Critical Analysis – Who is Roy Johnson?

The film called “Who Is Roy Johnson?” (available on my Video page), portrays the week leading up to a British amateur wrestler’s debut match. The title immediately highlights Rory’s disposition towards creating an alter-ego. Formal interviews form the chronological structure to the piece, focusing on Rory’s feelings on his weight-lifting injury, and the possibility of suffering further injuries through wrestling. The question of nerves and apprehension is also a central and recurring consideration. The subject however, always remains confident in his ability to fight, even when confronted with these questions just minutes before his debut match. In resolution, the subject reveals his sense of accomplishment, and a positive outlook towards the future.

This project has been filmed in essence, as a piece of ‘Direct Cinema‘, or as is now more commonly known, ‘Observational Cinema‘, in that they were…

  shot unobtrusively and by available light, aiming to capture the spontaneity and uninhibited flow of events as people were living them“, (Rabiger, 1987: P51).

However, it shares these attributes inherent to ‘Cinéma Vérité‘, with other techniques that would see it lean towards also being ‘Expository‘, ‘Biographical‘, ‘Character Driven‘ and hence ‘Performative‘ to some degree, therefore transgressing the piece to the category of ‘Eclectic‘ documentary. Michael Rabiger describes the eclectic form of non-fictional filmmaking and its origin. 

From the 1980s onward, documentary-makers moved toward mixed documentary forms and drew more freely on allied art forms and disciplines”, (Rabiger, 1987: P57).

What makes the film expository to some degree, can be attributed to the use of voice-overs, a practice that first started in the United Kingdom during the 1930s when John Grierson and associates adopted its use,

the spoken commentary was often presented in the form of a deep, authoritarian male voice-over narration by an unseen speaker (the so-called voice of God commentary)“, (Beattie, 2004 :P21).

As Stella Bruzzi explains in ‘New Documentary‘, voice-overs are used to give “insights and information not immediately available from within the diegesis” (2006), however, there are differences in how voice-overs can be applied in each film. In a self portrait, for example, the voice-over assumes the role of the “character in the narrative” (Bruzzi, 2006: P47), as is more likely the case in a fictional film. For this film, the use of voice-overs is more like that of the traditional documentary.

This is the ‘filmmakers as teachers and audience as willing pupils’ model of documentary, very much dependent on the understanding that the former have dedicated a substantial amount of time and resources to acquiring the requisite knowledge“, (Bruzzi, 2006: P51).

When producing portraits, what we fundamentally deal with is a biographical account, either as representational of the subject’s life or a particular aspect of it. The end result is typical in that the work “directly confronts the status of individuality in its attempt to show others why the self is the way it is“, (Lane, 2002: P120). With the focus so heavily on the subject, these films usually end up being “energised by a character” (Rabiger, 1987: P69), or character driven. However, the subjects know they are being filmed, and as such, the age-old question about the ethics of documentary filmmaking arises once again.

The performative element could be seen to undermine the conventional documentary pursuit of representing the real because the elements of performance, dramatisation and acting for the camera are intrusive and alienating factors“, (Bruzzi, 2006: P187).

Today, most film projects could be described as an eclectic form of documentary making, but perhaps they evolved as such not by choice, but rather, by the natural process of selecting what best works for the story.

today’s documentaries are eclectic and will use whatever approach best serves the needs of the evolving subject matter“, (Rabiger, 1987: P55).

In “Introduction to Documentary“, Bill Nichols lends support to this view: he highlights that this ‘mixed‘ form of filmmaking has not come about because such categories as ‘Direct Cinema‘ or ‘Cinéma Vérité‘ and their sub-categories, are in any way inadequate (2010: P155).

Now going back to this ethical question regarding documentaries and truth, it is not only that a performative on-screen character might blur the boundaries between reality and fiction, but also that production choices are indicative of how important a producer might deem non-interference.

The traditional concept of documentary as striving to represent reality as faithfully as possible is predicated upon the realist assumption that the production process must be disguised, as was the case with direct cinema“, (Bruzzi, 2006: P186).

The processes discussed so far suggest that there is little point in trying to present any production as truth: a viewpoint that has been upheld unreservedly by the producer in both projects.

Post-production choices, such as the inclusion of voice-over and intertitles, as well as imposed narrative structures, mark an impulse to represent historical events that consistently are interpreted by an autobiographical discursive frame that speaks from its own contextualised moment“, (Lane, 2002: P50).

When critically analysing this project, one could ask why such films are even considered documentary material if so much about them is in fact mediated.

What differs is the extent to which the referent of the documentary sign may be considered as a piece of the world plucked from its everyday context rather than fabricated for the screen. Of course, the very act of plucking and recontextualising profilmic elements is a kind of violence“, (Renov, 1993: P7).

So in conclusion, we could turn to Nichols for an acknowledgement that the process of filming documentaries, in whichever form, totally and inherently negates the intended realism, a fact that remains at the core of this analysis.

Documentaries are not documents. They may use documents and facts, but they always interpret them. They usually do so in an expressive, engaging way…We sense a voice addressing us from a particular perspective about some aspect of the historical world“, (Nichols, 2010: P147).

Christian Gadd (1000 words).

Semester 4 (January – May 2015) : Non-Fiction Filmmaking.


Rabiger, Michael, (1987), “Directing the Documentary“, Burlington: Focal Press.

Renov, Michael, (1993), “The Truth about Non-Fiction”, In M. Renov, ed. (1993) “Theorising Documentary“, New York: Routledge. pp. 1-117.

Renov, Michael, (1993), “Toward a Poetics of Documentary”, In M. Renov, ed. (1993) “Theorising Documentary“, New York: Routledge. pp. 12-36.

Nichols, Bill, (2010), “Introduction to Documentary” 2nd Edition, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Beattie, Keith, (2004), “Screens – Non-Fiction Film and Television“, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bruzzi, Stella, (2006), “New Documentary” SE, New York: Routledge.

Lane, Jim, (2002), “The Autobiographical Documentary in America“, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press.


About Christian Gadd

Christian Gadd
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