Sans Soleil and Bowling for Columbine: The complexity of audience response to documentary film.

The old specification WJEC Film Studies A2 paper contains some fiendishly hard questions and I wish more people would look at what students have to write about before telling me that Film Studies is a soft subject. Hopefully this will help if you are struggling to organize your ideas and how to bounce from primary sources (films) to secondary sources (theorists and commentators).

“The complexity of spectator response suggests that documentary offers much more than just  a window on some aspect of our world.” Discuss this statement with reference to the films you  have studied for this topic.


The word “window” in the question suggests that documentary films are neutral things which we can use but have no impact on our perception and understanding. A simplistic explanation of the spectator response to documentary often comes from misunderstanding the nature of “actualities.” Films like Sans Soleil and Bowling for Columbine, might comprise elements of reality but the process of both encoding and decoding cinema means that spectators use documentary, for a variety of reasons, and film makers attempt to manipulate, and shape the spectator’s experience.

One of the key elements that makes up the complex spectator response is the documentary’s form and mode. In Bowling for Columbine Michael Moore presents the spectator with a film which appears to be in the investigative form and in the interactive mode, as we see Moore interact with his subjects. As the film progresses however we find it is less of an investigation and more of a polemic visual essay determined to go beyond the subject of gun control to ask the question “what is it?” that makes the U.S. so homicidal. Similarly, in Chris Marker’s film Sans Soleil the spectator is treated to what appears to be ethnographic style material sourced from his visits to places as diverse as Japan, West Africa and the island of Fogo. This is presented in the reflexive mode as in the voice-over a woman reads the letters supposedly sent by Sandor Krasna with the footage. This draws attention to the film as a construct. The film however, unlike normal ethnological documentaries, is not interested in explaining people and their practices but in Sei Shonogan’s “things that quicken the heart.”


Another way in which a documentary is unlike a neutral “window” is in the choices made in representation. Dyer asks the spectator to be aware of the artificial nature of such control. In Sans Soleil the people, places and practices are all unfamiliar to his audience and Marker chooses often the most alien of images, a Tokyo cat cemetery, or the spectacularly gruesome death of a giraffe, for example, to enhance the otherness of the spectacle.  Similarly in Bowling for Columbine Moore chooses to show extreme sound and imagery to reinforce his political point. His use of phone tapes as part of the audio-mix during both the Columbine shooting and the death of Kayla Rolland is genuinely shocking. Both films suggest, if analysed using Dyer’s key question about the re-presentation though codes and conventions that the material is worth the spectator’s attention. It is either outside of our experience (Marker) or material that is overly familiar and needs re-presenting (Moore).

Sound is used in both films to manipulate the spectator experience rather than being a neutral window. In Moore’s film the use of music such as Teenage Fanclub’s version of “Take the skinheads bowling” and Joey Ramone’s punk cover of “Wonderful World” place the film in an independent and alternative sphere which chimes with Moore’s anti-establishment stance. Moore also uses music to underscore moments with an emotional register, poignant during the Columbine shooting scene and contrapuntally sarcastic in the montage of shootings accompanied by The Beatle’s “Happiness is a warm gun.” Sound is even more of an issue in Marker’s film as the 16mm film shot by Marker has no synchronised sound track. The ambient sound is material recorded separately. This use of non-synchronised sound, an acousmatic (unseen and so omnipotent) narrator and music all help to shape the way the spectator decodes the film.

Another way documentaries shape the spectator experience, unlike a window, is through editing choices. Marker exploits both the Kuleshov effect and discontinuous editing techniques. By splicing sleeping Japanese commuters and violent and sexual images taken from Japanese T.V. and movies the viewer cannot help but make a meaning that the images show the true thoughts of the film’s subjects. Marker also digitally manipulates footage of kamikaze attacks which places extra distance between the spectator and the events. Moore uses post-classical, or MTV, editing techniques to build a fast paced, bright and breezily toned film despite the subject matter. Moore switches from interviews to animation, to fictional montage (the “Corporate Cops” segment) with ease. The most dramatic of these moments is the “black male” montage which starts with stock news footage and then moves to portraits of black men in the street before ending on found material, a news report about “Africanized” bees. Therefore, both films use editing to manipulate the spectator experience.


Documentaries can exploit narrative techniques to manipulate the spectator response. In Moore’s film the director presents himself in a way that the audience reads the film as a narrative with a plot. Moore’s interview with Charlton Heston is framed by his daunting entry (alone and on foot) into the Hollywood star’s gated compound and has been foreshadowed by Heston’s NRA appearances (each one marked by his words “from my cold dead hands” which create an impression of violence and implacability). This allows the spectator to read the film through well-established character types. Proppian analysis might see Moore and Heston as the hero and the villain (or at least the false hero) of the piece respectively. Sans Soleil is harder to read narratively as it comprises groups of seemingly dispirit images from various locations intercut with found material. Marker makes this clear at the start by juxtaposing the opening image, of a group of Icelandic children, with a black leader, followed by stock images of an aircraft carrier. The narrator explains the sequence as one which preserves the happiness of the primary image (whilst making no reference to the second – why? Is it because it is not shot by Marker/Krasna and so, with the internal logic of the narrative, he has no knowledge that it is there?). The explanation, like much of the narration anchors the signification allowing the spectator to construct a meaning, a narrative, out of the plot elements made available to them.


Another way that the documentary is unlike a window is in the way the filmmaker uses, what Len Masterman calls “set ups.” In Bowling for Columbine there is an interesting set of differences in the choice of locations for interviews. Positive interviews (Matt Stone, Marilyn Manson) tend to take place in neutral spaces (a café, a Spartan backstage room) whereas negative interviews (James Nichols, Charlton Heston) take place in the interviewees private space. In fact Moore likes to take his film to the subjects of his concern, witness the Dick Clarke ambush interview, which presents them either as being like a dangerous animal in its lair or, in the case of Clarke, as someone who does not want to engage with Moore’s questions and so runs counter to his slick, and warm, “American Bandstand” image. Similar issues exist around the footage of the electronic equipment used to digitally manipulate film in Sans Soleil. The voice-over tries to anchor the image as being Krasna’s final visit to his “friend – the maniac.” This is a meaning made by both the position of the material in the film, close to the end, and the combination of soundtrack and image.

A final reason why a documentary film is not a neutral thing (like a window) is the use the spectator makes of the film. Bowling for Columbine is a film which has a direct political message. This amounts to a challenge to American exceptionalism. Moore looks beyond his own country (the Canadian section asks American spectators to consider that there may be places in the world that the U.S. can learn from) and demonstrates this through filmic stunts, like the unlocked door section of the movie (where the camera follows Moore as he pushes open unlocked doors in Toronto and then speaks to the occupants about their lack of security). Uses and gratifications theory explains that spectators use the documentary for a variety of personal reasons. It is unlikely that the film would be foisted upon a cinematic audience. They have chosen to pay and view it. As a result we can assume that many audience members watch the film to have their own fears and prejudices confirmed. Other viewers, outside the U.S.A. conversely have their sense of the country as a paranoid and over-armed state confirmed. In that sense it could be argued that Moore is preaching to the converted. Another view could be that he aims to sway those predisposed to elements of his argument and so have chosen to see the film. Either way the spectator is not neutral to the project. Marker’s film is less politically motivated but is aesthetically charged. The audience that chooses to watch the film has to have a particular desire to engage with the experimental and unfamiliar. The documentary builds itself out of found material (the images of nuclear bombers and missiles as well as the manipulated kamikaze footage) and what Marker has described as his own “home movies.” At a late point in the film the narration describes a set of images as having come to Krasna via Haroun Tazieff (who is a real French volcanologist and geographer – an odd moment, perhaps, of the real conversing with the fictitious) and this information is subsumed into the dense mixture of detailed ethnographic material, philosophical musings and personal descriptions which make up the narration. This explains, and sometimes runs counter to the visual information in the film. The result is a spectator experience which is highly challenging and it is unlikely that the audience would have accidentally stumbled into the viewing experience. In this way we can see that both films attract a particular group of spectators who focus attention on the world in a particular, non-neutral way, unlike a window.


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One thought on “Sans Soleil and Bowling for Columbine: The complexity of audience response to documentary film.

  1. Pingback: Doozer-like Construction. – Mr G's English, Film and Media.

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