Documentary Cinema – CW1: Critical Analysis
This analysis will focus on Nick Broomfield’s 2002 documentary Biggie and Tupac. The film is an investigation into the deaths of the two American rappers and a good example of Broomfield’s distinct style, which has been described as performative (Bruzzi, 2000, p.155). It will be argued here that the film uses documentary language in order to produce an effect of authenticity and objectivity, yet at the same time undercuts this by self-consciously drawing attention to its own methods of construction. The main effects of this are to challenge the assumption of ‘reality’ in the Verité tradition, and also to draw attention to the mythologizing discourses of authenticity in hip-hop culture.
From its opening scenes, Biggie and Tupac uses documentary strategies to produce effects of objectivity and authenticity. The film presents a montage of still images, which look like those taken from the scene of a crime. This is overlaid with text connecting the images to the death of the two rappers. It then switches from stills to handheld home-video style footage, accentuating its effect of an authentic relation to the reality of its subjects, and to news footage, locating the events within a specific real social and historical context. This variety of visual techniques is unified through the omniscient ‘voice of God’ narration (Leach, 1998, p.157), which Broomfield provides, creating a sense of authority as well as mobilizing the techniques into a coherent objective-seeming narrative. As the voiceover narrative develops, it becomes clear that the story is of a film crew going out on location with mobile equipment to film ‘real people’ and assemble a documentary. In this sense, it can be seen to draw heavily on the Cinema Verité tradition as outlined, for example, by Rothman (2004, p.281) and Hall (1998, p.223).
On the other hand, however, where the film becomes interesting is in the way it goes beyond this tradition by constantly making reference to and self-consciously staging the film-maker’s role in the production of the documentary – and, therefore, in the production of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’. This is done mainly through Broomfield’s own appearances in the film. Rather than keeping a distance, as in the observational documentary tradition (Bruzzi, 2000, p.173), he actually appears as one of the main characters in the film, serving to self-consciously draw attention to its own methods of construction. It is this aspect of the film that leads Bruzzi to define Broomfield’s work as performative documentary, films that seek to “accentuate, not mask, the means of production because they realize that such a masquerade is impossibly utopian” (2000, p.155). In other words, rather than supposing that objectivity can be possible, it draws attention to how reality is constructed by the filmmaker. As well as Broomfield’s own appearance, other elements such as the self-aware references to documentary as Tupac makes his own documentary films, or the roughness of the editing, which makes no attempt to hide its own manipulation of the material, can be seen as part of this performative aspect. The process of documentary filmmaking is emphasized throughout. We see Broomfield failing to gather material due to problems with sound for example, and his constant screen presence creates a sense of ‘metadocumentary’ – documentary about documentary – rather than just documentary itself.
Broomfield’s work has been criticized for focusing more on him than on the supposed subjects of his documentaries (Bruzzi, 2000, p.163; Rayner, Wall & Kruger, 2004, p.63). This performative aspect, however, can be seen to have a more important effect than simply self-promotion. Firstly, as Bruzzi has argued (2000, p.172), Broomfield is playing a role in the films. He appears not merely as himself but as a particular screen persona. This, as can be seen throughout Biggie and Tupac, is used as a way to start conversations and allow him to gather material. Where it is distinctive is in the way these encounters are included in the final film, rather than edited out to create the effect that people are speaking openly and ‘naturally’. The film therefore critiques the assumption of naturalism by leaving these sequences in. Secondly, then, Broomfield’s appearance can be seen as a critique of the assumptions of Verité filmmaking. As Hall has argued, the creation of an effect of reality, rather than attitudes and opinions, are important in verité style (1998, p.226). As Broomfield himself has argued, however, documentary is never actually just ‘real’, “you change the situation by just being there” (in Stubbs, 2002, p.131). By exaggerating, rather than hiding, the presence of the filmmaker, Broomfield shows how documentary reality is shaped by its maker, and so, as Bruzzi argues, uses performance to “fuel debates around ‘realness’” (2000, p.172).
This works particularly well in the context of Biggie and Tupac because the film is able to critique not only the discourse of objectivity that has historically underpinned documentary assumptions, but also the discourse of authenticity that has been vital to hip-hop culture. On one hand, the film employs common signifiers of such culture – it uses shots of ‘the street’ for example, showing the estates in urban centres of the East coast of the US where Biggie and Tupac grew up. This allows Broomfield to focus on the social context of the rappers, piecing together a narrative from fragments of their upbringing, including social issues such as poverty and drug dealing. They are located as very much part of this context, which is used as a way to define what has happened to them, as the voiceover makes clear when describing Tupac’s background, “Mother a black panther, no visible father, constantly moving”. Broomfield is interested, as he has argued, in the whole social context of the rappers including their influence and impact on others in the community (Broomfield, in Stubbs, 2002, p.132), as well as in their story as emblematic of American social history more broadly (Itzkoff, 2002, p.52). It can be argued then, that Broomfield’s choice of such locations and narrative reveals his cultural assumptions that crime and gang violence are part of a broader social context, rather than isolated individual issues. This is expressed as a clear and objective-seeming argument through the use of documentary styles and devices discussed.
On the other hand, however, there is also the whole self-aware performative nature of the documentary to consider. This serves, as discussed, to critique the assumptions of objective realism of the verité tradition. It also serves, however, to draw attention to the construction and mythologizing of hip-hop culture through its focus on the importance of ‘the street’, and on ‘the reality’ of poverty and hardship. Such issues are important signifiers for global commercial hip-hop sales, and although Broomfield does not critique the industry’s self-mythologising directly, the performative nature of the documentary allows him to reveal these sustaining narratives as equally constructed, from a certain perspective, as his own documentary ‘truth’. As Gilbey points out (2002), Broomfield chooses to end the film with an interview with Biggie’s mother. She debunks the myth of Biggie growing up in poverty and violence, by describing his privileged and comfortable upbringing. Through his combination of documentary techniques to produce objectivity, and the drawing attention to these techniques through performative strategies, Broomfield succeeds not only in challenging the truth-claims of documentary convention, but also drawing attention, in this case, to the constructed myths and narratives of hip-hop culture.
Biggie and Tupac (2002) Dir. N.Broomfield, starring Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. UK: FilmFour.
Bruzzi, S. (2000) New Documentary: A Critical Introduction. London: Routledge.
Gilbey, R. (2002) ‘Biggie and Tupac’, Sight & Sound, June 2002, http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/review/1684/ [accessed 13/10/10].
Hall, J. (1998) ‘Don’t You Ever Just Watch?: American Cinema Verité and Don’t Look Back’, in B.K.Grant & J. Sloniowski (Eds.) Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, pp.223-237.
Itzkoff, D. (2002) ‘Life After Death’, Spin, Sep 2002, p.52.
Leach, J. (1998) ‘The Poetics of Propaganda: Humphrey Jennings and Listen to Britain’ in B.K.Grant & J. Sloniowski (Eds.) Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, pp. 154-170.
Rayner, P., Wall, P. & Kruger, S. (2004) Media Studies: The Essential Resource. London: Routledge.
Rothman, W. (2004) The ‘I’ of the Camera: Essays in Film Criticism, History and Aesthetics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Stubbs, L. (2002) Documentary Filmmakers Speak. New York: Allworth Press.