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  • Q & A:Poetics of the Documentary Film Interview
  • Leger Grindon (bio)

The study of documentary film needs a closer scrutiny of essential formal devices. This essay analyzes one of those practices with the goal of proposing a poetics of the film interview. David Bordwell explains: "A historical poetics of cinema produces knowledge in answer to two broad questions: 1. What are the principles according to which films are constructed and by means of which they achieve particular effects? 2. How and why have these principles arisen and changed in particular empirical circumstances?" (371). The importance of the interview in the contemporary documentary film requires an understanding of its fundamental principles. Many contemporary documentary films are little more than interviews and compilation material. Landmark works such as Shoah (1985) are almost completely interview based, and celebrated filmmakers such as Errol Morris establish their projects firmly on the interview. Interviews rarely operate as a neutral means of verbal explanation. Poetics can demonstrate how cinematic form shapes the interview into more than a simple question-and-answer exchange. Such a method allows analysts to examine the interplay between sound and image and enriches our understanding of the screen documentary, a mode in which content often eclipses the crucial operations of form. A poetics of the interview will make filmmakers sensitive to the impact of their formal decisions and viewers aware of how the design of the interview shapes their response.

Historical Origins

A poetics arises from historical practice, so how has the interview managed to move to such a central place in the documentary? The prominence of the interview is a noteworthy historical development that helps distinguish the contemporary documentary from its predecessors. From Nanook of the North in 1922 until the transformation of the documentary in the landmark works of 1960, particularly Primary and Chronicle of the Summer, the interview rarely appears. In his 1934 essay, "The Creative Use of Sound," John Grierson discusses sound montage, asynchronous ideas, a choral effect, and sound imagery but makes no mention of the interview (157–63). The interview begins to assume prominence only during the television era and after effective mobile sound equipment becomes employed around 1960. Thomas Waugh has accurately identified the interview as a "basic artifact of television culture" (246), and its verbal lineage can be traced back through broadcasting to radio and print journalism (Bell and Leeuwen 28–59). Two streams of influence have shaped the contemporary documentary interview: the French cinema verité tradition, with roots in ethnography, and the American political heritage, with ties to television journalism. But documentary historians have failed to acknowledge the dual influences and the crucial choices they pose for the filmmaker. A brief review of key documentary histories portrays the important distinction between these two schools of documentary interview.

Erik Barnouw emphasizes the French cinema verité tradition. Understanding this tradition depends upon distinguishing between the Anglo-American "direct cinema" and the French cinema verité (Barnouw 240, 254). Direct cinema avoided the interview. Though the filmmaker could record interviews, such as the journalists' with Bob Dylan in Don't Look Back (D. A. Pennebaker, 1967) and the interrogation of students by school authorities in High School (Frederick Wiseman, 1968), the disciple of direct cinema aspired to the filmmaker's nonintervention in the social world under observation. On the contrary, the cinema verité tradition, led by Jean Rouch in Chronicle of a Summer (1960), embraced the interview as a central catalyst in the interaction between filmmaker and subject. For [End Page 4] Rouch, engagement with the world rather than detached observation should guide the documentary filmmaker. As a result, Chronicle of a Summer highlights interview dynamics and employs numerous self-conscious approaches, including the interview subjects commenting on their interviews and the interviewers reflecting on their practice.

Furthermore, verité featured the exploratory encounter rather than authoritative statements; the interview subject often expresses doubt, uncertainty, or contradiction in reaching for an elusive understanding. The verité interview was adapted by Chris Marker in Le Joli Mai (1963) and aggressively embraced by Marcel Ophuls in his influential The Sorrow and the Pity (1970). In Ophuls's documentary on the occupation of wartime France, the on-camera confrontation of the filmmaker with...


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