Observational Mode

The advance of technology in the 1960’s enabled cameras to be built smaller and lighter, thus allowing film makers to simply observe reality with a camera without intruding on its subject and therefore arguably fuelled the basis of the observational mode[1].

Hospital 1970, never seen before images of operating theatre

Hospital (1970) was one of the earliest observational documentaries and arguably succeeded in presenting an authentic representation of reality. This was as a result of the developed camera equipment that allowed the film makers to follow the events of the hospital as they occurred, thus portraying a sense of time, speed and chronology to the audience.

In addition to this, the film makers were no longer restricted by space and so were able to record in privatised areas such as operating theatres, thus providing the audience with fresh, exciting scenes to digest.

This, combined with the aforementioned strong elements of realism perhaps makes the audience feel closer to the actual reality in which the events happened. For example, Frederick Wiseman, director of Hospital even suggests that it is “like the business of getting rid of the proscenium arch in the theatre”.[2]

The less intrusive recording equipment also means that the subjects are able to carry on with their normal everyday life[3], thus suggesting observational documentaries can portray an accurate representation of reality. For example, in the doctor-patient consultants in Hospital it can be argued that the small cameras enabled the subjects to ignore and forget about the camera. However, it should be remembered that while cameras were smaller, it did not make them invisible; hence it cannot be guaranteed that the subject’s actions in any case are typical of what they would normally be.

It is in this sense that “fly on the wall” observational documentaries such as Hotel Inspector and Neighbours from Hell can be said to capture perhaps the most authentic representation of realities, as the cameras remain completely hidden, and so it is therefore unlikely that the subject’s will alter their normal behaviour.

Hospital, like many other observational documentaries only uses digetic sound, thus the audience rely solely on the images for a portrayal of reality. Furthermore, as its disclaimer explains, Hospital is accordingly uncut in order to avoid distorting the reality it was aiming to show[4], thus it can be argued that the documentary was authentic.

On the whole the audience are neither conditioned by manipulated visuals or guiding voice overs, but are instead able to come to their own conclusions through images that are simply observations that have subtly been recorded. In this way it can be argued that observational documentaries, particularly like that of Hospital perhaps portray a more accurate representation of reality as opposed to the poetic and expository modes.

[1] Nichols. B (2001) An Introduction to Documentary Indiana University Press,

[2] Atkins. T.R. (1976) Frederick Wiseman New York: Monarch Books reproduced in Renov. M (1993) Theorizing Documentary Routledge

[3] Nichols. B (2001) An Introduction to Documentary Indiana University Press as reproduced on http://www.mediaknowall.com/as_alevel/Documentary/docu_index.php


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