Changes In The Use Of Narration

Although narration is totally absent (by definition) in cinema verite, it is a formative presence in the other genres of documentary. Narration, as one of the three layers of sound (dialogue and music are the others), is a very powerful tool. As we will see in our discussion of Clement Perron's Day After Day (1965) in Chapter 28, "The Sound Edit and Creative Sound," narration has the capacity to alter the meaning of the visual. The classic role of narration, "the Voice of God," was essentially interpretive. Since filmmakers have begun to range in their use of narration, it is useful to look at the possibilities for narration and then to move on to novel examples of these uses.

If we were to summarize the uses of narration we could categorize the narrator as observer, as investigator, as guide, or as provocateur. Within these larger categories the narrator can be objective or subjective, intimate or distant, harsh or ironic, young or old, professional or anecdotal. Every choice will influence our perception and experience of the film. Consequently, the filmmaker must make a decision about how he or she wants us to experience the film narrative.


Narrators as observers presume that their mission is to allow us to accompany them on a tour of a place, a person, or an idea. The position of the narrator can be as an expert, a companion, or an innocent in the process of discovery. This latter notion was made famous by Michael Rubbo, the Australian documentarian who made films for the National Film Board of Canada for two decades. Rubbo himself becomes a character in his work; he is a participant-observer. This is his approach in Vietnam with Sad Song of Yellow Skin (1970), in Cuba with Waiting for Fidel (1974), and in Paris with Solzhenitsyn's Children-.-.-.-Are Making a Lot of Noise in Paris (1979). Thematically, each film has rich subject matter: the effect of the war or the quality of life issues for expatriates trying to live in Vietnam; the potential meeting of a capitalist and politician from Canada with Premier Fidel Castro; the intellectual currents of a city where ideas mean everything in Solzhenitsyn's Children-.-.-.-Are Making a Lot of Noise in Paris.

Rubbo is an ingenuous observer. In order to personalize complex material but also to explore that material, Rubbo sets himself up as a curious observer who hasn't quite made up his mind. We know that his experiences will shape his views, and by acting as a guide who is processing the material as he discovers it, Rubbo, at times naive, at other times skeptical, provides us with an avenue into material that otherwise would be heavy slogging for the audience. His role as observer also makes his documentaries lighter and more entertaining.

Amir Bar-Lev's Fighter (2000) is no less ambitious than Rubbo's work, but his approach is to use a constant on-camera observer. Fighter is the story of two Czech Holocaust survivors, Jan Weiner and Arnost Lustig. Bar-Lev films their contemporary return to Czechoslovakia in order to trace Weiner's escape during World War II. They travel from Czechoslovakia to Croatia and then to Italy, where Weiner was imprisoned as an undesirable alien, and finally from Italy, his escape to join the British Air Force, where he participated in the Allied bombing of Germany. Bar-Lev intercuts archival historical footage as well as family photographs of Weiner. Arnost Lustig, now a friend of Weiner's as well as a fellow Holocaust survivor, is the observer for the film.

Because Lustig is a writer, he tries to interpret Weiner's actions throughout the journey. Weiner, the fighter of the title, is a man of action rather than words. The journey stirs up deep feeling and multiple wounds—the tragic loss of his mother in a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia; the awful fact of the suicide of his father in Croatia in 1942 while Weiner is staying with him. His father commits suicide to allow the young Weiner to travel West, unburdened by an elderly, less able, parent. Lustig attempts to give words to the feelings of Weiner, but Weiner turns against his friend. Words detract and undermine Weiner's capacity to cope, to hold on, to go forward. He breaks with Lustig and, in effect, walks out on the film.

What is important about the use of Lustig as a character and observer is that the contrast between the two men allows the audience to feel the pain of a man who refuses to see himself as a victim. Jan Weiner sees himself as a fighter. We see this side of him, but thanks to the presence of Arnost Lustig as an observer, we also feel the depth of the tragedies in his life, and he becomes all the more admirable a character for that contrast.


Investigations imply a goal: to come to an understanding of an issue or person by means of the investigation. The consequence is a more purposeful documentary. Unlike the political or social issue documentary, the investigative documentary does not endeavor to make a case. Consequently, the investigative documentary is not at all a polemic.

In The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack (2000), Aiyana Elliott is trying to understand her father, the singer Jack Elliott. Mixing home movies, archival footage, contemporary interviews, and the equivalent of a current concert tour, Aiyana Elliott seeks to know a man she barely knows, her father. By looking at his professional and personal life, she may find the key to connecting with the most elusive significant person in her own life. Her father divorced her mother when Aiyana was a small child. Today, as a filmmaker, five years out of film school, Aiyana wants to reconnect with her father, and making a film about him is the logical vehicle for that attempt.

Jack Elliott, the son of a Jewish doctor in Brooklyn, decided he wanted to be a cowboy and eventually a cowboy balladeer. Elliott lived and performed with Woody Guthrie in the 1950s, and as his fame grew he became a powerful influence on Bob Dylan in the 1960s. But by the 1970s Elliott is a forgotten man, only to be rediscovered 20 years later by no less a fan than President Bill Clinton. Aiyana Elliott tries to understand the why of her father's career: his lack of ambition; his disorganized approach to his career; his chaotic personal life, including 4 wives. But in the end she sees that Jack

Elliott is a man who is most comfortable on stage making up the set as he goes along; he is a great performer and a poor father. Although she doesn't seem to come to a deeper understanding of their relationship, she has made a film that is a tribute to an artist who was a transitional figure in folk music: the man between Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.

Ray Muller also strives for understanding in his film The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1995). Leni Riefenstahl, one of the towering figures in film history, is the subject. Muller interviews Riefenstahl, aged 90, at many of the locations of her films, and of course at an editing bench. He also interviews her at various Berlin locations. Interspersed with the interviews are clips from her films, the two most important being Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia, Parts I and II (1938).

The goal of Muller's investigation goes beyond a portrait of the filmmaker. Muller wants to know how involved she was with the Nazi party, with Hitler, and his goals. He wants to test the idea, how much did you know, and how much responsibility should you bear for making films for the Nazis? These are issues Muller goes back to around the 2 key films but also around a supportive letter Reifenstahl wrote to Hitler in the early 1940s. He also returns to these questions when dealing with Riefenstahl's postwar hearing at the hands of the Allies (she was cleared), which resulted in the end of her filmmaking career, and her consequent efforts to restore her reputation right up until this film is made. To the end Riefenstahl claims her goals were artistic not political, that had she known about the fate of the Jews and other persecuted minorities, she would have felt differently. She never recants, but does lament the suffering she has experienced for the past 50 years.

Muller draws no conclusion, but his continual probing poses the key questions about art and morality. He leaves us, his audience, with the conclusion we ourselves wish to come to.


If the investigator is looking for understanding, the guide already has it. Through the narration the guide helps us understand. Multiple guides are used to layer that understanding, usually first on an intellectual level, then on an emotional level. Mark Jonathan Harris uses multiple guides to engage us with his films in both of his Oscar-winning documentaries, The Long Way Home (1997) and Into the Arms of Strangers (2000).

The Long Way Home is the story of the survivors of the Holocaust from the end of the war in 1945 to the birth of the State of Israel in 1948. It is the story about people who survived Hitler's death camps only to discover they could not return to their former homes. Many who did not return were killed. And so their hopes turned principally to the West and to Palestine. The British Mandate resisted Jewish immigration into Palestine, and the consequent civil disturbance eventually caused Britain to end the mandate, the precursor to a UN-supported partition of Palestine with a homeland for the Jews and a homeland for the Arabs. The film ends with the birth of the State of Israel, implying that at last the survivors of the Holocaust have a home in Israel.

This brief précis of the narrative provides the skeleton. How does the filmmaker use narration to shape and to layer the narrative?

First, to provide unity and transition for the entire narrative, Harris uses the classical, informative guide who can explain the politics of President Truman's choice to support first Jewish immigration and then the State of Israel against the advice of his Departments of State and Defense. The narrator can also detail the story of the 1946 Kelce massacre of 41 Jews who had returned to their homeland in Poland after the war. These narrative knots, where considerable visual material would be needed to capture the issue, are explained by the principal narrator. The history, if you will, is the principle responsibility of the narrator. The actor Morgan Freeman reads the narration.

The other narrators are more personal. Here memoirs, letters, diaries, and oral histories of the 1945-1948 period provide the emotional texture of the narrative. These guides—survivors of the Holocaust, and American soldiers who liberated the camps, who guarded and supervised the camps, including the initial commander, General George Patton—offer deep insights into the emotional states of survivors and liberators. Despair, loss, hope, a future, all the planes of human feeling and existence are explored by these guides. Often actors are used to render these confessional pieces of narration. These "sound close-ups" emotionalize the archival footage. There are also interviewees: survivors, including the chief rabbi of Israel; 2 American rabbis who were instrumental in helping the survivors; an American volunteer who helped Jews escape illegally from Europe to Palestine; and Clark Clifford, who worked diplomatically for President Truman.

In The Long Way Home it is the multiple or layered use of narrators that guides us through the complex history of the period as well as its equally complex emotional turbulence. Harris uses the same layered strategy for his narration in Into the Arms of Strangers. But in this film the more personal guides also appear on camera. They are the children of the Kindertransport, now adults, 50 years after the traumatic war years. The story begins in 1933 with the ascent of Hitler to power in Germany. For children, the changes under the Nazis were subtle and not always apparent. But all that changed with the pogrom in November 1938, the night of shattered glass known as Krystallnacht. Throughout Germany and Austria and the Sudentenland, the annexed portion of Czechoslovakia, Jewish businesses were looted, Jewish synagogues were burned, and Jews were harassed, beaten, and killed. Many died. It proved to be a turning point for the Jews in Germany.

Consequent to Krystallnacht, Jews tried to leave Germany, but exit visas were hard to come by and entry visas to other countries even harder. Great Britain decided that it would accept as many children from Germany as possible. The conditions were that the children had to be under 17, that 50£ had to be paid for their support, and that a British home must be willing to take them in. The program, which began in December 1938 and continued until the beginning of World War II in 1939, was known as the Kindertransport. Children from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia participated in the transport.

Into the Arms of Strangers tells the story of the Kindertransport and follows 10 children who participated. Their interviews as well as archival footage, home movies, and photographs provide the visuals for the film.

As in The Long Way Home there is a primary narrator who explains the historical progression. That narration, read by Judi Dench, provides the general informational shape for Into the Arms of Strangers. With the overarching narrative as the guide track for the film, Harris proceeds to use the 10 participants as the personal guides to the story of the Kindertransport. They include 6 women and 4 men; 5 are from Germany, 3 from Austria, 1 from Czechoslovakia, and 1 from Poland who had made his way to Germany by 1939. Their stories focus on life prior to 1938, Krystallnacht; their leave-taking from their parents; the transport itself; life in England; in the case of the young man from Poland, his transport to Australia on the HSS Deruna, and his return to join the army; the reunion with parents where the parents survived, or the experience of learning of the death of the parents; and the aftermath of the Kindertransport experience. What is clear from the stories is that the Kindertransport saved thousands of children's lives, but that it was a scarring event for the children; in a sense it was the seminal event in the lives of these 10 people.

In Into the Arms of Strangers, the narration provides multiple points of entry into a complex historical event. By using a general narration for historical information and participants for personal information, Harris has created a tiered entry into the narrative—informational and emotional lines emanate out of the two layers of narration. Although the narrators are on-camera in Into the Arms of Strangers, they serve the same purpose as the off-camera readings of letters, diaries, and memoirs in The Long Way Home—to personalize a complex historical event and to give emotional resonance to a Holocaust event too easily overwhelmed by statistics and scale. By using multiple narrators as guides, Harris brings us to the emotional core of the issue and we begin to understand.


The provocateur has a specific goal in his documentary: to promote change. The nature of the narration may be direct or ironic, but in both cases the goal remains the same. Justine Shapiro and B. Z. Goldberg in their film, Promises (2001), are very direct. They want their film to contribute to the possibility of peace in the Middle East. Goldberg is the narrator, both on and off camera.

Promises was filmed in Israel and in the West Bank from 1997 to 1999. The film follows 8 children, 4 Israeli and 4 Palestinian. In Israel, the children include an ultra-orthodox child, the son of a West Bank settler, and a set of twins, grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. In this sense, the full political spectrum, from liberal to conservative, is represented. Among the Palestinian children, the spectrum is from urban (settled) to refugee (unsettled) and includes a young girl. All other participants on both sides are male. Shapiro and Goldberg are interested in the attitudes of the children toward one another. The film includes their families but only in a limited sense. The major part of the film focuses solely on the children. The film's last section brings together the Israeli twins with the 2 children (male and female) from the West Bank refugee camp. The implicit question is whether the children can get along for an afternoon. They do, but when the filmmakers return to interview them 2 years later, they have not maintained contact and their attitudes have hardened.

Shapiro and Goldberg have tried with Promises to illustrate the complexity and depth of opposing attitudes in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians. They are also attempting to say, by the nature of the film's structure, that it begins with the next generation. We have to get them together if there is to be hope for peace in that region. Their direct approach is an emotional provocation to try.

Ron Mann's Grass (2000) takes a very different approach. Grass is an exploration of American attitudes toward marijuana from the 1930s through the 1990s. Both the government's and the public's attitudes are examined. The information line is essentially to trace the history of marijuana in the United States, from its entry via Mexican migrant workers at the turn of the century to its status today—as a criminalized drug that the government spends billions of dollars to eradicate. The dramatic line of the narrative is how marijuana has been affiliated with dangers to society. Over time it has been affiliated first with the outsider (Mexicans); then with a scapegoated minority (the black community); then with murder; then with mental illness and its consequences; then with heroin use; and finally, with "never fulfilling your potential" or, to put it another way, "to be a loss to society." The government, primarily through the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 onward, mounted a vigorous attack to criminalize the drug. The head of that department, Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger, made it his personal mission to eradicate marijuana from the American landscape. Although there are powerful figures, such as Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia of New York, who question and commission scientific studies to evaluate the drug, the government continues a 45-year assault on the drug and its users. The expense of this war and the number of users grow anyway. In 1977 then-President Jimmy Carter attempted to decriminalize the drug but his effort failed. Nevertheless, a number of states have since decriminalized marijuana usage. But until the end of the century marijuana use has remained a criminal activity from the point of view of the Federal Government.

Grass is a provocation to change the law and align it with scientific knowledge about the drug. The film takes an adversarial position to the law. To flesh out this position, the filmmaker Ron Mann uses as his narrator Woody Harrelson, an actor with a liberal reputation and a knack for portraying antiestablishment characters. The more extreme layer of provocation, however, comes from the visuals. Mann uses film clips from archival antimarijuana films as well as graphics, to make his case. The film opens with a clip about marijuana that poses the question: "Marijuana, Threat or Menace?" The clips increasingly become extreme, melodramatic illustrations of the madness, rapacity, and murder that follow from marijuana usage. The irony and provocation then arises principally from the visuals. But the narration also is provocative in its use of language. Mexicans are characterized as blood-curdling murderers. Commissioner Anslinger is called a "prohibitionist" and a "law-and-order evangelist." Mayor LaGuardia, on the other hand, is "skeptical about government claims" about marijuana. Commissioner Anslinger is portrayed as a villain while Mayor LaGuardia is a fair-minded hero. This kind of characterization also presents Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan's opposition to marijuana and the youth movement and the movement for decriminalization as heroic. The narration, although more tempered than the visuals, advocates changing the marijuana laws in the United States. This is the provocation of the narration in Grass.

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