Audio Essay

The documentary
A documentary is defined by many to have various definitions. During a Humanities seminar, Michael Rabiger quoted Emile Zola, who says that a work of art is “a corner of nature seen through a temperament”; Rabiger then went on to say that a documentary performs a similar function, while working with actuality. He describes the documentarist as taking his or her audience on   a journey. By exploring the thoughts and feelings of the people that we meet along this journey, and ultimately a documentary can “widen human knowledge”. The journey becomes possible, Rabiger argues, because documentaries draw on creative imagination in order to form a ‘theatre of the mind’. He also notes that documentaries pose arguments in favour of some aspect of reality, inviting their audience to draw their own conclusions about its truth value, measured against their own knowledge of reality. He contrasts this with the purpose of propaganda, which tends to narrow down human knowledge, instead of opening up different ways of understanding reality. I find Rabiger’s views particularly interesting and useful in my own productions of documentaries and see myself aligning my views with his.
Like Rabiger, Gordon Govier, defines documentaries both in terms of their association with actuality and their status as subjective representation.  On one hand, he notes that the documentary relies on facts testimony and images as evidence of truth. On the other hand, he describes the documentarist not as an objective recorder of reality but as recreating a story from real life and real facts for a real-life purpose.  In radio such storytelling is, according to Govier, particularly dependent on subjective understanding.  Whereas in television, the images are in front of the eye, in radio they exist only within the imagination. He, too, speaks of radio documentaries as being a “theatre of the mind”

Also like Rabiger, Govier describes documentaries as a journey, taking audiences on an adventure in which they get to “experience all the best parts, while skipping the tedium” - which, Govier points out, is what good editing is all about. Documentaries are created, according to Govier, when journalists “reach beyond the easy answers” and “strive for a new perspective on life as it really is or was”. On this journey, the producer enters “uncharted territory” while “diligently pursuing a distant goal

I find Rabiger and Govier’s views extremely interesting as I am fascinated by the role imagination and creativity can play within that process of producing documentaries. This both excites and challenges me, particularly in the context of radio documentaries, where the world that we create exists only as sound.
As imagination and creativity play an important role within the making the documentary, the question of objectivity also comes into play. Documentary texts are supposedly those which aim to document reality, attempting veracity in their depiction of people, places and events. Certainly, it must be accepted that they cannot re-present reality to perfection. Nonetheless, they often claim to reveal a version of reality that is less filtered and reconstructed than in a fiction text. Such texts are, of course, constructed from a particular moral or political perspective, and cannot therefore claim to be objective. Perhaps, as I believe, in the end, the truth-value of the text lies not in the origin but the destination. As Michael Rabiger points out, all that matters is what happens in the audiences mind even if it is not necessarily what you intended the documentary to mean.

Fieldwork \ Interviewing
When I started planning my fieldwork, I was conscious that my particular topic posed particular challenges and opportunities. I was therefore conscious of the fact that I needed to think carefully about the strategies that I would have to adopt in my interviewing process. So I started off by looking up some useful guidelines in social research methodology literature. But firstly in order to get straight to the basics I read up on the dictionary definition for an interview. It states that an interview is a conversation between two people (the interviewer and the interviewee) where questions are asked by the interviewer to obtain information from the interviewee. However a further explanation can be gained by identifying guidelines for good fieldwork by drawing on literature about social research.

After reading up on social research methodology, I now have a greater understanding of the challenges of the interviewing process. And through this I have been able to establish a list of guidelines for good interviewing. I have also drawn on Steinar Kvale's Interviews, in which he states the seven stages of interview Investigation.

During an interview it is important to note that, for the most part, this is the only interview you will get with the interviewee. Therefore The when you are there, speaking to the interviewee in person, it is important to be on the ball. Thus, preparation for an interview is crucial, especially when time is limited during the official interview. Preparation thus forms an important guideline in the interviewing process. There are few things that indicate amateur status more blatantly in the world of journalism than a reporter who runs out of things to say before the interviewee does. During the actual interview, it is crucial for the interviewer to keep their objectives in mind. And this all stems from a well planned interviewing strategy beforehand. Kvale's also emphasises the importance of good planning in two of his seven stages of interviewing. The first discusses the importance of thematizing, which focuses on formulating the purpose of an investigation and describing the concept of the topic to be investigated before the interviews start. Another stage of his is that of designing a plan of the study before the interview starts. Through my own experience thus far, I have found that the basis of the interviews which I have conducted for my documentary making has definitely been enhanced by my prior research on the topic. It has also added a lot of confidence to my interviewing approach. Within my initial planning, it was also crucial in order to pick a topic that really interested me, so as to ensure that during my interviewing I would have a genuine curiosity about the topic. I have now formulated the purpose of my investigation and describe the concept of the topic to be investigated before the interviews started, which is evident within the proposal for my documentary. My proposal also forms the base for the design of my documentary, which has helped me in my preparation for the interviewing process.

A good interview also depends on more than just a list of questions. And thus a second guideline in the interviewing process is that of establishing a good relationship with the interviewee. It is important to interact with the interviewee, but at the same time it is also important to clarify the purpose and roles of each the interviewer and interviewee. The third stage of Kvale’s interviewing highlights the significance of interviewing and the importance of establishing a good relationship. He states that one should conduct the interviews based on an interview guide and with a reflective approach to the knowledge sought and the interpersonal relation of the interview situation. In my experience I have defiantly found that if I take the time to build a relationship with my interviewee it becomes easier to allow them to talk openly and honestly during the interview, and therefore I am able to gain a greater amount of information.

This also follows onto a third guideline, that of good communication. This can be achieved by adopting a conversational approach; based on good communication, listening and flexible responses.  This allows you to follow leads on important information, which was unknown beforehand. Therefore a good interview is like a conversation which allows more information to be gained.

All in all by reflecting on my own fieldwork and evaluating my practice in context of these guidelines and Kvale’s seven stages of interview Investigation, I have noticed that through my own trial and error I have learnt to apply these guidelines within my interviews. Thus with my preparation having been fully established, I was able to conduct the interviews based on my proposed overall vision for the story.


Micheal Rabiger argues that the skills to create powerful documentaries are not inherent 'talents', but a 'multi-layered consciousness' that can be taught and developed through using a range of methods. One needs to be critically aware of each unfolding aspect of the documentary’s world and characters, and express ideas about the meaning and nature of reality, and not just showing it in a value-neutral way. This for me is the essence of the crafting process for the documentary. And the challenge is how you tell the story, but not only how to tell it, but rather how to tell it simply in a powerful way. And this is no easy challenge!

In steinar Kvale’s InterViews, he states seven stages of interview Investigation of which the last few stages deal with the crafting of the documentary. These include the Analyzing stage by deciding on the nature of the interview material. This also involves considering what exactly it is that you want to question within the documentary and thus also what the answer is that you plan to give. In order to do this one has to work closely with the material that they have managed to collect. The next stage includes the verifying of your material, which includes the generalizing, reliability and validility of the interview findings. The last stage is the reporting stage, this is done through the communication of the findings of the study and the methods applied in a form that lives up to scientific criteria which takes the ethical aspects of investigation into consideration, and thus results in a reliable product.

Thus the role of scripting plays a huge part in how you plan to tell the story. Firstly a rough cut needs to be developed through the use of a detailed paper edit in order to form a logical ordering for the story. The script itself should: adopt an appropriate tone for the documentary; over scripting must be avoided; it must be written so as to incorporate sound elements as well as to create a picture in the listeners mind rather than just telling the story; the movement from one idea to the next must be easy for the listener to follow; as well as having a solid beginning, middle and end. It is often a good idea to read your script aloud so as to ensure it is easily read and heard. The script plays a particularly important role in the crafting of the documentary because it is the main link between the documentary maker and the listener, thus it is a very important tool which can be used to develop a good relationship with the audience.

Alwyn Owen and jack Perkins from Radio New Zealand, say that documentary makers should not just think of sound as just representing a certain thing or element e.g. a train or wind. Sound is not just a separate element to the script instead it has its own unique way of communicating. It can add colour and intimacy and flesh out the skeleton of the script or it can establish and enhance mood and emotion. This in the end helps one to tell the story in a simple yet powerful way.

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