By Doug Gritzmacher
Denver Video Production
Documentaries seem to be less confined to rigid story structures than fiction films. Without the ability to premeditate a script and shoot to it, documentary filmmakers must rely on available footage and what they have acquired along the path of story discovery. This often leads to creative and unusual storytelling techniques and structures.
Such is the case with “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes,” a documentary directed by Brett Story and released last month. Story describes the film as a non-fiction film “about the prison from places we least expect to find it.” This includes a corporate environment, a forest fire, and a chess playing board in a park, among others. In each of these locations, Story seeks to uncover how mass incarceration has affected lives. It’s a compelling and powerful film that draws involvement from the viewer.
The stories she finds in these locations are told through a series of vignettes that follow one after the other. The film is book-ended by footage of people on a bus as they journey to a prison to visit incarcerated loved ones. These might be seen as the film’s introduction and conclusion. If they are, that’s where Story’s use of traditional documentary storytelling elements begins and ends. There is no rise and fall of action and no climax. Also missing is the ever-present documentary staple—talking heads. I found this choice especially brave.
Early documentaries were dominated by narration. That mold was broken by filmmakers in the ’60s who introduced a new technique derived from French cinema. Dubbed “cinema verite,” the technique was a grasp for more realism. This meant no narration or interviews and was shot with the goal of either making awareness of the camera disappear or immersing viewers in the environment being shot. The lack of a narration track to explain the film’s events to the audience freed filmmakers to explore more creative storytelling techniques in the edit room.
This movement did not last. Narration eventually returned as the primary storytelling device, although in a new form—the talking head. The disembodied voice became embodied, but the effect is the same, which is a voice(s) explaining to the viewer what to think and what to make of what they are seeing.
Our era is dominated by this form and it is the expectation, especially if you are producing a documentary for a client. Films without talking heads are deemed too risky for fear of boring an audience or leaving them confused.
Story’s film is out-of-place in this climate. Consequentially, it is a breath of fresh air.
Without the ever-present talking head to guide me along through the story, a curious thing happened—I found myself not less engaged, but more engaged. My imagination was triggered to fill in the gaps and construct a narrative on my own. This resulted in a more satisfying viewing experience that has stuck with me now two weeks later. It also makes me want to re-watch the film to catch things I might have missed, something not necessary with most films.
The cinematography style helped contribute to this, but in an usual way. Unlike the films of the cinema verite era in which the goal was to make the camera disappear, Story seemed determined to make the viewer aware of the camera as much as possible. Throughout the film the documentary cinematography duties appear to be manned by someone who is in the middle of their first day on the job. Several close-ups on heads are too close for comfort. Several people talking on camera are partially cut-off on the side of the frame. During the corporate scene, the cinematographer picks up the camera while on a tripod and transports it into an elevator. Traditionally, an editor would seek to disguise this kind of move with use of a cut-away shot. Not Story. I found this annoying at first, but gradually I came to see how it made me feel more immersed in the action, which had the effect of engaging me further in the story.
With that I pay Story a mighty “bravo” and look forward to his future work.
The movie is available to rent and purchase on iTunes.
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