Monday, March 7, 2011

Libya and Beyond: The Camera's Presence Is Suspect

I am always a little suspicious when I watch documentary films, especially those that claim to be objective records of behavior.

Direct Cinema is a style of documentary in which the camera is supposed to be an objective observer of action or behavior (like a fly on a wall). There is no narration, and no attempt to make a statement through camera placement, movement, or editing. In its purest form it is almost impossible, unless the filmmaker is hidden, which is impractical in covering most subject matter. 

Cinema-verite, or "truth in cinema", is a similar style, and relies on recording everyday activity without rearranging the subject for the camera.  It often relies on the camera being part of the action, provoking a response, but not altering the basic truth of the behavior or action.

Naturalistic hand-held camera and "natural" lighting became the identifiable grammar of the Documentary.  This technique became so closely connected with "reality" filmmaking, that fiction films have borrowed it to lend an air of realism to staged works.

There is a phenomenon called "observer effect", which states that the presence of an observer (or camera) changes the behavior of the subject being observed (filmed).  A basic description of this psychological theory can be found here at Psych Web.

So, when I watch a film like "Waiting for Superman", I constantly ask myself if what I am seeing has in some way been tainted by the presence of the camera, especially when the subjects under scrutiny are children.  It just seems too easy to manipulate behavior, and audience response, to conform to some preconceived point of view.

And lately, while watching reports of the unrest in Egypt and Libya, I ask myself, what are those flood lights doing there?  Who set them up (unless they are in a stadium at night)?   How much of this "unrest" is being staged for an international audience?  Is it being enhanced to create a "narrative" that viewers can rally behind?  Are they performing for someone?  For someone's camera?  Whose camera? 

I think of Charles Foster Kane, conniving to stage the Spanish Civil War:  "You provide the prose poems: I'll provide the war." 

Is someone, somewhere, saying, "You provide the unrest; we'll provide the oil shortage"?

Libya produces about 7 percent of the world's oil supply (according to a recent NPR interview).  Yet oil prices are climbing by double-digit percentages, not because of a sudden spike in demand, and not because there has been an appreciable drop in supply due to Middle-Eastern unrest.  The BP Gulf Disaster had more negative impact on the oil supply.  Instead, many believe this is due to price speculation.  (Read about this here in the Examiner.) 

A lot of people will, without question, accept the images shown on television and make the easy connection that oil price spikes are due solely to the instability in Middle-Eastern oil-rich nations.   It is certainly a complex issue, but surely someone is profiting nicely from this alarming rise in oil prices.  I want to learn more, and speak with an informed voice.

A close reading of a film, and a critical analysis of its technique ...of any film, and especially news footage...can open up the mind to questions that deserve more scrutiny, and research.

   *     *     * 

Even Polar Bears are aware of the presence of a foreign object in their midst, and alter their behavior accordingly.  Enjoy this "CBS 60-Minutes" segment about how scientists are looking for new ways to study wildlife by using cleverly disguised "spies", or remote-control cameras.  These are terrific aids to study animal behavior...But they didn't fool the polar bears!


  1. I'm not sure if noticing that sort of thing is a blessing, or a curse, Tom.

    There are many organisations and individuals that will benefit from the increased oil prices and the speculation - indeed many outsiders who benefit directly from an end to Gaddafi's reign. But no-one will benefit more from him being overthrown than the Libyan people he is currently bombing and murdering.

    Of course the picture you've shown is of pro-Gaddafi supporters, so it's possible it's Gaddafi himself providing the lighting in order to present a type of normality.

  2. It is discouraging to realize that most of our knowledge of the world comes from a visual medium that has lost its sense of scruple. We are manipulated rather than informed. It gets harder to find trustworthy sources of information, and by the time objective, research-based books are published, they are already in the realm of history....