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7.1.Documentary and entertainment

David Lipson and Zarachy Baqué

The purpose of this special issue of InMedia is to further the understanding of the documentary by linking it to the notion of entertainment, which has so far been underexplored in the expanding field of documentary studies. Our aim is thus to study the strategies and forms used by documentary filmmakers when they willingly choose to inject entertainment into their film.

  • 1 Bill Nichols, Representing Reality p. 29

The documentary, as a distinct film form, has often been associated with what Bill Nichols termed the “discourses of sobriety”1 and scholarly works on the subject have emphasized the serious political or social nature of the documentary, with a special focus on the rhetoric and politics of documentaries.

  • 2 Delli Carpini and Williams, After Broadcast News, p. 164
  • 3 Delli Carpini and Williams p. 10 and following.

Starting in the second half of the 20th century, “hard news” found in the news media was distinctly separate from the “soft news” in the entertainment media. In that respect, the documentary film form, whether for cinema or for TV, was principally meant to inform its audiences about topics they were not aware of. The technological and esthetic evolution of the documentary did not really have an impact on the public perception of what documentaries could do, as argued by Brian Winston, who contends that Direct Cinema is the continuation of the Griersonian heritage rather than a radical break from it. However in the last thirty years the media environment has considerably changed, blurring the lines between hard and soft news, as Delli Carpini and Willams clearly affirm: “…the form and content of news and entertainment [have] come to resemble each other more closely.”2 These changes, mainly in the domain of television, brought about a new hybrid form that combines traditional news with entertainment, a form known as “infotainment”. If the authors now state that the term “infotainment” has “outlived whatever usefulness [it] might have once had3” historically it was widely used to describe influential TV shows such as The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. In retrospect, it seems that the lack of a comprehensive definition that would deal with what these new forms of entertainment and information media could do is linked to the historical evolution of their distribution platforms.

  • 4 Michael Moore, “13 Rules for Making Documentary Films”, The Huffington Post, 17/09/2014 <http://huf (...)

For feature documentary films, the groundbreaking film Roger & Me in 1989 by Michael Moore ushered in a new era where what was referred to then as “infotainment” could now be found in documentary films, thus departing from the classic models of the documentary film pioneers John Grierson, Dziga Vertov, and Robert Flaherty among others. For Moore, even the term “documentary” was anathema and should be replaced by “movie” as he feels it is necessary to abide by “the tenets of entertainment”4. Thus, a documentary should both educate (following the hard news principles) AND entertain, which is what soft news was meant to do.

As a result of this new interest in the relationship between documentary and entertainment, we seek contributions that focus on this unique combination.

One possible line of inquiry would be to look at the mutual influence of “infotainment TV”, understood as a historically specific form, and the documentary film: How has the documentary tradition and some of its practices (compilation films, editing, voice-over, social commentary, etc.) shaped the structure and esthetics of ”infotainment TV”? In turn, how has the TV medium influenced the contemporary documentary (fast editing, humor, overt bias, generalizations, etc.)? Is the “infotainment” documentary a new genre, or mode, in and of itself? To what extent is this new documentary film genre affected by the influence of Television and its short information format? Are these current trends in documentary film just a longer version of the television infotainment format? Or, could we say that they are just the translation of a classic documentary film with added elements from entertainment TV to bring it up to date?

  • 5 Annette Hill, p. 217, based on an expression by Bill Nichols.

A second axis of investigation would be to consider documentary as entertainment. Based on Annette Hill’s study of documentary modes of engagement5, how is it possible to rethink and reinvent the tension between information and entertainment most people associate with the documentary? What is deemed an entertaining documentary (fast-paced, humorous yet informative)? How and why is it perceived as such? How has the technological and cultural evolution of what constitutes entertainment in our current society been incorporated into documentary film? At the level of production, do documentary filmmakers include the necessity to entertain (cf. Moore’s distinction between documentaries and movies) within their feature documentaries?

  • 6 Andrew Wren, “What I Learned Binge-Watching Steve Bannon’s Documentaries”, Politico, 02/12/2016 <ht (...)

Finally, a third thematic axis would be to examine the political consequences of this new hybrid form between information and entertainment? How have politics and entertainment been successfully combined creating politainment, a new genre that has been gaining in popularity? In what ways is entertainment a new way to get the spectator involved in the political process? How effective is it in delivering votes afterwards at the ballot box? From the political documentaries that shaped the 2004 American presidential election, as studied by James McEnteer, to the recent focus on Steve Bannon6, Donald Trump’s Chief Strategist, as a former documentary filmmaker, what are the links between documentary, entertainment, and electoral politics? Has the documentary caused the transformation of politics into reality TV – a criticism that was already leveled, in different terms, against Robert Drew’s political documentaries in the 1960s?

We welcome individual proposals pertaining – but by no means limited – to the following thematic areas and their intersections with entertainment and documentary film:

  • The role of television in the evolution of the documentary

  • The fictional dimension of the documentary

  • The use of humor in documentary films

  • The emergence of entertainment TV elements in documentary film

  • Recent developments of ”infotainment” strategies in documentary film

  • The role and effectiveness of politainment in documentary film

  • The use of music in documentary films

  • The documentary and the shortening attention span of the modern spectator

  • Characteristics of the documentary of the 21st century

  • Reception studies of the documentary as entertainment

  • The “boring” documentary devoid of entertainment

  • “Mockumentaries” and their esthetic strategies, in film or on television

  • The representation of documentary filmmakers in fiction films and TV series

  • Documentary parodies in the Documentary Now! series

  • The typology of information and entertainment in documentary films

Although the journal is written entirely in English, the documentary films under study can come from countries that are not English-speaking. We are open to all types of approaches (formal analysis, political science, media studies, semiotics, gender studies, race studies, etc...). Proposals should not exceed 300 words, should include a short bibliography and should be sent both to David Lipson (lipson.fr[at]gmail.com) and to Zachary Baqué (baque.zachary[at]neuf.fr) before September 8th 2017.

Bibliography

BARNOUW Erik. Documentary, A History of Non-Fiction Film, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974, 1983, 1993.

BAUDRILLARD Jean. Simulacres et simulations, Paris: Editions Galilée, 1981.

BENSON Thomas W. & Brian J. Snee (eds.). The Rhetoric of the New Political Documentary, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008.

DELLI CARPINI, M. and WILLIAMS B. After Broadcast News: Media Regimes, Democracy, And the New Information Environment New York: Cambridge University Press. 2011.

DELLI CARPINI, M. and WILLIAMS B. “Let Us Infotain You: Politics in the New Media Environment.” In BENNETT L. and ENTMAN R. (Eds.), Mediated politics: Communication in the future of democracy (pp. 160-181). New York: Cambridge University Press. 2001.

DEBORD Guy. La Société du spectacle, Paris: Gallimard, collection « folio », 1967, 1992.

GOODWIN Andrew, WHANNEL Garry. Understanding Television, London: Routledge, 1992.

GRIERSON John. On Documentary, London: Faber & Faber, 1966.

HILL Annette. “Documentary Modes of Engagement.” In AUSTIN T. and DE JONG W. (Eds.), Rethinking Documentary: New Perspectives, New Practices (pp. 217-231). Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2008.

HOLBERT R. Lance. “A Typology for the Study of Entertainment Television and Politics,” American Behavioral Scientist 49, n°3 (2005)

KELSO Tony. “And now no word from our sponsor, How HBO puts the risk back into television” in LEVERETTE Marc, Brian L. OTT and Cara Louise BUCKLEY (eds.), It’s Not TV, Watching HBO in the Post-television Era, New York & London: Routledge, 2008.

McENTEER James. Shooting the Truth: The Rise of American Political Documentaries, Westport CO and London: Praeger, 2006.

MENAND Louis. “Nanook and Me: Fahrenheit 9/11 and the Documentary Tradition”, The New Yorker, August 9-16 2004, 90-96. , accessed January 12, 2014.

NICHOLS Bill. Blurred Boundaries: Questions of Meaning in Contemporary Culture, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994, 2001.

NICHOLS Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1991.

NICHOLS Bill. Speaking Truths with Film: Evidence, Ethics, Politics in Documentary, Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.

NINEY François. L’Épreuve du réel à l’écran, Essai sur le principe de réalité documentaire, Bruxelles: De Boeck & Larcier, 2002, 2004.

NISBET Matt. “That’s infotainment”, The Skeptical Inquirer April 30, 2001 accessed November 11, 2016, http://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/thats_infotainment

WINSTON Brian (Ed.) The Documentary Film Book, London/Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

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Notes

1 Bill Nichols, Representing Reality p. 29

2 Delli Carpini and Williams, After Broadcast News, p. 164

3 Delli Carpini and Williams p. 10 and following.

4 Michael Moore, “13 Rules for Making Documentary Films”, The Huffington Post, 17/09/2014 <http://huffingtonpost.com/michael-moore/13-rules-for-making-docum_b_5834954.html>

5 Annette Hill, p. 217, based on an expression by Bill Nichols.

6 Andrew Wren, “What I Learned Binge-Watching Steve Bannon’s Documentaries”, Politico, 02/12/2016 <http://politico.com/magazine/story/2016/12/steve-bannon-films-movies-documentaries-trump-hollywood-214495>

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