Listening, the ability to truly comprehend that which is being passed through the ear, is vital for any audio producer. This is why I find myself regularly sampling good audio, as part of my own commitment to finding out more about what people are producing and to keep improving that which I produce.
After listening to David Isay's Ghetto Life 101 and Remorse as well as having read the article by Mathew Erlich, Poetry on the Margins; my response to the radio diaries technique, as an audio producer and listener myself, is that of intrigue and interest. I believe the use of this technique, within these documentaries, adds huge value to the content and delves a lot deeper than any journalist would be able to.
Recently I listened to Michael Rabiger, the well-known documentarist and educator, talking about how one goes about conceptualising documentaries. He spoke about the importance of identifying a ‘spine’ for your documentary - in other words, a narrative vehicle around which the story can be organised. In the case of the Isay documentaries, I would say that this spine is represented by that of the two boy’s journey of discovery through their own neighbourhoods, and what they find out, and which ultimately forms that of a narrative structure for the documentary.
However this spine would not work as well without the help of the radio diaries technique. This allows non-journalists to record the voices of themselves, their family and community members during their everyday lives. Thus creating a documentary compiled of radio diaries. The advantage of this technique lies in the fact that the radio diarist has the vital advantage of knowing the area and people well, within which the documentary is made. within the Isay documentaries this is particularly true as the two boys have grown up within the community and therefore those who they interview are more trusting and willing to speak This allows the boys to portray ‘a way of life’ in a matter of a few days; whereas it would take a journalist, who is a stranger to the community, a number of months to gain the peoples trust and gather the information that was needed. This advantage especially helps the boys to create a picture of what that particular life is truly like. Their young age also allows them to get away with probing questions that the average adult journalist would not have been able to have. For example, during Ghetto Life 101, the two boys bluntly ask Michael Murry why he drinks, and are able to get a reason out of him or at least an interesting response. Whereas if a stranger had asked the same question, Michael, more than likely, would have been very reluctant and maybe even angry in his response.
The radio diaries technique which Isay adopts works well because, as Erlich states, Isay does not feature his own voice or the voices of expert. Instead, he has learned to make himself disappear and let his contributors tell their own stories. Isay’s describes his two documentaries, in the Nieman Report, as being ‘poetry on the margins’ as they are stories of underdogs from dark corners of American society. Thus bringing to life a story not often portrayed in the mainstream media.
However, as Erlich explains, Ghetto Life 101 was branded by many as irresponsible journalism at its worst. And some such as Holsten, quoted within Erlich’s writing, see it as being a “new low” in journalism in which arrogant whites use unsuspecting blacks for preconceived notions. The general message that emerges from the Ghetto Life debate seems to be that one of the disadvantages of radio diaries lies in the fact that it can reconfirm stereotypes. As such, the debate provides ammunition for members of the journalistic community who resist approaches to journalistic practice that diverge from the mainstream Nevertheless, as Erlich goes on to propose, even if stereotyping is seen as a bad thing, one advantage is that radio diaries are able to depict the stark reality of life while reflecting hard truths.
Erlich also mentions that journalists who react against the radio diaries technique because they reject the notion that the journalist should provide a ‘forum’ for other voices. They continue to refuse, in other words, to give up on the traditional journalistic approach to claiming authority for the representations of social reality.
However, after listening to the Isay documentaries and reading Erlich’s article, I do believe that radio diaries have their place in the journalism world and should thus be taken seriously as they grant people other than journalists a voice, and ultimately are able to tell a story that can only be told from the inside.
After listening to two radio documentaries which follow the events of 16 June 1976, I was left feeling emotionally moved. I feel as if I now have a greater understanding of the Soweto uprising. I am amazed at the impact that these two audio documentaries, which include Part 3 of Joe Richman's Mandela Diaries and ABC Ulwazi's June 16, have had on me; especially as this impact was created entirely from listening to audio, without the aid of visual stimulation.
Each one of these documentaries are different, telling the story of that day in their own way. June 16 describes the happenings of the day from the perspective of little known individuals, most of whom were part of the Soweto uprisings. While listening to this documentary I felt like I had actually walked through the streets that day. The Mandela Diaries, in contrast, primarily makes use of well known voices, such as that of Desmond Tutu, Peter Magubane, Nthato Motlana and Johnny Makatini. This documentary also makes use of news bulletin clips of the time. The use of these clips allows the story to be told from an external point of view, which allows for an external audience to recognise the ‘sound’ of BBC bulletins dealing with SA.
June 16 is a slower paced documentary. This is because it primarily uses the voices of people who were present at the uprising that day and who now reflect on the day through the interviews conducted for the documentary. One has the feeling of being lead step by step through the day itself as the story unfolds while listening to the individual voices. Therefore the documentary focuses on the events from the ground level as it is simply telling the story through the people through the people present at the apprising and the events leading up to it. This allows the documentary to get to the heart of the happenings and emotions which erupted that day. . It also uses less soundbytes, such as news clips, ambience and sound effects, which allows the individual stories to be told on a much more personal level. Thus a picture is created through the descriptions created through the interviewee’s alone. June 16 can therefore be more greatly understood by a South African audience, as it tells the event from an individual South Africans view point.
In contrast, the Mandela Diaries makes use of sound bites, such as news clips, ambience and sound effects, along with the voice of a narrator and interviews of personal experiences. Even though a great number of sounds are used, this approach does not create a ‘cluttered’ documentary nor does it become confusing, which can be the case in poorly structured and edited documentaries which adopt this approach. Instead the number of various sounds and voices which are used in the documentary are well edited and structured to create a logical flow throughout the documentary. A much broader view of the day is thus created through the various sounds and voices which are used. This well structured use of soundbytes allows for a colourful picture to form in the listeners mind and the faster pace catches ones attention quicker.
It would be hard for me to choose which of the two documentaries I prefer as I believe that they both have their role to play in the interpretation of the Soweto uprisings. However I still feel that it was June 16 that left me with a much greater understanding of this historical event. It does so, I believe, through its representation of social experience that is intimate and personal, but at the same time widely shared, and therefore fundamentally social and political in nature. I felt like I had actually walked through the streets that day.
Ultimately, despite their differences, both these documentaries provided an account of 16 June 1976. They both take into account the different audiences they are targeting and bring knowledge and most importantly awareness to people. Thus, both these documentaries relate to my own philosophy dealing with the role that documentaries should play in the world of journalism. This is because I believe that journalism should aim to tell stories which need to be told and be the voice of those who are not often heard; and this is exactly what these two documentaries have achieved.
This week I spent time listening to a number of documentaries, each of which falls into one of two ‘modes’ that Bill Nichols describes in his writing: the expository and the poetic. As a result, I think I now have a greater understanding of how these two modes fit into the making of documentaries. I also started to consider my approach to the making of a documentary and the way that I would like to draw on both these modes within my own work.
Two of the documentaries that I listened to included Witness to an Execuction and Zoom Black Magic Liberation radio. Both of these can be described as examples of the expository mode. Nichols explains that this mode draws on strategies of persuasion that traditionally fall within the domain of rhetoric. This basically involves the discovery of arguments to support a particular case. One way in which a documentary in the expository mode attempts to convince audiences of its credibility is through logical argument, as well as the mustering of evidence, through which arguments are substantiated, and such evidence often takes the form of accounts by witnesses. The expository mode was evident within these two documentaries as each allowed the documentary to be told by the witnesses of the story. This was apparent as each particular case of these documentaries was dependent on the material available to the witness. For example in Witness to an Execution the witnesses spoke about the executions that they had been present at, and drew on their own experiences involving their roles within the execution procedures. Thus there is a dependency upon the witnesses appeal to the audience’s emotions to produce a certain disposition within the documentary. Hence this form of documentary adopts the rhetorical mode, as it draws on evidence from the accounts by witnesses. A similar approach was used in Black Magic Liberation radio, for example during the documentary a riot took place, during which an on looker described the situation right then and there. This emphasises the use of the rhetoric within the documentary making.
When one compares these two examples to that of View from a Bridge and Mei Mei, a Daughter’s Story; the difference between the expository and poetic mode becomes apparent. Nichols describes the poetic mode as adopting a subjective and artistic expression which moves away from the objective reality of a given situation. This is evident in View from a Bridge which starts off with the narrator describing a situation of a disabled person through the use of the poetic. He does this by using rhythm and the inclusion of descriptive passages written by the narrator himself. These techniques highlight the subjective tone of the documentary. This is in sharp contrast to the strategies of persuasion adopted within the expository mode where, as we have seen, the emphasis is on argument and evidence. One could argue these differences have to do with the kind of ‘truth’ that each of these documentaries is concerned with. View from a Bridge seeks to grasp at an inner ‘truth’ through poetic expression, whereas the Witness places an emphasis on argument and evidence, because here ‘truth’ has to do with words.
Therefore I see the expository mode as telling a story in a straight forward fashion without any fuss. Thus I believe the strength of this mode lies in its simplicity, as I feel a greater truth is created. I have always felt that when one utilises the witnesses in a prominent way it creates a sense of the listener actually being inside the mind of someone who has firsthand experience of a particular story. Therefore for me the expository documentary becomes more believable and intriguing than that of the poetic mode, because it creates a sense that the listener is taken back to the precise moment in time that the source is recalling. And this, for me, can only be created by the recollection from a firsthand witness and not that of a sole poetic narrator. When the poetic mode is solely used within a documentary I personally see such a narrator as an irritating factor within a poetic documentary, and almost get the sense that they are ‘hogging’ the mic instead of letting the story be told by the actual source. I do believe in some cases the poetic mode can be used successfully but do not believe that this was achieved in View from a bridge or Mei Mei, a Daughters story. Thus I personally find the expository mode more compelling for the reasons that I outline above, and therefore I responded better to the first two documentaries
In my own documentary making I wish to draw on both modes, as I feel that they can complement each other. I will mainly draw on the expository mode, by letting my sources tell their story and thus create a more intimate and personal sense for documentary. And I believe that this can also be achieved with the use of descriptive narrative. Thus bringing an artistic vision to the documentary and aid in the creating a picture within the listeners minds.