Documentary films essay

Documentaries often address new, unknown or specific phenomena or events happening in the world. One of such notable phenomena are “ghost bikes”ť ”“ unofficial memorials to cyclists who have been injured or killed on the road. These bicycles are usually painted in white, and often have a broadsheet or placard with the name of the victim and a valedictory from relatives or friends on it. These bicycles are located close to the places where accidents happened, and are locked to appropriate objects in these locations.

Ghost cycles are a new form of memorials, and they play two different (and equally important) roles: commemorate the bicyclists who have died in an accident, and draw people’s attention to the need to be careful, and pay attention to road rules. The history of ghost bikes dates back to 2003, when the first ghost bike memorial was installed in St Louis, Missouri, US (Walker & Lane, 2011: n.d.). The memorial had a significant impact on the motorists, and a group of volunteers installed more than a dozen of such bikes in the other parts of the city. This practice was quickly adopted by other US cities, and quickly spread worldwide.

In the UK, the first recorded ghost bike also appeared in 2003 in Islington (North London). The ghost bike was commemorating James Foster, who was struck by a drunk driver. The workers of the cycle shop where he worked installed this bike 5 years later, on the date of his death (Walker & Lane, 2011: n.d.). In the UK, besides London, ghost bikes are also installed in Belfast, Carlisle, Brighton, Colchester, Fort William, Kent, Manchester, Chepstow, Oxford, Bristol and York (Ghost Bikes, 2012).

Although most people agree that ghost bikes are a significant cultural phenomenon and that they attract the attention of drivers to road security, there is another opinion ”“ that ghost bikes might scare away people who are thinking to become bicyclists, because of increased attention to cycle road incidents, compared to cars and other transportation devices. The purpose of the documentary devoted to ghost bikes was to introduce this phenomena to the audience, and to explore ethical ambiguity of this cultural and social phenomenon.

3. Choice of documentary type and expressive methods

Overall, it is possible to distinguish between six types of documentary films. Poetic documentaries, which use the aesthetical combinations of fragments of reality to convey their message; expository films, which have a specific point of view or argument and are used to spear to the audience directly, usually with the help of a voiceover (Cousins & MacDonald, 2006: 212); observational documentaries reflect the reality with minimal intervention and intend to reveal certain phenomena or human characters in life situations; participatory films which adopt anthropologic approach, and the filmmaker in such documentaries also acts as a social actor; reflexive documentaries, which are focused on author representation and view on the reflected reality, and performative documentaries, which stress emotional response and subjective author perception (Bruzzi, 2006: 75).

Each type of documentaries has specific techniques and approaches appropriate for filmmaking. For the purpose of ghost bike project, it was decided to combine expository and observational modes of documentary films. Expository mode was used to disseminate information and to deliver the issue to the readers. The technique of narration common for expository approach was of particular use in the process of filmmaking: the combination of narrator’s explanations with visual information and sound allowed to impress the audience and deliver the information in the most effective way. Within the context of expository mode, the phenomenon of ghost bikes was presented to the audience, the team interviewed different people, and discussed their opinion on ghost bikes. A particular group of interviewees were bus drivers, because it is considered that buses represent a significant danger for cyclists.

While expository mode is essentially meant to send some message to the audience, observational mode is used to apply camera movement and depiction of the reality without imposing any additional message or information to the audience (Cousins & MacDonald, 2006: 266). In fact, observational mode allows to depict the events and life moments as they happen. In this case, the viewers can make own conclusions and develop own feelings of the situation. This technique was chosen to increase objectivity of the documentary and to draw the attention of the audience to the phenomenon. In the ghost bike film, the bikes were filmed as they stop on the road, and the overall road setting from the bicyclist’s point of view was shown to the audience. Although the filming did not fulfill all requirements of observational mode ”“ there was sound added to the filming, focus on observation allowed to make the film richer and also allowed to provide more space to the viewer’s thought. There are plenty of documentary films nowadays, which simply deliver information to the spectator, but the purpose of this project was also to encourage critical thinking and perception of the problem by the audience, and observation mode was essential for this purpose.

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