Before I begin this post, watch this video told in two ways:
The first video slowly pans across cars lodged on rooftops and plates strewn across a dusty street. A piano plays in the background. The music could be hopeful. The music could be mournful. A man stands amid the wreckage. Rescue workers carry off a body.
In the second video, the same shots are shown. Only this time a woman's voice describes the devastation as the wind blows by the microphone. The tromp of the rescue workers can be heard crunching through the soil.
The effect is strikingly different. One feels like a news report. The other like something otherworldly, vaguely disturbing and murky.
“I am trying to convey how it feels to be there,” the videographer Dan Chung wrote on his blog. “It had a strange seens of calm. When faced with a scene of devastation like this, as I have been many times, you feel dazed, like you are not really there. It feels like it’s all a bad dream. Watching the survivors I think a lot of them feel the same – it’s shock. I felt the use of camera movement with a slider conveyed this sense of displacement.”
The footage was shot in Shintona in the Miyagi prefecture, one of the hardest hit areas of the tsunmai, by Chung, a videographer at the Guardian. Chung preferred the first version of the video. His newspaper preferred the second.
Many, many others did not agree with him. Commenters on his Vimeo post felt the music manipulated the scene; the use of a dolly added one too many cinematographic touches.
A similar argument sprung up after the Haiti earthquake. Photographer Khalid Mohtaseb published “Haiti Earthquake Aftermath Montage,” a collection of moving images he had shot while covering the event for CNN. It has similar instrumental music playing in the background over slow scans of people bathing, weeping and staring off into the distance. The images have been color corrected and no story is told. It’s just a collection of moments strung together.
The work was called “irresponsible” and “explotative” on photography blogs.
It seems online documentary filmmaking, a somewhat young but rapidly growing profession, is suffering from the same identity crisis it found itself in a year ago: Can documentaries be cinematic?
The past three years have seen online filmmaking grow as an offshoot of photography. Canon and Nikon both have introduced a range of high-definition still cameras that also shoot capture moving images in high definition. Considered by some photographers as a gimmick to shoot video, these cameras have allowed filmmakers an inexpensive way to shoot stunning visuals.
Rather than traditional documentary film, where the story takes precedent over the image, this style, dubbed “cinematic documentary,” cares more about the aesthetic: piecing together images without an emphasis on the larger context. No one speaks. It is just one moment after another amid the devastation in Japan or in Port-au-Prince.
Danfung Dennis, a Sundance documentary film winner, has started Condition One, a film company that will make "powerful immerisive experiences." In the first short, shot in Libya, music that would likely be played in an action movie rises to a crescendo as a man yells "Freedom or Death!" and gunfire explodes on the screen. It was shot in Libya, on the front lines of the rebel's forces, but it feels like a movie trailer. The viewer is left waiting for a complete story that never comes.
But perhaps what is lost in context is made up for in an emotional response. The two examples of Chung’s work show the sharp difference between straight news telling and cinematic documentary. The music manipulates, giving an importance to the scene in a way human voices and background images cannot dare to compete.
The film also attempts to tell more of a story through its combination of images. The collective effect of stringing together the scenes turns images we’ve grown numb to through intense media coverage into something breathtaking. It jars us into look once again at the destruction.
In a time when we’re overwhelmed by news — so much so that a Pew Research Center study says that only 5 percent of Americans are following events in Libya “very closely,” — perhaps we need new ways to make us look closer at what’s going on around us.