It’s not every day that we watch a film or TV show that changes or challenges our understanding of what is possible in the medium. Those significant moments often go unnoticed by many, but their influences are felt in the world of cinema as filmmakers start to understand the power behind those groundbreaking techniques. Where can you find these moments I am talking about? In a genre of documentary that doesn’t get enough attention: experimental documentary.

Experimental documentaries are a type of documentary film that pushes the boundaries of traditional documentary storytelling and falls into the experimental genre of filmmaking. Unlike traditional documentaries, which typically follow a linear narrative and focus on facts and information, experimental documentaries often incorporate non-linear storytelling techniques, abstract visuals, and unconventional sound design to convey a subjective or emotional experience.

Experimental documentaries can take many forms, but they all share a commitment to exploring new forms of expression and pushing the boundaries of what is possible in documentary filmmaking. Some experimental documentaries may focus on the more personal or intimate subject matter, while others may take a more abstract or conceptual approach to their subject matter.

There are many lessons we can learn from experimental documentaries, but Thomas Flight breaks down seven lessons that we can take with us into our next project. Whether you are making a traditional narrative feature or a non-linear, non-narrative short film, this video provides us with lessons that are valuable to know as a filmmaker.

1. Non-Verbal Narrative

To convey the scale of something, it's better to show it rather than tell it using words. Perspective can be limited, so finding new ways to capture scale is important. Koyaanisqatsi, a 1982 documentary, does this by using a flowing montage of images of people moving through the streets and sidewalks and a score to show the scale of New York City and modern humanity. It's a non-narrative film that takes the viewer on a journey without using any words.

Samsara also captures the same feeling as Koyaanisqatsi through a similar approach. Both films are impressive because they use a unique visual language to convey a message that couldn't exist in any other medium, which has become the modern default method to show the business of a city or a town. 

Lessons we learned from experiemental documentaries'Koyaanisqatsi'Credit: Island Alive/New Cinema

2. The Influence of Reality

Reality TV is a significant part of the media landscape, and its roots can be traced back to the experimental documentary. In the 1950s, French filmmakers started using the medium of film to experiment by pointing the camera at people to capture the naturalism of conversations that were not seen in films and TV shows of that time. This style of filmmaking, known as Cinéma vérité, inspired the development of reality TV.

Lessons we learned from experimental documentaries'Chronicle of a Summer'Credit: Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin

3. Blending Fiction and Reality

Werner Herzog's Lessons of Darkness blends fiction and reality by taking the Kuwait oil crisis and placing it in a cosmic, biblical context through a poetic narrative. The film frames images from reality in an apocalypse storyline, challenging the viewer to confront the reality of what is being seen. The film's use of fictionalization doesn't change the reality of the footage, which is still relevant today and can't be ignored.

In Herzog’s manifesto, Werner Herzog: The Minnesota Declaration, Herzog declares that blending fiction and reality has a profound effect on viewers. “Cinéma vérité confound fact, and truth, and thus plows only stones,” Herzog said. “And yet, facts sometimes have a strange and bizarre power that makes their inherent truth seem unbelievable… There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.” 

Lessons we learned from experiemental documentaries'Lessons of Darkness'Credit: Werner Herzog/Filmproduktion

4. The Subjectivity of Images

Leviathan demonstrates how images can be subjective by highlighting the sensory details of the subject through editing and cinematography. The film explores how the lines between objectivity and subjectivity can become blurred in the act of documentary filmmaking. This is another example of showing the audience the “what” of the story a filmmaker wants to tell rather than using words to tell the audience what they should pull from the images. 

Lessons we learned from experimental documentaries'Leviathan'Credit: Cinema Guild

5. A Genre of Trickery

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take Oneis a film that explores the documentary form by using a genre of trickery. William Greaves directs a crew to film the same fictional scene repeatedly with different actors while simultaneously documenting the creation of the film and the documentary. The crew eventually revolts and starts filming their own film, blurring the lines between what is and isn't manufactured drama in a documentary.

The film highlights the power and danger of documentary filmmaking, which seems to report the truth but is susceptible to manipulation and the manufacturing of narrative. This theme is also explored in Orson Welles’s F for Fake, which uses editing to bend reality.

Lessons we can learn from experimental documentaries'Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One'Credit: William Greaves

6. A Guided Meditation

Documentaries like Sleep Has Her House challenge what we consider a film to be. The film is a series of shots of nature for its entire runtime with no dialogue telling us what to make of this moment of meditation. This is a visual mood piece that uses the medium to ask viewers to sit in silence and absorb the beauty of nature uninterrupted. 


7. Revealing the True Potential of Cinema 

Experimental filmmakers have helped reveal the full potential of the camera. While we may think that every single camera movement, composition, light technique, and editing technique has been discovered, some filmmakers are continuously pushing the boundaries to discover new techniques that will eventually make their way into mainstream filmmaking, becoming a part of the everyday toolkit for filmmakers.

Filmmaking as an art form has yet to realize its full potential.

The medium is constantly finding new and innovative ways to show our world. There are many different ways to translate the nuances of a feeling, a moment, and the passage of time. There is still room for development as we learn the foundations of the medium, then twist and turn them to become something new and exciting.

What are some of your favorite experimental documentaries? Let us know what you learned from those films in the comments below!

Source: Thomas Flight