How to become a reality director, a wow video journalist

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Walk to the front of the house and wait. Greet your host courteously and ask what happened to people you once knew. Your host soon tires of you and says, “I’m busy today. I must go”. OK…CUT!

Except you’re not finished. You jump on top of the host and begin to knock seven bells out of him. His wife, meanwhile is screaming. In a few minutes the assailant will be joined by others. You’re now outnumbered and still you won’t relent.

OK! Stop, really! Trouble is this is no fictional movie. This is actually happening.

What if reporters, frustrated at not getting at the truth, resorted to wrestling skills to break the deadlock? Trump at least has form in the ring, but who’s going to take him on with a clothesline? Instead you train for the pragmatic approach sparring metaphorically, supported by your enviable emotional intelligence skills.

The scene just described comes from one of the most absorbing docs you’ll ever watch. Okuzaki Kenzo, a war veteran single-handedly is trying to track down army officers in his regiment. They committed unpunished war atrocities 32 years ago whilst holed up in Japanese camps in New Guinea.

These crimes included eating captured soldiers. Locals were dubbed ‘black pigs’ and captured Americans, ‘white pigs’. Black pigs were eaten.

This multiple award-winning story by Japanese filmmaker Kazuo Hara is an exemplar in the field of documentary making. The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On made in 1987, by today’s standards might be called ‘Immersive’.

When I show it to an audience there’s a sharp intake of breath and gasps of incredulity ( sorry for the spoiler). ‘What the F***’ !!!! chime several of the younger viewers in the room I’m in. Now this is what you call immersive, absorbing, and authentic.

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Reality is broken, how to fix it

Mainstream journalism execs have a strange ambivalence with what they refer to as what’s real and happened. Recounted events are recycled through the lens of a team practising detachment. Only the explicit is of any use. Sub meanings, the implicit, are to be avoided.

Worst still it’s not even taught at J-schools. We teach how to read literature, but the one thing that rules our lives, the news, we pay little attention to its underlying meanings. Frankly, it’s bonkers!

“No, stand here please Ms Smith, I need to get you into the rule of thirds” — interviewees are artificially placed in constructed spaces. This ladies and gentleman is show business at its very best — a sanitised, reworked beautified construction in studio and content, of information.

If you fell from the planet zorg and witnessed this ritual, you’d raise an eyebrow approvingly that something is in place to represent ‘important’ events, but throw curious glances about how it’s put together. What are the chances you’re going to the next press conference to get spun at?

This is a reality conventionalised for the sake of journalism’s fourth wall.

In the 60s, journalists built ideas about this new medium called TV and figured out what worked — and still does in video. Action in content spawned a whole genre of journalism, from the likes of ITN and Alan Hart — action journalism.

Conflict content worked and we all chimed together, as if we’d discovered the manna from heaven, ‘content is king’; the more crass coined: if it bleeds it leads. Centuries ago the Romans and before them the Greeks had already figured that out, but also understood that whilst the spectacle in itself was a draw ( Gladiators fighting equivalent to YouTube #fail videos), the event required crafting skills to develop a story.

During the 60s as mainstream pushed ahead with its findings a rear guard of innovators begun to question the excesses of news management’s reality. They advocated a new type of journalism:

…A theatre without actors, plays without playwrights, reporters without summary and opinion. It would be the ability to look in on people’s lives at crucial times from which you could deduce certain things and see a certain truth that can only be gotten by personal experience.

It would be called cinema. Cinema Truths. Cinéma vérité.

Cinema old and new

Dramatic scenes like the The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On are not commonplace, though that’s changed significantly with everyone filming now. There is however an issue crafting an engaging three-part narrative to an event to create a bodied story. It’s like we’re at the phase fictional cinema witnessed in the 1900s.

Instead most of what could be framed as news worthy or good stories are testy subjects in which the story is in the dry data and narrative of human frailty and misdirection of propaganda conveniently called PR. The story thus needs to be teased out of the morass of information and unfortunately here’s where television and video runs into its self fulfilled formula. To get an idea of that, I made this short 4 min video essay.

What cinema truths of the 1960s revealed was strikingly that cinema styles change accordingly to audience tastes and societal knowledge. Indeed the French had their own version in fictional cinema e.g. New Wave, and factual under Jean Rouch called Cinéma vérité.

The argument in factual cinema became which of the two forms, French vs US, captured true life as we know it. The experts couldn’t bring themselves around to admit they were both correct.

Today, we know there is no fixed form of fictional cinema. Whereas television has generally persisted with a unitary super style. If it’s not writ large it’s not happening.

However, cinema as journalism is back, though few would want to mention it. The general fear appears to be it may draw ridicule. “Cinema? In News?”, a BBC executive expressed with surprise. “Oh no!”

You might often revert to calling it documentary, but even though there is a difference, which I make elsewhere in my posts, here’s what Michael Moore says,

the first rule of “Fight Club”? The first rule of “Fight Club” is: “Don’t talk about ‘Fight Club.’” The first rule of documentaries is: Don’t make a documentary — make a MOVIE. Stop making documentaries. Start making movies.

Cinema is one of those ambiguous words. In truth there is no one essence. To Oscar winning filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, the impulse between fictional and factual film making is the same.

To a new group of video journalists’ filmmakers it’s about using the film medium to convey emotion. There is an intention to what they do. By using every element of the filmic process they add meaning and invite interpretation, primary, secondary and tertiary. Camera movement, framing, mis en scene, dialogue, character, structure and writing… nothing is left to chance. Facts can be stranger than fiction, but understanding the emotional impact of an event to tell a story, that’s where we are, or en masse should be.

Next month, I’m speaking at a Cannon event expanding on cinema journalism, explained further in this video.

In the meantime, if you’d like to see attend an eventbrite of the next generation of filmmakers hosted by the disLAB that my colleagues and I run, click here.

Written by

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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