Sunday, March 5, 2023

Jacob Bricca's "How Documentaries Work"

Jacob Bricca, ACE, is Associate Professor at the University of Arizona's School of Theatre, Film and Television. He is an award-winning documentary editor, producer, director, and scholar whose films have screened worldwide from Sundance to the Berlinale. He is the author of Documentary Editing: Principles and Practice (2018), a definitive textbook on documentary editing that is used by film schools around the world, including the USC School of Cinematic Arts, UCLA, and the MET Film School in London.

Bricca applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, How Documentaries Work, and reported the following:
Page 99 contains a discussion of the precise wording of the voice-over in the PBS show Frontline by its narrator, Will Lyman. In the show, Lyman must perform his narration to straddle the line between seeming objective and yet not unfeeling, and between being a forceful storyteller and yet not too conspicuous so the audience doesn't really notice he's there. It's an example of "presence framing" in documentaries, which is something they all do to create an illusory framework for how the camera supposedly interacts with its subjects. (For instance, do the subjects in the show ignore the camera as if it's not there, acknowledge it as a presence but seem to be separate from its point of view, or seem to be the authors of their own story and in charge of the camera?)

This is a good example of the kinds of issues and ideas that are presented in the book. The book tries to interrogate the many ways in which documentaries create highly sculpted experiences for their audiences, delivering precise bits of factual information and emotional provocations at particular moments to achieve a desired effect. The reader gets to examine documentaries and other non-fiction television shows (including reality television) through a variety of lenses, including chapters on "Narrative," Meaning," "Sound," "Music," and "Title Cards," but I've taken pains to do it without academic jargon or overly theoretical language. It's kind of a behind-the-scenes, under-the-hood view of what really goes on in the construction of documentaries, and was written after interviewing dozens of top documentary directors and crafts people. It's an exciting book to read, because it will make you think about the stuff you see on Netflix, Hulu, A&E, and Criterion in a whole new light.
Visit Jacob Bricca's website.

--Marshal Zeringue