A balancing act

So, I re-read Nichols for the 2nd time this year.  Soon I will be watching examples of the films he classifies his different modes to cement by understanding but first I wanted to reflect on what he says about what documentary is and the use of voice to compel and engage in relation to what I learnt from my recent qualitative research study.

Prior to doing my research study, looking at the majority of films that come from academia, I felt that they were often dry and failed to engage.  In interviewing the people more experienced in film either as a tool for knowledge translation or used as part of their qualitative research methodology, I felt that they had moved beyond that and recognize ways to be compelling and engaging.  However, I would say that they are in the minority, and I was a bit stuck on why it is that boring films come out of academia.  I have been cited time and money as factors which I am sure that there is certainly an element of truth to, but if you are going to go to the effort of making a film then you are already expending time and money, so I didn’t feel that this was the only reason.

In my study there was quite a lot of discussion around representativeness, and whether a film coming from research had to represent the whole research study or whether personal stories could be told to engage the viewer and then worry about more of the facts and figures later.  There seemed to be this tension between art and science and my concern was that presented as facts and figures there may be limited engagement with those that the film is trying to impact on.  Nichols highlights the value of subjectivity stating “Subjectivity itself compels belief: instead of an aura of detached truthfulness we have the honest admission of a partial but important, situationed but impassioned perspective.”

Nichols notes that documentary is not “logic (crucial to science) or storytelling (central to fiction)” but rhetoric  which “seeks to inspire belief or instil conviction about the merit of particular viewpoint or contentious issue

This is done by bringing in inartistic proofs (scientific evidence) with artistic proofs which provides the credible, compelling and convincing evidence. Proofs are part of “invention” which is just one of the five canons rhetoric the others being arrangement, style, memory and delivery.

Arrangement deals with how the argument is arranged for maximum impact and in film may relate to things like how we engage the audience in the opening, or how we build the story and impacts.

Style relates to how the information is presented.  In film this is means a plethora of decisions around camera angle, lighting, mise-en-scène, music, editing choices etc.  which are part of the voice of the documentary maker and are a key component of making a film captivating to watch.

Employing the canons rhetoric take the hard scientific evidence and meld it with art to create something that is compelling and instills that conviction.  I think that some academics likely feel unease in the artistic interpretation of scientific facts but if the aim of knowledge translation is to instil conviction so that the next step is taken to result in a change, then this seems to be the way forwards.

It is now my job in the next few modules of my Master’s to demonstrate why use of rhetoric is important in short films and find that balance incorporating the different elements which is acceptable to academics and resonates with the attended audience.



Nichols, B. (2010) Introduction to documentary. 2nd edn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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