(This is part of a series. Start with Narration and Titling, Part One.)
Necessary Revelations in Social Documentary
The practitioners of Cinéma Vérité and Direct Cinema eschewed narration as an admission of failure in a film. Drew Associates proudly notes on its Web site its 1960 film Primary uses less than two minutes of narration, noting further that this was the reason the broadcast networks of the time declined it.
Yet the filmmakers who would follow would find that social documentary films often needed both intertitles and narration to allow a coherent story to be shaped. Since these films are often shot with a single camera at unrepeatable events, and since access is often denied or minimized, often the footage gathered requires context and explanation.
Barbara Kopple’s 1990 American Dream, for example, uses intertitles as well as Kopple’s voice as narrator to move the story forward at key junctures. The result of contract negotiations, key to the narrative of the film, does not occur on camera and thus requires either text or statement to clarify the positions of the key players of the film. Titles or statements specify the offer given by the negotiating company or the response of the labor union as needed.
As well, the progress of time is structured by these imposed elements, as footage of meetings does not give a clear sense of the progression of events in the story.
It is notable that the use of titling in the film––basic and simple text which does not call attention to itself––may function differently than Kopple’s voice, which comes as a surprise for many viewers after so many minutes of an approach derived from Direct Cinema. Announcing a key development in the plot, the addition of the voice comes approximately at the point in the film where the effect of the larger story on individuals is revealed, and where the crisis becomes personal.
Here, the use of a female narrator may avoid the connotations of the “voice of god” narration technique and the impositions it might bring to the film.
Next: Informal Versus Formal: Dogtown and Z-Boys