One drawback in exploring the production of documentaries is that there has never been a set structure to the documentary. There are no permanent codes or a prescribed formula for producers to follow. Therefore, documentaries are most often compared to the fiction film and evaluated by how they differ in structure and content. Only recently have researchers devoted extensive study to the features of documentary itself and developed a language in which to discuss their findings.

According to cinematic theory in general, there are two specific ways in which images on the screen can be interpreted by an audience. The first is paradigmatic, or the presentation of a single object in a single frame. The relation of the object to the camera can denote its importance or its meaning. For example, a rose shot from a low angle may seem more important than a rose shot from above. Also, a shot of a rose pinned to the lapel of a jacket has a much different meaning than the image of a rose growing in a garden. The second factor in interpreting images is syntagmatic, or the relationship of a single shot with other frames preceding or following it. The syntagmatic aspect of a film is the linear narrative structure--what comes before or after what.

Once a director decides on what to shoot, he then has choices in how to capture the image and how to place it in relation to other shots. In other words, how he presents a shot individually and several shots in the aggregate effect the meaning of the entire production. The paradigmatic and syntagmatic elements of film are reflected in the mise-en-scene and montage. Mise-en-scene is the chosen design and arrangement of a particular shot. Montage is how these shots are presented together. The first can be considered static, the second dynamic.

William Guynn in A Cinema of the Non-Fiction quotes Christian Metz in regard to montage: "Cinema begins with the sequence of images; it is above all by the ordering of these images that cinema can organize itself into a discourse." 1 Guynn goes on to explore the organization of documentary based on Metz's codes of sequencing. The following are distinguishing features in the organization of film:

Autonomous Shot A single shot that constitutes a primary unit of the plot, as either a shot-sequence or an insert
Parallel Syntagma Two or more motifs interwoven in a pattern of alternation (A/B/A1/B1)
Bracket Syntagma Brief scenes that lack syntagmic development and chronological relationship yet are linked by montage
Descriptive Syntagma Any sequence of shots that describe a locale rather than show an action
Alternate Syntagma Two or more motifs are interwoven in alternation to present various viewpoints of a simultaneous action: i.e. shots of the hero coming to the rescue with shots of the heroine in distress
The Scene A succession of shots which represent a continuous temporal progression as in the theatrical scene
Episodic Sequence Brief scenes lacking syntagmatic development, linked by montage, yet occurring in a chronological sequence (i.e. abridgements, dissolves)
Ordinary Sequence Succession of shots that represent a complex, discontinuous, but unified temporal progression (i.e. skipping over unimportant moments of an action)

Guynn uses these descriptors as a basis for an analysis of documentary films and their meanings. As he writes, these instruments allow one to "open up the question of segmentation" and answer the question "according to what principles does documentary film discern its units of meaning and place them in sequence?" Understanding the segmentation and sequence of a documentary allows for a greater understanding of its meaning and how it is accepted by audiences.

In his analysis of documentary films, Guynn concluded several generalities about the structure of a documentary. First, documentary films usually have less narrative than fiction films and are in many ways ambivalent to the inclusion of narrative. There is usually a documentary voice, but it is non-linear, extradiegetic (originating from outside the events portrayed in the film), and not necessarily assisting in the unfolding of the narrative. Also, the non-narrative syntagmas in documentary, such as the bracket and descriptive, serve to isolate major narrative sequences while interrupting the main linear motion of the story.

Guynn's basic discovery is that "classic documentary film always combines different modes of discourse, and this mixing of voices is perhaps its most salient formal feature." 2 Although it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the syntagmatic structures in a documentary, as Guynn argues, each documentary film has its own "textual strategy" and cannot be defined simply as film with commentary, but as a "mixed discursive form...that seeks to integrate (to make a whole of) distinct fields of expression, to hold them in suspension." 3 Therefore, exploring the individual syntagmatic elements of a particular documentary will enable a better understanding of the overall structure and workings of a documentary, if only to reveal its many complex layers.

There are obviously several other codes in documentary film and many ways to analyze the meaning of a work. In this instance however, Guynn's methodology using the Metz structures will be used a basis to delve into the deeper meaning of the films featured in these pages.

Introduction History Definition Interpreting Documentary Biographies Films Themes Conclusion Home

1Guynn, William. Cinema of the Non-Fiction. Cranbury, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1990. (45).
2Guynn. Cinema. (56).
3Guynn. Cinema. (71).