion – dance and, on a broader scale, for the culture of their country. By using the simple visual technique of making the film black and white, the filmmaker was able to create dramatic implications from a subtle association to the solidarity of the people of Brazil.
When watching the film, Irene’s Ghost, which was about a man discovering the mystery behind his mother’s death, I was shocked to see elements of playful animation next to serious interviews. Since the man’s mother died when he was only a child, this unexpected decision contributed a sense of innocence to the film that reflected the man’s childlike memories of his mother that he was desperately clinging onto. This feeling from the short animations also made the memories of his mom seem very insignificant and fleeting just like childlike naivety. I never would have associated animation with documentary films, a genre that relies on truth and fact, but this stylistic choice added so much intrigue and meaning to the film by contrasting cheerful images with nostalgia.
While these examples are only a few of all of the brilliant moments I watched, these were all both the most memorable and successful in my opinion. The message I took away from this experience was that films are not only a story to watch but an experience to witness. I also learned that I must suspend any expectations I have of documentary filmmaking because thoughtful and innovative editing techniques, while surprising and unusual, can also add remarkable meaning to a film. I find it amazing that the form or composition of a film, not only the story, can deliver so much weight and and substance to its message. All of the very intentional decisions made by the filmmaker, which I previously overlooked, in reality shape the entire tone and spirit of a film. These unique choices give every moment of a film a specific feeling that, when blended together, form the personality of each film and bring its story to life.