Realism & Reflexivity

…in 20th Century Cinema

The structural techniques used in films can fall along the spectrum between realism and reflexivity. Essays on film theory and structure enlighten us as to how narrative structure, cinematographic and audio choices, character development and such structural choices contribute to a realistic or  reflexive, hegemonic or resistant, structure and style. These choices (or habits if unconsciously made) may or may not directly correlate to the message of the film. A film’s message may be decolonial or eurocentric, anti/universalist, anti/orientalist, objectifying of the subject or supportive of their agency, and still manage to utilize reflexivity.

However, as Nichols said in his essay “Representing Reality”, “[r]eflexivity and consciousness-raising go hand in hand because it is through an awareness of form and structure and its determining effects that new forms and structures can be brought into being”. (P.67) When it comes to documentaries, the choice to utilize reflexivity indicates the choice to promote the deconstruction of status-quo cinema constructions and the Western hegemony they perpetuate. Such film’s resist hegemonic content and structure, whether they fully deconstruct it.

    The films The Hunters (directed by John Marshall) and Les Maîtres Fous (directed by Jean Rouch) both utilize the structure of realism. Regardless of the views and goals of these directors, the format of realism itself abides the norms of Western cinema at the time of their premiere and now.  Despite the fact that the Hauka commissioned Les Maîtres Fous, one would not be able to tell merely by watching the film casually; but its anti-colonial dialogics are apparent with very close analysis. In contrast, the film Two Laws (directed by Carolyn Strachan and Alessandro Cavadini) is wholly committed to reflexivity. They imbue their film with a decolonial essence by choosing reflexivity at nearly every turn. In the case of Two Laws, the content is also specifically decolonial and anti-eurocentric. The films Wedding Camels (directed by David and Judith MacDougall) and Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (directed by Isaac Julien) are both a hybrid of realism and reflexivity. They both display realism with iconically documentary-style cinematography; the former in observationalism and the latter through interview. Yet, both also include distinct choices that count as reflexive and resistant to Western hegemony as well. The impetus of these five film’s is to display a decolonial message. By looking at these five film’s, we can see the deep complexity of these structural choices. Choices which determine how effective a filmmaker is at resisting Western cinematic norms.

The Hunters

In the film The Hunters, Marshall abides by the norm of Hollywood-style realism. He uses the ethnographic tone in his narrative, which caters to the Western need to have a scientific understanding of the Other. He employs seamless editing and cinematographic tactics which facilitate audience identification with characters. Despite the laborious editing, planning, construction of an authoritative narrative, and years of footage put into the film, the audience receives an illusion of reality. In his book Ideology and the Image Bill Nichols states, “[a]lthough the film itself offers no large-scale theory of culture, there are qualities to its organization that do fail to insist on a clear balance between the specific and the general”. (P.260) By which he means that Marshall’s iconic film makes the mistake of imparting a Universalism which results in the erasure of the San culture. That is, despite the goal of his content to enlighten the West about the San. The film portrays archetypal characters, a story, a narrative structure and cinematographic choices which all allude to universal human dynamics and challenges; nothing specific to the San which does not parallel to a content or structure in Western life and cinema.  It is only in their dress, setting and language that they different, but not in how the film is mad. Thus, the effect on the audience is a diluted form of resistance. The film takes us through a story structure with which most Western audience member are familiar, and brings it to an eventual moment of closure.

Les Maîtres Fous

Unlike The Hunters, which portrays the San people as preserved outside of Western colonialism, the film Les Maîtres Fous, puts on full display the ugly effects of colonialism and the immediate need the Hauka cult have to escape it. Rouch utilizes realism, a Western narrative structure (perhaps by default since Rouch was unprepared and spoke matter-of-factly) and character focus which do not combat these hegemonic cinematic norms. However, as Diane Scheinman notes in her essay “The ‘Dialogic Imagination’ of Jean Rouch”, the film uses music and ambient sound, the earnest attempt at an unbiased filming of events, the contrast of the prologue and epilogue and the subject of the violent trance itself, which “reveals potentially subversive spaces of dissent and challenge to dominant ideology and power”. (P.190) The Hauka themselves express social commentary through their use of objects, choice of person to invoke possession by, and what they say and do before, during and after the trance. The dialogic plurality of voices and decolonial message are there under the Western-esque narrative and its Western (though satirical and irreverent) ethnographic tone, if one listens closely enough.

Two Laws

Much further down the spectrum towards reflexive and clearly anti-colonial is the film Two Laws. Strachan and Cavadini, in accordance with Aboriginal culture and principals, included every member of the group involved. As per their requests, and against Western cinema norms, historical roles were played by those of the closest kin rather than the closest appearance. They frequently used wide angles, in order to include parts of the landscape the co-creator subjects felt were most important to them. In its undramatized telling of the abuse suffered by their ancestors, even the reenactment itself is reflexive — there is no attempt at realism. In terms familiar to Western structures, it is a cross between a blocking rehearsal and an emotional monologue.

While this story-telling section of the film follows an unavoidable linear structure (as it is remembered and retold by the Aboriginal co-creator subjects), the rest of the film follows a more vignette/thematic style which does not employ the linear structure common to Western cinema. Direct address, third-person viewing and intertitles facilitate the Aboriginal participants’ empowerment to the position of the authoritative voice usually occupied by voice-over narration. The directors utilize intertitles, separating the observational footage so it can be freed from that norm; and from the implication of omniscience which voice-over relates. Of the films mentioned here, Strachan and Cavadini come closest to achieving deconstruction of Western hegemonic cinematic norms. One cannot mistake Aboriginal people’s involvement, as agents rather than objectified subjects, for whitewashing universalism nor Western norm.

Wedding Camels

A more complicated film to assess in these terms is Wedding Camels. While the film fits the Western norm of following a linear story, there is no grand conclusion and the film carries a counter-ethnocentric message and structure. David MacDougall, throughout his essay on their film entitled “Beyond Observational Cinema”, imparts the notion that observational cinema is itself an illusion — that the filmmaker isn’t present or intervening at all. Observational cinema and ethnographic film both employ and play to voyeuristic objectification of the ethnic subject, for the viewer who is not ethnic but Western. No film can achieve a depiction free from the impression of the filmmaker themselves. A ritualistic (non-Rouchian) commitment to non-intervention is pointless because the camera’s presence affects the subject regardless.

Taking into account David’s writing on the MacDougall’s film, they chose to move away from observational towards reflexivity with the intention of resistance against Western hegemony. That is, against common narrative structure,  habitual relationship structure between filmmaker and subject, and commitment to simplified stories that reach closure. While it does include the third person observational mode, it repeatedly refocuses on the participation of the subject putting the viewer in the second person.

The MacDougalls employ observational tactics, and invoke Brechtian Dialogic by anchoring our Western viewership to the intertitles. They only expose us to their voice through third-person audio observation of their intervention, and the intertitles which link the plot of each passage. Wedding Camels has many of the resistant structural choices which are present in Two Laws, yet the observational style and its hegemonic effect are still present enough to disrupt that reflexivity.

Black Skin, White Mask

    In Black Skin, White Mask, Julien’s creative use of the narrator is to put him in character as the late Frantz Fanon. Through the intermittent dramatization of Fanon’s perspective, the character returns the gaze in the reflexivity of direct-address. The narration content depicts self-doubt but the tone of narrative authority is still present. However, this use is not the norm of didactic, considering the character is the subject of the film and his lines are derived from Fanon’s own writing. The film also includes a lot of interviews, where others speak of him in the third person. The filmmaker’s presence is absent and unreflexive at those points, adhering to Western cinematic norms. Julien cherry-picked his use of Western cinematic norm, which he then used against itself. This high level of complexity is also seen in the content: the subject is similarly a self-containing loop of deconstructing the decolonial icon. In this way, the film embodies the complexity of the contemporary era which Stam saw expressed in cinema. In his essay “Third Cinema Revisited”, Stam explains that “the anti-colonial thrust of earlier films gradually gave way to more diversified themes.” (P.282) Throughout the rest of the essay, he implicates the double-edged sword of reflexivity for the colonized filmmaker — how internal self-questioning and Western stereotypes of third world film were both factors in their assimilation.

Julien’s film alludes to the notion that supporting the agency of the subject, and combining both reflexivity and dramatic Western cinema, can be resistance against hegemonic tendencies of erasure and subjugation. Via the combination of these various schools of filmmaking, Julien achieves an innovative documentary. The film embodies the complex dynamics between reflexivity and realism, and observation and narrative. It reveals that defining what structural choices are or are not hegemonic is not itself formulaic.


While a reflexivity about the format of a work itself is seen in apolitical artwork, its use in documentary signifies a director’s effort to deconstruct their and their Western audience’s perspective and position as a part of Western hegemony. When a documentary filmmaker uses or commits to reflexivity, the style itself invokes the theoretical choices of combating colonialism, orientalism, eurocentrism and objectification. It can even be combating universalism, because universalism can dilute the understanding of the Other by ‘whitewashing’ the subject. These five films span the gamut from realism to reflexive, or combine them in unique and enlightening ways. Comparing these films reveals how structural choices determining the effectiveness of resistant content.



  • Nichols, B. (1981) Ideology and the Image. Indiana University Press.
  • Scheinman, D. (1998) The “Dialogic Imagination” of Jean Rouch. Documenting the Documentary. Wayne State University. 188-202.
  • Shohat, E. Stam, R. (1994). Introduction to Unthinking Eurocentrism. Routledge.
  • Nichols, B. (1991). Documentary Modes of Representation. Representing Realty. Indiana University. 66-67.
  • MacDougall, D. (1985). Beyond Observational Cinema. Movies & Methods Vol. II. University of California. 274-285.
  • Nichols, B. (2005) The Voice of Documentary. New Challenges for Documentary by A. Rosenthal. Manchester University. 48-63
  • Stam, R. (2001). Third Cinema Revisited. Film Theory, An Introduction. Blackwell. 281-298.
  • Nichols, B. (1985) Beyond Verite. Movies & Methods. Columbia University. 233-257.