Coinciding with the emergence of documentary studies as a more or less distinct academic discipline over the last 20 years, broader interest in documentary films and the diversity of ways they engage with reality has continued to grow. The proliferation of nonfiction forms on television, the convergence of nonfiction and fiction styles, and the ubiquity of personal recording technologies mean more and more people are familiar and engaged with the complex ethics and politics of representing reality (1). Given Australia’s pioneering role in anthropological and ethnographic filmmaking, the consequent contribution of local filmmakers to the development of new technologies, as well as the centrality of documentary to the cinema and television culture in this country, the comprehensive history and insightful commentary offered in Australian Documentary: History, Practices and Genres seems overdue.
Australian Documentary is a genuine treasure trove of facts, quotes, anecdotes and historical information of not just Australian documentary but Australian cinema culture generally. This book is an invaluable contribution to both Australian and film history studies. The research is thorough, the structure is accessible, and the writing is engaging. The comprehensive filmography and extensive list of secondary sources (including newspaper articles, interviews, and personal correspondence) speaks to how much of a labour of love this book is for the authors, and their extensive personal experience being involved in the industry. Trish Fitzsimons, Pat Laughren, and Dugald Williamson each have extensive experience in all facets of the Australian documentary industry, from making films to industry consultation to teaching film studies, and their collective dedication to the form is obvious in the scope and quality of this book.
While the book begins from the premise of exploring the notion of a uniquely ‘Australian’ documentary culture, the authors are more than aware that such categorisations are leaky at best and self-defeating at worst. In attempting to characterise the distinct situation of Australian documentary production and distribution through detailed history and relevant contextual considerations, the authors also repeatedly emphasise the inherent contradictions entailed in both creating and thinking about a national documentary project: productions themselves are torn between an ambition to contribute to identity-making and the limiting pressures of economics, and more broadly any national film culture is torn between knowing and exploring its own forms of expression and looking to the rest of the world to find inspiration and draw distinction. The authors are also acutely aware that documentary film in particular has been seen by Australian filmmakers and authorities as a way of bridging distances and linking us to the rest of the world; a kind of reaching out through documentary that sits in tension with the inward looking project of identity-making. The achievement of this book is to take these tensions of context as not just qualifications in considering the achievements of Australian documentary, but as the fundamental contexts through which these achievements have been possible and the starting point for understanding the cultural significance of the form.
As implied by the title, the book also takes genre as a key consideration for understanding Australian documentary history, but the authors define genre as ‘a category of production and distribution’ or a ‘disciplinary context’ in which particular films are produced and circulate rather than a set of stylistic conventions (p. 7). Using this definition, genre is proposed as a particularly relevant lens through which to consider Australian documentary. The book makes the case that it is through reference to disciplinary contexts that funding bodies have largely defined the importance of documentary, and given how much public funding supports the industry this idea of genre has been a crucial determinant in local documentary output.
The unique nexus in the Australian industry between government funding, producers, and audiences is explored through several examples in the book, a key one being the Film Finance Corporation (FFC) commissioning the Australian Teachers of Media (ATOM, an independent professional organisation) to produce study guides to accompany FFC funded films (p. 212-215). In recent years, the cost of these study guides has been built into the budget of documentaries receiving FFC funding, with the intention being to extend the reach and circulation of local film products through their use in schools and tertiary institutions. Statistics cited in the book show that since the study guides were allocated specific funding, license fees for screenings of these films has seen a significant jump, which has fed back into more available funding for future projects. The authors emphasise how this emphasis on locally-produced documentaries becoming key teaching resources extends an understanding of the form with younger viewers, giving documentary greater traction generally as an educative and civically constructive form of knowledge and evolving the possibilities of documentary representation. A counter argument to this last point could be made, however, in that wedding FFC funding to the production of a study guide encourages a particular kind of project to be developed within this funding system, i.e. those that are better suited to use in the classroom. This conceivably feeds back into the mentality of producers and funding decision makers to prioritise education-friendly work, which may in some ways limit the ambition of projects that are produced within that system.
Such a caveat certainly doesn’t negate how greater exposure to documentary can resonate with young audiences in a way that promotes engagement with social issues and highlights the importance of the documentary industry, nor how such a funding structure helps the overall financial health of the industry. It does, however, seem worth thinking about when considering the kinds of documentaries younger audiences are exposed to, and the kinds of issues these documentaries engage. Nonetheless, this overall discussion serves as illustration of how the authors do not so much investigate a national documentary style as ask how we can better understand individual films and the contemporary documentary landscape by knowing the history of how documentaries have been produced in this country, and is an invaluable contribution to understanding what kinds of stories we seen on local screens.
The approach of the authors to understand specific documentaries through analysing their broader disciplinary context is backed up by the theoretical discussion of documentaries as having a ‘braided voice’. Elaborating on the work of Bill Nichols, who suggests (to crudely simplify) that viewers recognise the ‘voice’ of a nonfiction film as the discursive argument it makes about the world (2), the authors here suggest that a documentary’s voice does not exist in isolation from the contexts in which it was produced and circulates: ‘The ultimate voice of documentaries is a negotiated, indeed, a braided, category, in which directors, crew, participants, producers, broadcasters and, in some cases, audiences play contributing parts’ (p. 16). Therefore what a viewer interprets as the voice of a documentary is ‘braided’ from a multiplicity of voices involved in its production – voices that may even be disharmonious or in tension with each other. The book argues that a full and complete understanding the threads of this negotiation isn’t necessary to interpret the voice of a film meaningfully, but knowing more about each ‘braid’ enhances the complexity of meanings that are possible. While not explicitly explored in this work, considering the voice of a documentary as braided has an implication for notions of authorship and authority within the domain of documentary, as well as for thinking about documentary as a communicative act.
These theoretical considerations are picked up in discussions of ongoing contemporary debates, most notably in an excellent section on the contested and ever-shifting boundaries between documentary and reality TV. The authors show clear support for guarding definitions of documentary against slackening to embrace reality TV, suggesting that the loosening of the definition used by funding bodies is ‘placing at risk the very qualities of complexity, depth, cultural specificity and a questioning stance often regarded as the rationale for the documentary quota’ (p. 186). Defending the integrity and complexity of longer form and civically minded documentary is a charge the authors seem happy to have levelled at them, and these moments of advocacy certainly don’t take away from the quality of the research and the insight into still-unfolding debates. In relation to the debate over funding allocation and what ‘counts’ as documentary, the authors point out that reinforcing the distinction between documentary and other nonfiction forms has been a political issue since the earliest days of the form (in particular for John Grierson and his lobbying for the social value of his conception of documentary), including in the Australian context. From the religious orientation of the moving slideshow productions of the Salvation Army Light Brigade throughout the 1890s to the rise and fall of the newsreel between the 1910s and the 1970s, what counts as a documentary has been elastic and historically and politically contingent for as long as the form has had relevance (3).
A detailed historical account of Australian documentary in the cinema and on television is complemented by a thorough account of local anthropological and ethnographic film work. These two somewhat distinct threads of Australian documentary filmmaking – for broadcast and social engagement the one hand and for scientific research and posterity on the other – come together in a detailed discussion of documentary civics, where the authors pay particular attention to how contemporary documentary projects engage with this audiovisual heritage and especially with recordings of Indigenous culture. They suggest that documentary has a special place in working towards reconciling the cultural disharmony of the Australian past, and audiovisual heritage materials are crucial resources for use in contemporary work. These sounds and images of the past can be used to evoke a complex voice that transcends that of the individual filmmaker or participants and help to forge more complex understandings of the relationship between cultures. This argument echoes the book’s earlier suggestion of the voice of documentary as ‘braided’: the result of a negotiation not just between filmmaker and subjects, but between producers, funding bodies, community groups, and a complex wider cultural history. Articulating this idea through particular reference to the 2008 TV series First Australians (Rachel Perkins) and the 1997 film Mabo – Life of an Island Man (Trevor Graham, 1998), the enthusiasm of the authors for the continued social instrumentality of documentary is obvious. The discussion of how documentary engages with other civic discourses in a constructive and dynamic way – with documentary informing and being informed by policy, law, and broader social ethics – is a welcome antidote to recent apocalyptic thinking around the erosion of documentary’s reliability and social agency in the face of digital image manipulation technologies and the proliferation of reality TV (4). Through passionate and detailed analysis of pivotal examples, it is hard not to share the author’s optimism for the positive social potentials of the form.
The final chapter recognises that until recently, the output of the Australian documentary industry was governed by the guiding principle that documentary has a special capacity to communicate issues of cultural importance, both reflecting and determine social values and national identity. Government funding and regulation have thus rightly supported documentary production and distribution. However, in an era where there is an abundance of broadcast spectrum across a widening range of globally connected platforms, the idea of documentary having a special communicative capacity or needing to be institutionally supported is threatened. What public value can there be in funding specifically Australian content when the concept of what is specifically Australian is being renegotiated on the open market? The question is posed through a colourful quote from filmmaker Tom Haydon, who suggested in 1984 that: ‘In the long run, the only reason for the Australian public either through tax concessions or a Film Commission, to back film as against, say dry cleaning or hairdressing, is that its going to have some perceived cultural value for the country’ (Quoted on p. 232).
The authors suggest that recent documentary output in Australia is still shaped by government decision-making and policy driven by the same perception of documentary contributing cultural value, and statistics cited in the chapter support their argument. The point being made is that the contested space within the contemporary Australian documentary landscape isn’t whether documentary has cultural value, but what kind of cultural value documentary contributes. In the end, the authors place their trust of the future of Australian documentary in the need for continued engagement with a national identity, and the capacity of documentary to engage with this identity in unique ways, regardless of how the cultural value of that national identity is defined. Even if their optimism for the continuing importance of documentary as a national project proves to be mistaken, their contribution to the complex history of Australian documentary will remain as a valuable resource for contextualising the past and the future of nonfiction films produced in Australia.
Australian Documentary: History, Practices, and Genres by Trish Fitzsimons, Pat Laughren, and Dugald Williamson, Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 287.
- See John Dovey’s ‘Confession and the Unbearable Lightness of Factual’ (2002), and John Ellis’ Documentary: Witness and Self-Revelation (2011) for particularly interesting discussions on how viewer literacy with personal digital recording technologies has added complexity to how audiences understand documentary as a representation of reality.
- Nichols, Bill (1983) ‘The Voice of Documentary’ in Film Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 3, pp. 17-30. Nichols later elaborated on the definition of the voice of the film in outlining six ‘modes’ of documentary: the expository, the poetic, the observational, the participatory, the reflexive, and the performative. See Introduction to Documentary (2001), drawing on definitions explored in the earlier works Representing Reality (1991) and Blurred Boundaries (1994).
- It is a shame that the case between Screen Australia and the producers of TV series Lush House over defining the series as a documentary for tax offset purposes was played out after this book went to print, as this would be a fascinating case study to explore the issues the authors raise.
- See in particular Brian Winston’s Claiming the Real II: Documentary: Grierson and Beyond (2008) for an insightful (although somewhat pessimistic) discussion of the status of documentary in the digital age.