The Omniscient Narrator

The director of a documentary film is a lot of things to the story being covered or the subject matter/topic being addressed. She is the film’s narrator and driver, and the catalyst in asking the right questions, seeking the right materials and finding the right shots for the film. Different film directors take different approaches to constructing their specific documentaries and these approaches are filled with unique styles and forms. Different styles and different forms are inspired by the director to convey the theme to the film and all its elements as well as the overall message to their storyline. One of the more favored stylistic approaches popular and not-so-popular documentary filmmakers utilize is the omniscient narrator. The omniscient narrator is when the director takes on an on-camera role greatly evolving the traditional role of a documentary film director who exclusively guides the film behind the camera. Here, the omniscient narrator asserts herself as a subject in the film driving the storyline to fruition. Catching the subject matter and all its important cast of characters in unison with the flow of the film makes the omniscient narrator a key contributing factor to documentary film storytelling. Similar to narrative storytelling in a novel—the first person omniscient—plays the role of the narrator who is inserted as a character in the story but omniscient enough to know the thoughts and feelings of all the other major and minor characters.

The role and tendency of the omniscient narrator was popularized from news broadcast of a television reporter or investigative journalist who appear in front of the camera to tell a sudden news storyline with intros and outros to the video. In some rare cases—in the beginning—the reporter/investigative journalist asserts himself into the news story by interacting with witnesses and digging up key evidence and discovering important facts for viewers tuning in. The tendency to use the omniscient narrator spilled into documentary film genre. With the documentary film works of Michael Moore, Nick Broomfield, Morgan Spurlock, and others the omniscient narrator became a dominant attribute in the genre used in covering a specific subject matter and telling a personable and relatable story. The award-winning English documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield was the first to take this style of storytelling to the next level. Broomfield usually works with a minimal crew, recording sound himself and using one or two camera operators. He is often seen in the finished film, usually holding the sound boom and wearing the Nagra tape recorder. In his films Broomfield interacts with his characters in one-on-one scenarios in a personable approach asking intimate questions and seeking key elements to the story—evidence or commentary—rather than being the curious onlooker as a director peripheral to the story and its theme. It is for this “self-reflexive” film-making style—a film being about the making of itself as much as its about the subject—that Nick Broomfield is best known. His influence on documentary is clear since Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock have all adopted a similar style for their documentary film box-office hits. Filmmakers who use this style have even been referred in likeness to to the gonzo reporting style of Hunter S. Thompson. Broomfield’s metadocumentary approach in covering biopics greatly enhanced story-driven concepts vital to a documentary film in not only the impact of the storyline but the flow to a film itself in keeping auidence members engaged and entertained. In watching a Nick Broomfield-directed documentary a viewer feels he’s part of his journey of discovery and part of his probing work in deconstructing the film’s storyline.

It’s hard to see the omniscient narrator not being utilized in television news broadcast today. Nearly all TV reporters first appear on camera and report their topic with the camera following the reporter asking the hard questions and involving themselves in the report as a concerned investigator and probing correspondent. Along with her voice-over narration the reporter becomes a key character in the story being covered—if not, personally but intricately. The documentary filmmaker in recent times have employed this same methodology of storytelling when covering a hot topic, popular subject matter, or personable narrative. For them its not enough that the story tells itself but that there exists an outside engagement to stir the audience and one in which those same audience members can relate. Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock specifically carries themselves as “a typcial American” from American surburbia concerned by the specifics plights of the U.S. They seek their documentary film story with national pride and the best interest of their country in mind through their theme and message—whatever their political persuasions lean. This ethos of the documentary filmmaker adds to the dimension of the omnisicient, narrative storytelling process. In his Oscar-winning documentary film, Bowling For Columbine, Michael Moore presents himself as the voyeuristic character seeking an answer to America’s growing problem of gun control. His assertion as the ominiscient narrator to the film carries the storyline as the activist-on-foot asking the necessary and unpopular questions to politicians, lobbyists, and corporate leaders taking advantage of guns being sold and used in middle America. Morgan Spurlock in his Academy-Award nominated documentary film, Super Size Me, plays the omniscient role to its upmost respect when he takes on the challenge of eating exclusively McDonalds food for 30 days—while the audience members follows throughout his journey. Engagement, intrigue, and emotion all play in effect in the role of the onminsicient narrator—all key attributes to any storyline seeking an audience to relate, understand, and imbibe in.

Not all popular and less-than popular documentary filmmakers take on the omniscient narrator role in telling their film’s story. Errol Morris, Alex Gibney, Michael Kirk, Ken Burns, Barbara Kopple, Kirby Dick, Charles Ferguson, Kevin MacDonald and even Spike Lee all remain in the traditional role of the behind-the-scene director to their documentaries. Morris and Gibney may employ the “off-the-camera questioner” interacting with their cast of characters in on-camera, sit-down interviews but this is rather minimal in becoming a character to a film. Part of the motivation to use the omniscient narrator to a documentary film is to also add to the film’s appeal and marketability in endorsing its celebrity director in the likes of Moore and Spurlock for example. In fact, Michael Moore has created for himself the image and persona of a political pundit who uses the platform of documentary films in expressing his sociopolitical views.

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