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Clear Your Mind: A Media Textbook Expands Documentary's Possibilities

By Cynthia Close

Documentary Media: History, Theory, Practice by Broderick Fox. Routledge 2018" src="" style="width: 250px; float: right; margin: 5px;">An impressive 151 film and media project titles are used by Broderick Fox as source material referenced throughout this textbook for modern documentary media-makers. Since the book targets the educational market, this extensive listing also supplies the distribution sources for each title, a crucial piece of information necessary for educators that many media textbook authors overlook. This thoughtful addition broadens the usefulness of the text beyond media-makers to those simply interested in exploring the genre.

To elaborate on the subtitle of the book… History: Fox’s examples cover the entire history of moving images, from the Lumières’ 1896 Arrival at the Station/L’arrivée d’un train en gare to the 2017 release I Am Not Your Negro by Raoul Peck. Theory: Fox runs the gamut, pushing the envelope on the definition of “documentary” with his inclusion of Mothlight, the experimental 1963 short film by Stan Brakhage, in addition to referencing The Quipu Project 2013-2017, a transmedia work by Maria Court and Rosemarie Lerner that utilizes a radio campaign, phone-line archive, interactive documentary, online documentary short and social media accounts. Then, to insure that potential documentary-makers reading this guide are able to transfer thought into action, Fox closes each chapter with an Into Practice section, a hands-on exercise intended to propel the truly serious practitioner into creating a project prospectus, promotional trailer and Web presence for their documentary.

The first page of the first chapter ends with an exhilarating challenge and admirable statement of purpose: “This chapter is designed to be critically and conceptually freeing, opening up possibilities for pleasure, experimentation and audacity rarely associated with documentary media production. Clear your mind of presumptions, and let us expand documentary’s social, political and representational possibilities.” The author suggests that he will be our partner in this journey. His real-world experience as a filmmaker certainly informs this book, as it must also undeniably influence his role as associate professor in the Media Arts and Culture Department at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

In exploring Fox’s creative endeavors, it becomes apparent that he practices what he preaches. The terms audacious and experimental seem particularly apt in describing this Harvard- and University of Southern California-educated filmmaker’s own work. His impressive filmography includes Zen & the Art of Dying (2015), The Skin I'm In (2012), Home (2009) and Things Girls Do (2001). Besides being a decidedly cool-looking dude, he has well-earned street cred, having hit the skids in 2005 when he was hauled off the Berlin subway tracks with a cracked skull and a lethal blood/alcohol level of 0.47. I would add that this event seemed to instigate a courageous belief in the value of individual, personal, intimate expression to effect positive cultural change that is now the connective thread running through both the book and Fox’s films.

Rather than following a chronological structure, the book provides historical context for contemporary theory and weaves real-life, up-to-the minute happenings throughout each chapter. It all feels relevant. Fox’s analysis and tracing of the origins of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, part of the first chapter, “Reimaging Documentary,” is a perfect example. He never lets us forget the double-edged sword of digital media, that “the same tools that have afforded this newfound public sphere have also equipped the sphere of public authority with unprecedented means for real-time surveillance and intelligence-gathering.”

The third chapter, “Content, Rhetoric, Structure,” tackles one of the most obvious questions all filmmakers must ask themselves: “What’s it really about?” The answer is often elusive. Fox points out that sometimes we think we are making a film about one thing, but our paths are convoluted, our subjects may lead us to a dead end, or to an unexpected conclusion. Setbacks may be inevitable and unforeseen opportunities may be lost. Before diving into any project, Fox rightly tells us we must dive deeply into our motives. He asks his readers, “What is your subject matter and why have you chosen it? What is the driving question you are seeking to explore?” and ultimately, “What do you want audiences to come away thinking, feeling or doing?” Being able to succinctly answer these three questions will position a filmmaker well in any grant application they might seek, and will help to keep the project on course.

Divided into two main sections—visual design and sound design—Chapter Four addresses the aesthetic possibilities utilized in a range of documentary projects that Fox describes as “startling, beautiful, intimate and unflinching.” The path to achieving those descriptions are further elaborated on in more practical terms under the subheadings of “Shooting Format,” “Aspect Ratio,” “Color versus Black and White,” “Framing,” “Shot Size,” “Camera Placement,” “Movement,” “Lighting,” “Visual Metaphors and Structural Motifs,” “Challenging Expectations,” “Sound Design,” “Tracks,” “Smart Design” and “Sound Alternatives: Beyond Voice-Over and Talking Heads.” Black-and-white illustrations help to clarify each of these section subheadings.

Fox’s approach in discussing “Ethics: Focusing Your Professional Gaze” is most engaging and timely. He states, “There will always be those seeking to capitalize upon human pain and tragedy. Ratings and profit margins feed commercial media practices that celebrate the sensational—from paparazzi to storm chasers to local news teams. The willingness to put oneself in danger for a shot is itself ethically questionable. In most situations, this decision may in fact be highly irresponsible, placing not only you but also your crew, your subjects, your equipment and other individuals affected by your actions into harm’s way.” I don’t think I’ve read this perspective on ethics articulated in quite this way before. We tend to think of the risk-taking documentarian as a bit of a daredevil, singlehandedly charging into territory, literally and figuratively, where no one has dared to go. Fox gives us pause and challenges us to rethink these assumptions.

The dicey aspects of copyright out of necessity must be addressed in any chapter that discusses ethics, since appropriation, ripping and remixing existing media, whether from archives or easily accessible digital sources, have become ubiquitous. Fox covers all options, including clarification of existing copyright law, fair use, Creative Commons, and ultimately how and why producing a rights-and-clearances log may be a useful exercise for any documentary-maker.

The final chapter, “From Media to Movement: Distribution, Outreach, and Engagement,” loops back to the first chapter, with an emphasis on the need to have “a clear plan for identifying, reaching and impacting your intended audience…” There are a few ironic examples in this chapter, including a discussion of Lee Hirsch’s Bully (2011), which was a recipient of a Fledgling Fund Grant and a 2013 Doc Impact Award nomination. The documentary premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and was acquired for distribution by The Weinstein Company, which at considerable cost put together an education and outreach team and launched The Bully Project. This anti-bullying effort impacted 705 schools, trained 7,500 teachers and reached 250,000 students. It is unfortunate that the company’s co-founder and co-president, Harvey Weinstein, was not influenced by the positive work that he helped to make possible. This caveat was not intended to discredit the laudable effort by Broderick Fox to provide a contemporary, meaningful guide for modern media-makers. 


Cynthia Close is the former president of Documentary Educational Resources. She currently resides in Burlington, Vermont, where she consults on the business of film and serves on the advisory board of the Vermont International Film Foundation.