YAIR LEV takes up the challenge and makes an attempt to characterize the differences between reportage and documentary film.

One of the most difficult issues to untangle in the making of documentary cinema is the issue of its limits: how does it differ from reportage? When can we determine with any certainty that we are watching a movie and not a news report, interesting or exciting as that may be? The difficulty of creating clear-cut definitions in the fields of aesthetics and literary criticism is well known, although intuitively the differences are often clear.

Reportage Types

Essentially, there are two types of reportage: ‘news reports’, which deliver “objective” coverage of events, and the other type of reports I will refer to here under the generic umbrella of ‘colour reports’. These reports deal with a variety of phenomena that exist on the fringe of a news event or are generated by them, for example the reports in weekly news magazines. Other times they are more “freestyle” and less crucial, such as reports about migrating birds in the Hula Valley or new Internet sites. A sub-genre of the ‘colour reports’ is the ‘personal report’, usually longer, carried out by a well-known investigative journalist, reporting from his personal viewpoint. A genre that is also called ‘New-Journalism’, and aims to expose an aspect of life. This sub-genre, the ‘personal report’, crystallizes the difference between the report and the documentary film. ‘News reports’ and ‘colour reports’ demand utmost “objectivity”, whereas in the ‘Personal’ report the reporter’s subjectivity is inevitable. As we shall see however, it does not transgress the border into the realm of the documentary cinema.

Subjective Point of View

What is that realm then and which border are we talking about? In discussing reportage, I mentioned three key issues: journalism, information and “objectivity”. Directors of documentary cinema often commit themselves to doing quite the reverse. Rather than striving for “objectivity” they look for the subjective point of view from which they can process the material into a personal statement on the reality. The information derived from this reality is artistically moulded into a cinematic drama. This does not imply that the documentary director must take part in the drama (as is common these days in the genre of personal documentaries). However, the directors’ fingerprint, their style and especially their categorical choice – the intentional selection of the information and material they use must be present in the movie.

Drama and Protagonists

As one can distinguish between written journalism (personal, unique, inspiring and eloquent as it may be) and prose (based as it may be on documentary materials) and make a further distinction between prose and poetry, in a similar way we can distinguish between the report / reportage that belongs in the world of journalism and the dramatic, the narrative film, or, in some less common but clearer examples, the poetic film.

The question remains: what do we mean when we define a phenomenon as ‘drama’? At the heart of drama is a human experience we can empathize with, that is delivered to the audience through its hero(es). That is to say the documentary film centres on a protagonist going through some human process in the narrative – the axis of the film. Paving a dramatic, effective, communicative, exciting and thought provoking narrative course is an art that demands that the rules of dramaturgy be challenged: defining the protagonists, and their relation with the antagonistic forces; creating and concluding dramatic gaps to stimulate interest and thrill the audience.

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