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To do so, I will take a look at the films of two individuals, Agnès Varda and Ross Mc Elwee, as a way of demonstrating how the issues of narration and essay come together in interesting forms in the medium of film. Narrative and nonfiction I start with one basic given: oral narration is central to much documentary.
As such, the scene makes two key points to nicely encapsulate this overall discussion.
First, the play of visual narration in the film essay is immensely complex, operating in ways that continually problematize the idea of – and desire for – documentary as simple mimetic representation.
“How and why did documentary narration acquire its miserable reputation whilst still remaining one of the most commonly used devices in nonfiction filmmaking?
” (Bruzzi 2000: 47) “[T]he essay film [is] a practice that renegotiates assumptions about documentary objectivity, narrative epistemology, and authorial expressivity within the determining context of the unstable heterogeneity of time and place.” (Corrigan 2011: 6) “[T]he imaginative use of voice-over and voice-on narration […] enables [film] to problematize the relation of discourse to story, of narrator to narrated, of imagination to reality.” (Chatman 1999: 337) The history of narration and documentary film, increasingly known as nonfiction film, is not an altogether happy one.
Finally, there is the mirroring of the scene within itself, mimetically in the photo of brooms that Varda holds and then metaphorically in the literal mirroring of Varda herself now holding a mirror in place of the original still of brooms, and so on.
In this multi-level narration, all visual, Varda provides one last image of the essay, in which the diegesis is not simply reflecting but also encompassing the extradiegetic world through a play with focalization and narrative levels theoretically capable of infinite expansion.
At the same time, while most documentary film triggers a sense of a “teller,” it may not look like the “story-teller” of Kellogg and Scholes’s classic definition of literary narrative.
Such differences among genre are inescapable, as attested by attempts in narratology to deal with cinematic and written fiction.
In many documentaries spoken narration may even serve as the driving force of the film, with the visual materials there primarily to illustrate what is orally narrated.
Indeed, Bruzzi’s description of narration’s “miserable reputation” in nonfiction film may very well result from it’s being “one of the most commonly used devices.” If popular expectation of cinematic experience is one of being enveloped in visual stories, then the speaking presence of a narrator may well be seen as intrusive.