copyright 2004, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 47

Framing the unexpected

by Jean-Luc Lioult

The theoretician may be frustrated by the bipolarity of discourses dealing with documentary.(1)

On the one hand, critics assume documentary’s candid vision of candid eye, its fly on the wall techniques as effectively giving an accurate account of “actual occurrences in the phenomenal world.” (Guynn).

On the other hand, discourses of fakery (vs. discourses of sobriety) are also used about documentary. These seem to blur the line between fiction and non-fiction in a way that is often more confusing than productive.

How can we escape this critical (double) bind ?

To provide my own account, I will here draw from my experience as a photographer as well as a documentary filmmaking teacher.

Operating protocols

Years ago, I got involved in a project about the Highway code with a group of artists. We found inspiration in road signs and planned to produce an exhibition. As a photographer I thus started to work but did not gather much material before making two determining decisions. I would focus on “no parking” signs, especially the handmade ones, those with a personal touch. And I would treat them according to a very precise operating protocol. If pictures were always taken with the same lens, always on a frontal axis, and in such way as to reduce every sign to the same scale, then I hoped to uncover and make evident some unsuspected, accidental or intentional variations in the making, use and life of those objects. That particular method of taking pictures meant that I resigned myself to not investing what used to be the photographer’s pride: original subjects, sophisticated angles, striking composition or lighting. If shooting became a routine procedure, the camera somehow would lose its candidness. Conversely, the images—especially when grouped together—would gain an indexical strength in revealing an unnoticed variety that no reconstruction or manipulation could have simulated. The very uniformity conferred by the operating protocol was the surest means to reveal remarkable variations.

Chance and the effect of the real

As a practitioner I keep favouring a non-interventionist attitude. As a theorist, I keep being fascinated by indexicality, by the sense of unforeseen authenticity, the value of unexpectedness some documentary images, or documentary films, are able to communicate, provided that they (appear to) grasp the essence of real. However, as a theorist, I also know that such a sense of authenticity is itself an effect.

In Roland Barthes’ view the “effect of real” is created by the very unfunctionality of details that do not fulfil any office in particular except connoting the real. Barthes calls this “l'effet de réel,” indicating how representations look paradoxically more real when they carry a lot of details of little, if any, significance. From that standpoint the credibility of documentary images is indeed guaranteed—or, at least, reinforced—by irregularity and deviation. The presence of elements of little significance that do not obey the laws of representative efficiency help construct the feeling that “it can’t be fake.” In documentary practice, such unfunctional details are usually unplanned, fortuitous ones: residues. These portions of unexploited material happen by chance to acquire a paradoxical status offering clues about the authenticity of the take.

Noel Burch seems to be one of the very few cinema theorists to have speculated (in  A Praxis of Cinema) on chance and its functions. He thus describes

“the fascination experienced by a creative artist when he contemplates and ‘displays’ objects or materials that he himself has not created,”

“the even greater satisfaction the artist experiences when he reworks (…) these materials fallen from another world…”

The decisive moment

Being fundamentally a photographer, I cannot avoid basing my reflection upon snapshot photography as an attempt for mastering space, place and the moment.

The decisive moment is, as Cartier-Bresson tersely defined it,

“the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organisation of forms which gives that event its proper expression.”

However, the state of the art, in snapshot photography, is not simply to release the shutter at the proper moment. Indisputably a major artist, Cartier-Bresson does not say everything about the process when he describes the photographer’s work as follows:

“A velvet hand, a hawk’s eye—these we should all have... If the shutter was released at the decisive moment, you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless.” (The Decisive Moment, Simon & Schuster 1952)

The very notion of decisive moment is indeed quite ambiguous. It seems to concentrate [a whole sequence of operations] in one point in time. I myself came to understanding this in practice. Being no Cartier-Bresson, it took me a long time to realise that one cannot go chasing snapshots by:

If one tries to work this way, what happens is, one does not get anything decisive at all: decisive moments are fugitive ones, and while you are in the process of deciding there is something decisive about them, they’re gone.

The right person in the right place

In fact Cartier-Bresson himself gives another key:

“It sometimes happens that being unsatisfied you keep motionless, waiting for something to occur, sometimes everything comes untied and there will be no picture, but if for instance somebody happens to go past, then you follow their movement through the viewfinder frame, you wait, you wait… you shoot, and you go away with the feeling you have got something in your bag.”

This is fully congruent with my own experience as a photographer, as I shall show with two more examples.

Even before the “no parking project,” I was accustomed to take a number of pictures of a same pattern: a wall, in full frame, on a frontal axis, and a passer-by.

This simple scheme tended to construct some kind of relationship (on a plastic or anecdotal level) between the figure and the background.

One day I encountered an interesting graffiti in a street of Aix en Provence: a flashy, spray-painted kind of comic strip cowboy firing his gun: Pang! I prepared to take a picture. As I was waiting for a passer-by to act as an extra, a man came across and bent down not to be in the image, but looking very much as if he ducked down in order to avoid the cowboy’s shot—which is aimed however to the other side of the frame. I then realised that I had taken no time to consider whether I should take the picture or not. The man had bent precisely but unexpectedly while I was releasing the shutter.

Years later in Barcelona I experienced in an even stronger way what it is in fact to capture a “decisive moment” in snapshot photography.

As I was strolling around the port with my Leica in hand, a man sitting on the dock caught my attention. He could be a Moroccan immigrant, in worn out clothes, and seemed to enjoy throwing breadcrumbs to the fish, seagulls and pigeons all at the same time. It looked amusing and I started taking pictures. I selected a high shutter speed. It was not very easy to get the whole scene in the frame. Another man was on the left side, and I stepped ahead and swung to the right to concentrate on the one with the birds around him. Thus I was able to get some converging lines in the frame also. As I was starting to press the release button, I suddenly had a feeling of perfect synchronism, for in the same process the character turned round left with that big smile and for some reason made a gesture of lifting his right thumb up as to say OK. I have no idea of why he did so, but I insist: it is not that the man started and I then triggered. Indeed his movement was exactly simultaneous to my finger’s movement pushing the button. I knew instantly this was a good picture.

(Unfortunately the fish cannot be seen. To see them you have to look to the next view.)

Such experiences lead me to a less naive notion of snapshot photography: the decisive, unexpected element happens within a frame that is already determined, which it comes to complement.

What about the moving image?

Noel Burch (again) in “Chance and its Functions” also considers the kind of relation between expected and unexpected I refer to.

For one thing he notes, about fiction films and especially about filming in studios,

“[The] overcoming, or rather banishing, of the accidental developed hand in hand with the progressive enthronement of that ‘zero point in cinematic style.’”

And for another thing, discussing Lumière setting his camera up on the station platform at La Ciotat and waiting for the train to pull in, Burch observes:

“The bulk of the film’s action consisted of unpredictable gestures and movements of passengers getting off the train and people waiting for them on the platform.”

In fact, in Burch’s view, when Lumière was cranking the camera, “chance remained in complete control of the mise en scène.” However, Burch puts forward a notion close to mine:

“Both literally and figuratively, [Lumière] thus established a frame, thereby delimiting the area in which the unpredictable remainder of the action would occur.”

Similarly, operating protocols of documentary filmmaking often consist of establishing a (physical, social, figurative) frame within which the unpredictable (albeit somehow relied upon) may occur. I shall demonstrate this with my next example. This clip comes from a ten-minute long still shot produced by a group of students as an exercise during a documentary workshop. I am presenting here only the relevant excerpts.

Two homeless men remain on the doorstep of a building in a district near the town centre, drinking beer with their dogs around them. Cars and buses passing by in the foreground contrast with the men’s inactivity. Suddenly an attractive, hign fashion young woman comes by. The men follow her with their eyes as she walks across frame to the left side of the image. A moment later, a second woman, also dressed fashionably, in miniskirt and high boots, steps across the frame in a similar way; again the woman is followed by the men’s eyes. Then, after a while, the two women come back together from the off-screen space walking across from the left to the right of the frame, back to where they came from.

The effect is quite comical. But the shot also says a lot as well about social relations between genders and classes, between the well off and the underprivileged. There is no doubt about the shot’s documentary value. The long-focus, candid-camera shooting style, evidently implies no mise en scène at all (I had advised the students to pretend not to be filming). Conversely, the setting off of a specific space was the most determining factor. Every other possible angle or framing would have attenuated or even destroyed the incident’s effect and meaning. Furthermore, the temporal cutting—a full ten-minute shot with no camera movement—allowed including the whole set of micro-events as well as the slack moments, which helped to build up the suspense pattern.

Using a constrained protocol for capturing spontaneous occurrences, framing a physical, social and figurative space, allows the documentarist to rely upon unforeseen events, which are unpredictable in their details but globally presumed to happen.

The method can be extended beyond such examples. Setting up a favourable stylistic device enables the cameraperson to grab occurances of the unexpected. Here the unexpected seems to respond adequately to a specific sort of preparation or preliminary intentions.

Encounters of the third kind

From a more theoretical point of view, I suggest this is a new way to go beyond the all-too-simple dichotomies used as distinctions in documentary criticism between the controlled and the uncontrolled, the staged and the spontaneous (or between fakery and ‘sobriety’).

Trevor Ponech (What is non-fiction cinema, 1999) distinguishes

“between two main categories of plans, corresponding to two broad strategies of authorially determining the content of non-fictional motion pictures.”

In terms of intentionality, he argues,

“Type I Non-Fictions have only schematic plans and highly flexible commitments ... [T]hey might simply intend to show whatever it is that ultimately happens to be recorded on the resultant footage.

In contrast,

“Type II Non-Fictions ... result from intentions that are more rather than less restrictive of content” and “correspond to significantly more detailed plans.”

Ponech indeed suggests,

“... instead of looking for mutually exclusive classifications, it makes more sense to situate films somewhere along a gradual progression from minimal to maximal prevalence of authorial intentions. In all likelihood the majority of works are combination of Types I and II.” 

Such a view avoids a clear-cut opposition and thus gives a better account of the various documentary filmmaking practices.

What I propose however is to conceive a dialectical relationship between Ponech’s two types, between planning the events and facing the irruption of spontaneous occurrences. In other terms, the “authorial intentions” of the filmmaker may create a third category if the intention is to frame the unexpected, to facilitate the upsurge of the unforeseen, rather than control the flow of events.

Steps toward new strategies

(I’ll rapidly refer to another example drawn from teaching practice, although I am not able to show a clip of images.)

I had another opportunity to confirm this idea with a group of almost absolute beginners in documentary filmmaking. They decided to film the work of trimmers chainsawing sycamore tree branches. I had asked them (again) to make ten-minute long shots with no camera movement. As they repeatedly tended to frame the workers balancing high in the trees with their chainsaws, I suggested they might shoot instead what happened on the ground below. I also asked them to delimit a reasonably narrow field. In their film, the frame was empty at first, then boughs started falling and banging down while the chainsaw’s sound remained off-screen; some other men entered the frame now and again to collect the timber. These events were indeed expectable, but the result was undoubtedly better. The most striking, and unexpected, event happened when a big limb fell out and rolled toward the camera, stopping dramatically not far from us in the image’s foreground.

In such a process, selecting a frame implies a twofold displacement, in space and time, so as to benefit the scene’s potential development. The camera person does not select what he or she immediately perceives, but rather anticipates in what place and at what moment something more may happen.

I want to borrow my last example from an Iranian short film: The Candidate (Mohammad Shirvani, 1999)—a provocative, hybrid treatment in which an old lady walks up to young women in the streets of Teheran with a photograph of her son, urging the women to marry him. The old lady is an actress, in league with the filmmaker. She wears a wireless microphone and makes her fictitious offer to “real,” unwary passers-by. At the end the scene suggest that her (supposed) son has in fact died in the war. The film’s first shot shows the following:

•In the background, the old breathless lady toils up some stairs, sits down for a pause then walks toward the camera.

•In the foreground, a couple formed by a soldier and a young woman enters the field. Due to the camera position and focal length, we first see their legs only, before they go toward the stairs in the back.

The shot condenses and summarises the film argument. When I showed the film to a group of students, most declared that such a shot was “obviously staged.” Although I cannot pretend that this is “life caught unawares,” I am convinced it does not just result from mise en scène either. It rather comes about as a combination of accurately selecting the place, space and moment. Then the camerapeople had to wait for the secondary characters to appear (it may have been a stroke of luck that a soldier and a young woman came), and perhaps the shot entailed someone off-screen waving to the older woman to stand up and move on at the proper moment. A device, in other words, can be well adapted to seizing elements that are counted on, but not controlled—and mixing them with controlled events.

Filming the real implies creating opportunities by which it can enter the frame. In a more dialectical view of the hackneyed dilemmas of documentary—candidness, spontaneity, and veracity, versus staging, mastery, and expressivity—filming the real may require setting up formal, sometimes strict constraints that allow the upsurge of the unexpected, the variable, the unsettled within a concrete and symbolic frame which organizes and orders spontaneity’s meaning. The documentarist does not pretend to capture the unpredictable ingenuously. At the same time, there is no need to claim that everything is staged, that everything is fiction from the moment an artist intends to seize something of the real. From the point of view of the documentarist, things are less simple but richer. In this case, a documentary modus operandi can favour a dialectics of the spontaneous and the arranged.

The most fruitful documentary strategies consist of establishing protocols within which the real can befall.


1. This paper is based on (and developed from) a chapter of the author's book, A l'enseigne du réel - penser le documentaire, Publications de l'Université de Provence, 2004.

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