Defining Documentaries and Citizenfour


As this will be my last post on documentary films, I wanted to discuss the meaning of the word “documentary.” When the term “documentary” comes to mind, most of us describe it as something truthful. As Henrik Juel discusses in his article “Defining Documentary Film,” the genre is usually explained as “a type of film that is based on the real world and real people, depicting things they are or telling about historical events in a supposedly truthful or objective manner.”

However, this definition can be disputed on all points. As Juel explains, a security camera records reality, yet we wouldn’t consider that to be a documentary. A surveillance camera would show real people in their real lives, yet without cutting or editing the video it lacks the substance to be considered a film.

Trying to decipher my own example, the film The Imitation Game came to mind. This film depicts the life of the mathematician, Alan Turing, known for his contribution to winning World War II and developing the computer. The Imitation Game was classified as a drama, yet it still told the story of historical events in a truthful manner. While yes, actors were cast to portray the real people, other films use reenactments all the time, and are categorized under the documentaries genre.

And reality tv has real people, yet most of what we see are previously structured plot lines and not portraying reality.

So what is the perfectly defined definition of a “documentary”? I DON’T KNOW. And it’s really starting to frustrate me.

But anyway… keeping the guidelines of what I do know about documentaries in mind, I watched my last film, Citizenfour.

Citizenfour chronicled the events of Edward Snowden’s exposure of the National Security Agency’s massive covert-surveillance programs. The film was created by Laura Poitras, a filmmaker of whom Snowden first reached out to with the classified information he wished to bring to light about the NSA. The film was like watching history unfold by the minute as Poitras and Journalist Glenn Greenwald strategically released the information to the public via the media.

Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden

Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden

Citizenfour was created using real footage of conversations between Snowden and Greenwald in a hotel room, along with video clips from broadcast news stations. The film simply relays facts, nothing more. Therefore, you cannot dispute that anything occurring in the film is false. Yet, the way that the film is constructed, there is a clear bias against the NSA and American Government. But does that hinder the film’s ability to be considered truthful? So now I asked myself, can “truth” and bias live in the same place?

Edward Snowden featured on broadcast station

Edward Snowden featured on broadcast station

I think a documentary has to be more than telling the truth. To me, a documentary not only exposes true life, but it has to convey something else as well. It shows the audience a “back-stage view” of a current situation with the purpose of making a point, teaching the world, or provoking a conversation.

Contemplating a similar debate about truth in a documentary, Juel references the founder of British documentary movement, John Grierson. Grierson coined the phrase “creative treatment of actuality” when trying to interpret what a documentary really is. I don’t know if we will ever nail down an exact definition of the genre, but I have to say, I kinda like that one! Nice work John, I salute you.

John Grierson

John Grierson


Good Ol’ Freda


Good Ol’ Freda brought out my inner fan girl. As an avid lover and listener of The Beatles, I can’t help but imagine what it would be like to be a part of their rise to international fame. This is the story that Freda Kelly describes as she recounts her job as The Beatles’ secretary, telling her story for the first time in 50 years.

Freda Kelly and Paul McCartney outside the Atlantic Hotel in Newquay, 1967, during filming of Magica

Paul McCartney and Freda Kelly

Kelly humbly begins the film asking the question, “Who would want to hear the secretary’s story?” Kelly charmed me right away with her gentle demeanor and endearing English accent. The film flows through the years of 1961 to 1972 as Kelly reminisces about seeing The Beatles for the first time to answering the thousand of fan mail letters she received everyday.

The film does not expose any exciting or revealing information, but is strung along through Kelly’s voiceover, recounting historical events while providing her own backstage view. As Kelly relays her story, archival photos and footage make there way across the screen.

Demonstrating a simple structure, the film goes through Beatles’ history year by year intertwining Beatles music, archival footage and talking heads of Kelly in the present. I enjoyed the black and white photos as they seemed to create a flipbook that placed me back in time. The filmmakers’ effort can be seen as much of the pictures directly correlated to the story being told.


Screaming Beatles fans

I also thought it was effective to place Kelly in some of the landmarks of her past. For example, as Kelly recounts her daily visits to see Ringo’s mother for tea, Kelly walked down the street of the former residence. While Good Ol’ Freda takes a laidback approach to an expository documentary, I found it interesting to watch and even choked up as Beatlemania came to a close.

Kelly’s spirit and loyalty shine throughout the documentary and it was truly wonderful to learn about her life. Kelly agreed to participate in the documentary after all these years as a tribute to her children. After her son Timothy passed away without learning of her past, Kelly utilized this documentary as a way to share her contribution to music and culture with her grandson. She explains, “I would like him to be proud of me and see how exciting my life was in the 60s and the fun I had.” And I’m sure he will be.

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Freda Kelly now & then

The Thin Blue Line


Police car pulls someone over. Cop gets out of police car and walks to other car. Gunfire. Cop falls. Milkshake is thrown. Repeat.

This is Errol Morris’ documentary, The Thin Blue Line in a nutshell. Considering its prestige and accomplishment of getting a free man out of jail, I was very surprised how much I disliked the film.

The Thin Blue Line dramatically re-enacts the true story of the arrest and conviction of Randall Adams for the murder of a Dallas police officer in 1976. Randall Adams ran out of gas one day and was picked up by a runaway, David Harris. After being stopped by a police car, one of the men shot the police officer. The documentary lays out the evidence found throughout the investigation, insinuating that David Harris is a much more likely suspect, than the already convicted Adams.

The documentary took a very cinematic approach in revealing the sequence of events leading to the arrest of Randal Adams. I thought this was way over done, adding a cheese factor to the whole thing. I can only watch the a police car pull over to the side of a street in the dark so many times…

The fact that there were no lower thirds in the entire film also ruined it for me. I spent the first hour of the film still trying to figure out who was being interviewed on screen. Much to the annoyance of my movie-watching partner, I continuously asked questions as to what was going on, before I had to pause the film and look up the backstory.

For your reference, here are labelled pictures of the men involved in the case. You’re welcome.

David Harris

David Harris

Randal Adams

Randall Adams

In addition, by showing David Harris in an orange jumpsuit, it was my assumption that he was the one convicted of the murder. But I had the two main suspects mixed up. It wasn’t until I did further research that I realized Harris was in jail for an entirely different crime (hence the jumpsuit). Maybe it was just me, but how affective can a film be if you don’t even know who the characters are?

Overall review: Disappointed.

Google and the World Brain

I am a lover of books. I truly enjoy reading for pleasure and as a personal preference, always read from a real book (reading a book in Barnes and Noble while drinking a Starbucks coffee is my ultimate happy place).

I find that I don’t get the same affect from reading a book on a screen, and to be honest, it hurts my eyes after a while. I disliked when eBooks grew in popularity, which is why I have decided to base my class project on the subject of books, and more broadly, libraries (and also why I might be a bit biased in this post).

As a research project and eventual short documentary of my own making, I will be investigating the transition that libraries are undertaking due to our advancements in technology.PLAKAT_SWANSKI_WATCHDOCS_WEB

In lieu of this upcoming project, I decided to watch Google and the World Brain for my fifth documentary post. The 2013 documentary outlined the Google Books Library Project as well as the controversy it caused. In the context of this documentary, I wondered how libraries would be affected if all books became free online.

Ultimately how reading went from looking like this 📖 … to this 📱…

Google’s mission for the Google Books Library Project was to scan every book in the world with the intention of allowing everyone to have access. Sounds great doesn’t it?


By scanning every book, Google would make it easier for people to find relevant books, specifically those that couldn’t be found anywhere else, such as books that are out of print. However, some say Google might have had an ulterior motive.

While giving people access to a world library would be beneficial to the public, Google would also be the only company to have control of this information and could use it to drastically improve their search engine over the rest of the industry. In essence, Google would create a “world brain.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 11.38.34 PMGoogle also failed to gain the rights to digitalize the books from the authors who wrote them, resulting in a lawsuit from The Authors Guild. Google scanned 10 million books into their system, 6 million of which were in copyright, and not asked permission. Google’s excuse for performing these actions was “fair use.”

The Google Books Library Project was eventually stopped, but millions of books are still available for free on Google Books.

While watching this film, I was interested to see how the digitization process would change the culture of books and libraries. A project like the one Google was trying to accomplish, would have left thousands of authors receiving no commission on their own book.

In addition, issues of attribution and language also came into play. As Google continued to publish books online, most were all in English rather than its language of origin. One of the advantages of books is to learn about and spread different cultures. In the instance of Google, the digitization of books led to an international upset. In fact, President of the National Library of France, Jean Noel Jeanneney, was so strongly opposed to Google’s actions, Jeanneney held a meeting to plan a “counter-offensive.”

From a different perspective, digitalization of books allows preservation. And in this reasoning, other projects such as the Digital Public Library of America and Europeana continue to try to bring books to the Internet. The success of these libraries can be attributed to the ideas of the Google Books Library Project.

But for me, nothing beats reading a real book in a real library, even Ryan Gosling agrees…


Life in A Day


Comprised of 4,500 hours of video from 192 countries, Life in A Day is a collaborative experiment created by National Geographic, Scott Free UK, and YouTube. The documentary chronicles what it is like to live on Earth today.

After reading Chapter 2 of Dave Saunders’ text, Documentary, which focused on filmmaking trends throughout history, I began to wonder what type of documentary would define our current generation. While films of the 1940s reflected the conflict surrounding World War II, and the Free Cinema Movement in Britain influenced an increased representation of the working class, what film reflects the year 2015?

This question is what led me to the documentary, Life in A Day. This film is something that could not have been produced 40 years ago, or even 10 years ago. Life in A Day was made possible through the connectedness created by the Internet. The filmmakers asked people to send in videos from their life on the specific date, July 24, 2010, and received more contributions than anticipated. The film exposed the cultures of so many different people, and yet illustrated the commonalities we share. Despite our many differences, a reel of people brushing their teeth, or waking up from a nap, unified us. I thought it was a lovely concept to have a film meant to connect our world, be produced by the people living in it.

You can get an idea of the filming technique from this clip:

Experimenting beyond the conventions of an observational documentary, Life in A Day compiles footage taken by the participants themselves. Some talk into the camera, others just shows us what they see around them, either way, it adds a personal and almost intrusive aspect to the film. I found the footage remarkably similar to Snapchat videos, which unintentionally summed up our generation perfectly. Following the year of the selfie, this filmmaking technique illustrates the nature in which we document our lives today.

The video clips show a glimpse into one person’s life for a short period of time, and then they’re gone, and we’ve moved on to a new person and new country. The live footage portrays a range of human emotions, altering between humorous and disheartening.

Here is a clip of one of my particular favorites. She is describing the contents of her purse: (Note: the chicken-shaped handbag)

Final thoughts on Life in A Day: it inspires you to think. Especially at a time when I am unsure of where my own future will take me, it was important to see how many different lifestyles exist in world. And humans are fascinating…


“I’ve accepted to give the best of myself, so that wildlife can be safeguarded beyond all pressure. Beyond all spirit of greediness about money. Beyond all things.”


Wow. This was one of the most emotion-provoking documentaries I have ever seen. As we go about our everyday lives, it is hard to think about what else is going on in the world. Virunga is able to make a culture that is so foreign to us, present, and open our eyes to the struggles that so many others face everyday.

Virunga is a gripping and revelatory exposé of a team of park rangers who risk their lives to protect the Virunga National Park, home to the Mountain Gorilla. Mountain Gorillas are an endangered species, with less than 700 remaining on Earth, and have become a member of the family for many Congolese rangers. This documentary tells of the armed rebels, poachers, and corporations that threaten to destroy the home that Congolese people have worked so hard to build.

Film Cinema Movement leader, Lindsay Anderson was quoted in Dave Saunders’ text Documentary saying “No film can be too personal. The image speaks. Sound amplifies and comments. Size is irrelevant. Perfection is not an aim. An attitude is means a style. A style means an attitude.” This perfectly exemplifies the filming techniques used in Virunga.

The film combines both investigative journalism and nature documentary to influence action against the conflict caused by the M23 rebels and the company SOCO International.

Virunga has a powerful start as we watch the funeral of a ranger who “died trying to rebuild his country.” The shaky cam displays live footage of the local men and women trailing behind the casket, all singing in mourning. Later on, a similar funeral is held for a dead gorilla and you can see the strong bond these people have with the wildlife that surrounds them. The images of these brightly dressed people carrying a gorilla to its grave, combined with the sound of their rhythmic voices, creates a feeling that cannot be replicated.


Gorilla caretaker, Andre Bauma plays with an orphaned gorilla. The Virunga Orphanage keeps rescued gorillas in captivity with the intent of releasing them into the wild in good health.

The relationship portrayed between human and gorilla is incredible to watch as they truly merge into one another’s lifestyles. Beyond an emotional connection to the animals, the rangers have practical reasons for protecting the gorillas as well. The park is a good location to work in the Congo. The rangers take pride in what they do and create a safe space for their families and gorillas to live. If there is nothing to protect, the men must join the army with stricter conditions and a higher likelihood of death. Tourism also brings in sufficient funds, so if their land is destroyed, they lose those funds.

Contrasting the footage of life in Virgunda, French journalist Mélanie Gouby, conducts interviews with SOCO and M23 leaders. Using a hidden cam under her shirt, Gouby exposes raw footage of company leaders, providing insight into what these groups plan to do and how they think. I have to say, seeing the SOCO operations manager, Julien Lechenault’s lack of empathy towards the destruction of the park, actually made me angry. As Lechenault  sips his beer and nods his head to “Hotel California,” you’d think he was discussing sports, not making plans to declare war.

SOCO wants to drill for oil in the Congo, but more than half of the oil concession is in the national park. While the park rangers have argued against this exploitation, SOCO has teamed with the M23 rebel group to invade the area. These two groups plan to kill thousands of people and animals, just so they can make money.


The M23 rebels invade Rumangabo, a town bordering the Virunga National Park.

The film draws to a close as the M23 invade the towns surrounding the park, threatening the lives of the filmmakers and the film participants. Over 60,000 people fled the area, leaving only the Virunga National Park Rangers to remain. Their commitment and bravery shines through as they accept their ill-fated future. Despite all that has happened, their wish is that the park lives forever.

If you’d like to learn more about the film or help the cause, please visit

Living on One Dollar

Can you imagine living on a dollar a day? I can’t.dvd-cover

Today I spent:
$1.80 on a Starbucks coffee (an item I view as a necessity)
$4.35 on lunch
$1.00 on cookies from the library vending machine (because I was craving something sweet)
$6.99 on dinner
$160.00 on clothes (yes, I like to shop online)

and this is a cheap day for me…

While our economy is different than that of Peña Blanca, Guatemala, the location of today’s documentary, it still puts the concept of money in perspective. It’s always nice, particularly when we get caught up in our own first-world problems, to take a step back and appreciate what we have.

This is what four American college students attempted to discover as they left their homes of New York City and Seattle, Washington to live in extreme poverty for 56 days.


Living on One Dollar opens with a series of quick images to demonstrate what the filmmakers see everyday– skyscrapers, an ATM, a computer, a fully stocked refrigerator, birthday balloons etc. This perception of life is then contrasted with images of Peña Blanca. Brick and tin houses, pieces of wood stacked on the stovetop, and intensely green foliage come into view.

I thought this was an excellent way to begin the documentary. Starting the audience in the environment that most would feel comfortable, and then placing them in an unimaginable setting establishes the wonder that continues through the documentary.

As the film continues, the traditional participatory mode of documentary filmmaking becomes apparent as the students share their anthropological perspective on the nature of living in an impoverished country.

While the documentary was beautifully (and stylistically) filmed, filled with incredible footage of scenery and everyday life in Guatemala, I think the narration by the somewhat goofy college boys, is what made this film unique. Contrary to most guilt-based films on the topic of poverty, this documentary adds a reality game show-esque feel that is both humorous but never reaches the line of inappropriate.

In order to immerse themselves in the Peña Blanca culture, Chris, Zach, Sean, and Ryan decide to pull a number (0-9) out of a hat each day to determine how much money they were allowed to spend. The original intent of this was to replicate the lives of field workers who are hired informally, and therefore never know if or when they will get paid. But as the camera dramatically zooms in to a number being drawn from the canvas safari hat hung from the poorly constructed ceiling, you can’t help but feel like you’re watching Survivor instead of a documentary.

4guys hqdefault

However, this does not take away from emotional aspect of the film, told through various interviews with the local people. All friendly, all ambitious, the people of Peña Blanca make the most out of what they have.

Overall, what struck me most about this documentary was the phrase, “power of partial solutions.” As the center of this documentary revolved around the financial situation of the Guatemalan people, the filmmakers wanted to find a way to help. After investigating several banks and conducting interviews with the poor, the students discovered the impact that a small loan can make.

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These boys are not going to solve the issue of poverty, but Living on One Dollar shows that all of the small steps make a difference.