In addition to all of the high-grossing and popularized movies with star-studded casts that we so frequently hear about, there exists a very different type of film, documentary film. Documentaries are unique films due to their different purposes, methods of production and organizational and visual styles. While a commercial fiction film may typically be created with the intent of reaching a large fan base of potential viewers and generating large revenue from the film, a documentary film will be created with the intent to share information about historical, cultural or contemporary events with its viewers. Documentary films are also typically made on much smaller budgets than average fiction films. British documentary filmmaker, John Grierson, first coined the term “documentary” back in the 1920’s. Grierson also described his film creations as “presenting the real world with greater imagination than a standard newsreel” (Pramaggiore & Wallace, 2011). Two films that come to mind when discussing documentary film are Brett Morgen’s, Chicago 10 and Kirk Frasier’s, Without Bias. Chicago 10 tells the story of the Yippees, a group of protestors who staged the famous Vietnam War protests in the city of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and their subsequent court case. Without Bias recalls the life of former University of Maryland Basketball star Len Bias, whose life was tragically cut short only a few days after being drafted into the NBA as the result of a drug overdose. Both Chicago 10 and Without Bias should be considered to be documentaries due to their journalistic realism, presentation of a real world issue and their use of documentary rhetorical strategies.
As Chicago 10 tells the true story of the events surrounding the Vietnam War protests during the Democratic National Convention in 1968, a very strong sense of journalistic realism is created for the audience. The film includes numerous film clips from 1968 of Abbie Hoffman and his fellow Youth International Party members discussing their plans with local news reporters for rallies and marches that they were planning to make during the Democratic National Convention. Director Brett Morgen also included actual video footage of what exactly was going on during a number of the marches and rallies that the Yippees were leading. The footage shows numerous instances of the groups of protestors congregating together in public areas, only to have their peaceful protests broken up by the Chicago police force. These news and film clips help to bring the audience into the action and essentially gives them a first-hand look at such an important event from the past. In addition, the counterculture of the time period is put into perspective for the audience, as Morgen includes footage of some of the speeches being delivered during the anti-war rally at Grant Park. The original footage of these events helps to create a very realistic and informative feel for viewers. Next, Chicago 10 effectively meets the criteria for a documentary film by shedding light on a real world issue, which in this case, were the protests and eventual riots which broke out, as well as the trial for the eight men who were blamed for the outbreak of violence and rioting that occurred following a number of their demonstrations. This issue holds a particularly important significance to American history, because it was a highly popularized trial at the time. Much of the popularity stemmed from the charges of conspiracy, inciting to riot, as well as numerous other charges pressed against the Youth International Party members, who only organized these anti-war events with nothing but good intentions in mind. The film deals with the unfair treatment of the demonstrators at the hands of the police, who according to the footage were seemingly always eager to begin shooting tear gas and pepper spray into the crowds, with the occasional nightstick attack included as well. Jim Emerson has stated, “At some point in the preparations for the protests, the organizers said they realized that they wouldn’t have to do a thing to make their points—that the mere presence of so many anti-establishment civil-disobedients in Chicago would prompt a reaction from the authorities that would reveal the truth to the world. When CBS anchor Walter Cronkite announced on television that the Democratic National Convention was convening in what was, in effect, ‘a police state,’ well that’s the way it was.” (Emerson, 2008) By this, Emerson is explaining how the elements in the film effectively portray Chicago as a police state at the time of these protests and also how these same elements exposed the authoritative entity of the city as being very unfair towards the demonstrators. Finally, the use of unconventional postmodern documentary form helps to establish Chicago 10’s role as a documentary film. Tim Dant revealed his take on postmodern documentary filmmaking by stating, “Because of the perceived indexical truth-value of the film, the audience is drawn into an everyday reality that seemingly does not need questioning. There is a sense of co-presence between creator and viewer that gives the viewer the sensation of being both here, now, looking at the image and there, then, looking at what the image represents or revokes” (Dant, 1999). Morgen delves into the realm of postmodern documentary film by including animation depicting the actual events that occurred, at numerous points in the movie. The animation is used to recreate the trial for the Chicago 8, with an accurate representation of the mistreatment of the defendants during their trial. It also serves as a way to draw the interest of the audience in a way other than continuously showing film footage of these events.
Without Bias aspires to journalistic realism through the telling of the story of Len Bias’ life. The film includes many family photos of Bias to document his life from birth and childhood into his teenage and adult years. It also includes extensive footage of his high school basketball tapes, as well as footage of his playing days at the University of Maryland to document what a force Bias was on the basketball court. The game footage and highlights, paired along with commentary about Bias’ playing days from select sports analysts and reporters definitely begins to develop a journalistic aura around the film. Local sports reporters who knew Bias on a personal level, such as Michael Wilbon, in addition to numerous national sports reporters of the 1980’s reminisce about watching Bias play ball as a young man. Interviews with Bias’ mother, father, siblings, friends, former teammates and coaches also give the audience a look at his life as not only a basketball player, but as a person. Then film presents an opportunity for the interviewees to share personal moments about Len’s life off of the court in a very similar fashion to the way a journalist would share the information in the paper or in a magazine. Another way in which the film aspires towards journalistic realism is through the replaying of newsreels from both local and national news stations that broke the story of Len Bias’ tragic death. It gives a different perspective of how Bias’ death was received by the media at the time. Without Bias deals with the very real life issue of how an aspiring basketball star that showed so much promise had their career and life tragically cut short. The film goes deep into the widespread effect that Bias’ unfortunate passing had on the sports world and the nation, but also the effect that it had on the Maryland and Boston communities. Since Bias was born in Maryland and eventually went on to attend the University of Maryland, his passing was very sad and tragic news for the whole area to hear. Boston was also shocked and in awe once the word of his death broke, because their hometown Boston Celtics had just drafted him with the second overall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft, only a few days prior. As Bias’ death was caused by a cocaine overdose, Without Bias also deals with the real world issue of communities being affected by illegal drugs. A segment of the film focuses on how the cities and towns near Len Bias’ hometown were plagued by drugs. That is followed by a segment that highlights the work of Len’s mother, Lonise Bias, in becoming a very vocal anti-drug advocate in memory of her son. Towards the end of the film, the audience is shown video footage of Bias’ memorial service in the University of Maryland’s Cole Fieldhouse, showing just how great the outpouring of support from the communities was towards the grieving Bias family. With all of these different emotions being displayed on the screen, from the happy times of a young Bias during his playing days in a Maryland jersey, to the sad times of a community mourning his passing, Kirk Frasier effectively deals with this real world issue and the legacy that Len Bias left behind. Finally, the film represents the “talking heads” strategy of documentary filmmaking. Throughout the film, the audience is introduced to family members and friends of Len Bias who are interviewed and give verbal testimony about Len’s life as a man and as a basketball player. Many people close to Bias give detailed information, which helps to paint a picture of the man’s life for the audience.
Chicago 10 and Without Bias are both undoubtedly very powerful documentaries for a number of reasons. Both films effectively convey a sense of journalistic realism to the audience. During both films, the audiences are given sufficient background information of each topic, with Chicago 10 explaining the origins of the Yippees and their mission and Without Bias detailing the early life of Len Bias and his rise to basketball stardom. Archival footage is presented in both films, giving each movie a very authentic feel. Both films also touch upon a real world issue. Chicago 10 touches upon the significant cultural, political and historical impacts of the Vietnam War protests of Chicago in 1968 and the eight men who were charged with inciting a riot after one of the demonstrations turned violent. Unlike Chicago 10, there is no political import that is highlighted in Without Bias. Without Bias touches upon the cultural and historical impact of one of the most promising young sports figures in the world having their life tragically ended by a drug overdose. These two films also differ in the method of documentary forms that they use. Chicago 10 is considered to be more of an unconventional documentary due to the use of animation in the film. While this is not very common, it adds another dimension to the film that draws the audience’s attention to the events being described. Without Bias is done in a more conventional form by using the “talking heads” rhetorical strategy. People with extensive knowledge about the life and death of Len Bias give powerful verbal testimonies that tell his story. Those interviewed make authentic assertions about Bias both on and off the court, in life and in death.
While documentaries are not the most popular forms of film, they certainly make a case for the most unique. They allow people to watch and gain real knowledge about a real world issue. Chicago 10 and Without Bias should be considered to be documentaries due to their journalistic realism, presentation of a real world issue and their use of documentary rhetorical strategies.
Dant, Tim. Material Culture in the Social World: Values, Activities, Lifestyles,
Philadelphia: Open University Press. 1999.
Emerson, Jim. Review of Chicago 10, rogerebert.com (February 28, 2008).
Pramaggiore, Maria and T. Wallace. Film: A Critical Introduction. Boston: Pearson
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