Film Genre – Westerns

This workshop was delivered by Dr Claire Henry as part of Massey University’s support of the Wellington Media Studies secondary school programme. Previously they have hosted workshops on documentary storytellingjournalism in the smartphone era and teaching script writing. The session was to discuss:

  • 240px-great_train_robbery_still

    Source: wikipedia

    The value and shortcomings of a genre lens (from perspective of both producers and audiences)

  • Genre theory and the western – theorists and theories applied to texts
  • The future of the western – speculation and possibilities

One of the interesting areas of discussion was in questioning genre as an approach to text. The value includes providing a framework for critical analysis and interpretation – a lens by which to read a film. It can also be useful to see trends and navigate the relationship that genres and their ideologies have with societal concerns. Equally genre hybridity is a challenge to this approach and the lack of clear delineation. This fluidity is challenged by what Jill Nelmes considers genre to be: “a conceptual prism allow[ing] critics to simultaneously address activities or industry, audience and culture” (189).

In her discussion of Westerns, Henry suggested that trends of the genres exist with specific characteristics:

  • Classic westerns – Ford and Hawks, thinking about the racism in the films: do they advocate tolerance and difference? Or a metaphor as a challenge to civil rights?
  • Spaghetti westerns – Leone, revitalisation of genre through parody, difference between the intentions and the way the audience reads the film?
  • Revisionist westerns – Costner and Eastwood, western imagery with darker modern themes bringing the moral order of the western into question.
  • Feminist westerns – a subgenre? Role of women in westerns? Films of Kelly Reichardt.

Other discussion considered the role of the western ideology in films that sit outside the genre. Brokeback Mountain for instance as an inquiry into masculinity. The 80s, when the western was absent, had a wave of films when the ideology of vengeance was being explored. Modern trend of taking the Midwest out of the genre and examining the themes in other contexts, i.e. Australia (The Proposition) and Indonesia (Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts). Does the trend towards hybrid film genres mean that the pure Western is dead? Baroque approaches (Tarantino) and remakes might be the way forward.

Very grateful to Claire Henry for this opportunity to sit back and see the students taught by someone else. She generated a lot of valuable thinking!

Image source: Wonder Costumes


NZIFF 2017

201720poster20-20feature20slider-800-800-600-600-crop-fillAnother year, another NZ Film Festival. Overall, this one contained many a highlight, but I encountered more duds than I ever have before. This was disappointing for my holistic experience, but exciting for the diversity of this summary blogpost.

My festival kicked off with John Hamm playing a holographic version of a dead husband. Marjorie Prime contained ideas much more interesting than the execution: the text may as well have stayed on stage. On the flip side, the cinematic joy of Kiki: Love to Love was contagious. It was kink-positive and had some delightful scenes, but a story line that wants us to laugh at rape is unforgivable in 2017. The Ornithologist probably got a lot right, but not being versed in the tale of Saint Sebastian made for a challenging two hours. Finally the hot mess that was The Square shouldn’t really be in a paragraph about ‘duds’ because it really was close to something cohesive and commendable. Instead the result was one of the greatest cinematic sequences of all time, with another few outstanding scenes plus a lot of dribble. The film will stay with me, but it could have been another Force Majeure.

The festival’s closing night, Good Time, was a visceral delight. Stretching cinematic language to make something that was both raw unnerving realism and styled like a John Carpenter’s 70s back catalogue B-movie (including an synth-score). I Am Not A Witch set in Zambia was a bold in its absurdity and satire. The evocative images of the last minutes of the film are etched in my memory. Also hard to forget will be My Friend Dahmer which was chilling and extremely well made – but I’m left wondering where this serial killer fascination will end and why exactly I’m so happy to play along with the game? The game of The Teacher was delightful. A Czech story of corruption and a reminder of just how much power I have as a teacher, if I was to choose to use it…

Some of the documentaries I encounter this year were strong. I Am Not Your Negro is a contender for the best of the fest. Constructed flawlessly, for me it opened up a whole new angle to consider racism, privilege and identity. I will definitely watch it again and I will definitely spend more time finding out about James Baldwin. Step contained some outstanding subjects: the young women of Baltimore Leadership School were inspirational. The insight into their world and the school doing things differently to ensure they have the best chance of succeeding was truly moving. Less successful was The Farthest, which contained content that landed, but visual storytelling that was misguided. Completely misguided was 100 Men, which managed to mention every buzzword in gay history, but offered nothing more than a surface exploration in a highly limited form.

The highlights of the festival came in the queer cinema category. While the representation was really positive – the quality of the films themselves is really encouraging. A Date for Mad Mary is charming and quaint. While the script wasn’t flawless, it was accessible and well-pitched. God’s Own Country was another matter altogether. While it will struggle to find a mainstream audience, it has secured a NZ distribution deal which is a testament to it’s quality. It is moving – depicting the love between a hired hand and a lost local and the landscape of Yorkshire with care and intensity. Francis Lee is a filmmaker to follow. BPM (Beat Per Minute) also resonated. The context was Paris in the 90s as we follow an AIDS activist group. There is palpable tension in the political edge of the film, but it’s the interwoven personal threads which make the film so special.

The crown of the festival for me goes to Call Me By Your Name. Another queer film, this time in a Italian summer filled with literature, music, architecture and love. It observes the forming of a pure relationship with an inquisitive camera which often lingers on specific details and finds beauty throughout the sun-soaked setting. The central performances create the initially unsaid attraction and then later their beautiful sensual connection with such admirable care. It’s a masterpiece for queer cinema, but it’s a film that deserves to find a large audience as the storytelling is just so timeless.

Michael Mann – Violence and Displacement

Max: “First time in LA?”

Vincent: “No. Tell you the truth; whenever I’m here I can’t wait to leave. It’s too sprawled out, disconnected.”

For hit man Vincent in Collateral, calling Los Angeles disconnected is an appropriate way for his character to view the space. But for Michael Mann’s cinema in general, the space he portrays is not as sprawled out as Vincent might think. For Mann, spaces are defined (Groves) and often characterised in contrast to another. Space is often subject to something that does not belong, a violation of context. What was a divided world becomes the corrupted space of invasion. In Mann’s cinema this intrusion is often the catalyst for violence. Violence is not an aesthetic occupation; instead it is a result of anxiety spawned from the transgression of space. In this essay I will discuss Mann’s use of space and argue that violence in Mann expresses the displacement created by the destruction of context. Then, drawing on the ideas of Jean-Pierre Thoret and Mark Wildermuth, I will claim that this displacement contributes to an expression of dehumanisation in Mann’s cinema.

51berpuoowlAt its most basic level, violence expresses territorial claim. The competition for space has close ties with the importance of masculinity in Mann’s cinema. Existentially empty men often engage in force for survival. The Last of the Mohicans, set in 1756, positions its central characters amongst the conflicts for land between the French and the English. Each side is established in opposition to the other, wearing uniforms that establish their rivalry as well as their competition with the land. This contrast is heightened by the presence of the American Indians, who are costumed in organic colours so they are one with nature. Unlike the French and British they belong in the natural environment. Similarly, The Keep uses costuming techniques to differentiate those that intrude and those that belong. Set in Romania during World War Two, the idea of invasion is pertinent from the disorientating opening sequence. It introduces the idea of war with a convoy travelling through a mountainous landscape. In the film, characters are killed by the Golem for being in the keep, a space in which they are invading. Furthermore, characters that contravene are also killed. Both films express the masculine claim for domination and the desire for territorial right.

Another way of establishing those that belong and those that do not is Mann’s use of race. In The Last of the Mohicans, race is the catalyst for conflict and, furthermore, dictates how space is segregated and shared. While the American Indians are associated with the land, reinforced by the natural setting of the Huron’s camp, the English – introduced with a jarring cut to a geometric bridge over which they cross – only belong amongst the modernity of their Fort. (Indeed, once they leave the Fort, they are dominated and defeated by the American Indians in a natural space composed of lush greens and deep browns). This identification of space with collectives is also evident in The Jericho Mile. Like Ali, which uses segregation as a narrative agent, The Jericho Mile presents social units as a result of racial division. In the film’s opening montage, a number of different units are shot and editing together so that “we gradually realise that [the inmates] have segregated themselves ethnically” (Wildermuth, 36). The transgressing of this established space results in death for Stiles who is killed for his association with another race.

In Mann’s cinema the transgression of space invariably ignites the violence, which in the case of Collateral is the focus of the narrative. Consider the opening sequence of this film, which introduces Vincent arriving in Los Angeles at the airport. Vincent causes the conflict in the narrative; his task is to assassinate five people associated with a criminal case for a mysterious party. Vincent’s arrival is shot in such a way that it appears to be an invasion. He doesn’t belong to the space. This is achieved through something Mann often does, shooting his subject in – but not part of – his environment. His use of tight frames with short focal lengths “give the impression that individuals are on the surface of their environment” but not within it (Thoret, 8 – see below for an example). Vincent’s presence in Los Angeles, which is the catalyst for five episodes of violence, is an invasion of space, a space he does not belong to.


Violence, therefore, occurs when established groups step outside the space they belong to. Mann emphasises this displacement through costume: Vincent is the only character to wear grey significantly, Major Kaempffer’s uniform is refined while Woermann’s reflects the deteriorating environment of the keep and the aforementioned uniforms in The Last of the Mohicans are at odds with the environment. Overall, “the thread running through Mann’s films is the destruction that arises when world’s collide” (Smith, 77). This idea is applicable in the wide expanse of Mann’s film, but a more intimate manifestation of the transgression of context is present in Mann’s representation of the domestic. Films like Manhunter, Thief and Heat focus on the relationship between work and home. In doing so, the spaces are generally transcended and what characterises one from another is blurred. Often it is violence, usually associated with work, which infiltrates the domestic.

An important aspect of the idea of invasion is who is in control of space. Heat, a study in the relationship between home and work, illustrates this (Lindstrom). Both Hanna and McCauley are controlling of space. When Hanna walks in to see his informant, Albert, in the industrial quarters of Los Angeles, his confident and arrogant disposition supersedes that he is intruding in someone else’s space. Similarly later, when he meets Albert at a club that night, he has a friendly relationship with the bouncer and has access to the club’s offices. McCauley displays similar dominance at the diner when he recruits Breedan; there he uses the phone behind the counter as if he was the owner. Other spaces like the drive-thru, which no one belongs to, is a place of violence.

manhunter_michael_mann_film_posterThe relationship between working spaces and domestic spaces in Manhunter is more complex. Manhunter is an extension of the remarkable scene in Heat at the container yard where the question is ‘who is looking at who?’ In Manhunter the central character, Will Graham, attempts to catch a serial killer through placing himself in the shoes of the murderer, Dollarhyde. The crimes Dollarhyde has committed are all examples of the domestic being invaded. The opening point of view shot is an invasion from Dollarhyde’s perspective as he enters a family’s home and watches a couple sleep. We learn later that he brutally murders them; violence ensues from the invasion. Other less dramatic invasions occur: when Graham falls asleep on a plane, his photos of the bloody crime scene spill onto his fold down tray upsetting the child sitting next to him. Similarly, Graham talks to his son about the murders and his work in a supermarket.

Space, therefore, is corrupted frequently, but these spaces are also connected through videoscopic space. Dollarhyde sources his next victims through home movies that he steals from a film-processing laboratory. This is an intrusion of a metacinematic nature: the television offers visual access into the domestic. Furthermore, the audience is indicted as we are caught watching Dollarhyde watching home movies, as well as watching the movies ourselves. Moreover, we watch Graham try to pretend to be Dollarhyde watching home movies. The parallel activities are processes of exchange that invade space through the televisual world. For Dollarhyde it is an intrusion into the family’s home (an intrusion he will physically enact); for Graham it is an intrusion into Dollarhyde (similarly an intrusion he will later physically enact). Both violations of space result in violence, with the death of those who are being intruded on.

Jean-Baptiste Thoret has addressed the idea of space in Mann’s cinema in his article ‘The Aquarium Syndrome.’ He argues that Mann’s characters (in particular his male protagonists) are trapped inside a metaphorical aquarium; they can see outside, but if they leave the water they will die. To support his theory he cites Mann’s settings and framing techniques as frequently invoking aquariums, and also Mann’s narratives, which habitually focus on a character trying to get out of something. Thoret’s theory identifies an interior and exterior in Mann’s cinema, which is applicable to the ideas being presented here. What occurs when these interior-exterior spaces are transcended is the same as what occurs when the domestic is infiltrated by something that does not belong. Violence and death are central to both ideas.

An example of the fishbowl visually represented – source

However, while Thoret focuses on the interior’s inability to exist outside of the fishbowl, there is more to be said about the corruption that blurs the definitions of interior and exterior. The domestic is sometimes a threat to the outside world. The domestic, at times, infiltrates the violence. The most palpable example of this idea is in the frequency in Mann’s films that the home or domestic obligations get in the way of a man’s work. Graham’s ability to professionally track down Dollarhyde is undermined when his family is threatened. Likewise, in Thief, Frank sends away his wife and adopted child and destroys his house so that he can seek justice. In Mann, “the price of survival [in this world] is the absolute obliteration of any hope of normal life” (Hill, 2). In other words, Frank must dismiss the domestic – his idealised bourgeois lifestyle – if he is to have any hope in Mann’s world. Both Thief and Manhunter represent the domestic as something that must be detached from work for each individual’s professionalism to thrive.

Mann’s most complete and accomplished film, Heat, is a montage of all these ideas of transcending space and displacement. Heat places a large amount of importance on context. Environments are always highly detailed in Mann’s world (Groves); perhaps a reflection on the length of time Mann spends in pre-production (Wrathall, 12; Smith, 72). Environments and spaces play a key role in the narrative, especially in the opening heist, which introduces – consistent with other Mann films – the role of the domestic against the unconventional work of the film’s men. The crosscutting between the heist, performed with professionalism by McCauley’s men, and the domestic scenes of Hanna with his wife and stepdaughter, contextualises the heist and the home in contrast to one another. Work and home are inseparable. The film has been called a sociological examination of what happens when people live and work together (Steensland, 71).

Prior to the first heist, the opening few shots establish the idea of invasion and displacement with the arrival of McCauley. The dark, misty environment of the train station before dawn is captured with a sense of the hyperreal; time seems to be standing still for the train as it makes its way towards the platform. This shot is matched with another shot of a train approaching from the opposite direction. These indistinguishable trains are a metaphor for the film’s protagonists, McCauley and Hanna. Both resemble each other, but come from different directions and both are stuck on train tracks with a preordained destination. McCauley is then shot getting off the train but, like Vincent in Collateral, seems to be on the surface of his environment – not within it. This effect is achieved through the geometric shapes of the station: lines suggest the frame has no depth. Furthermore, to emphasise McCauley not belonging, he is shown walking against the grain, not with the crowd and against the direction of a traffic arrow. The idea of invasion is reinforced by McCauley’s entry into a hospital to steal an ambulance. He walks through a ward and looks into a patient’s cubicle. Mann then cuts to a close up of the bleeding patient’s body. In this short sequence Mann has shown us that “anything can be invaded, nothing is secure, and nothing is sacred in this fragmented world of incongruities” (Wildermuth, 137).

McCauley’s invasion of space is the first of many that all have implications for the narrative. The heists are also examples of invasions. In addition, Van Zant’s decides not buy the bonds back from McCauley’s gang is because he wants to ensure people on the street know it is not okay to “invade [his] space.” Invasions in this manner stir the narrative. The dramatic drive of the film comes from the interaction between the worlds of the criminals and the cops. But also, conflict comes from the interaction between the respective worlds’ domestic situations. It is a fragmented world, and deteriorating from displacement. Similar consequences are seen from the intrusion of the domestic into the working space of both sides.

Hanna’s domestic situation is falling to pieces. By the end of the film he dismisses its obligations symbolically by kicking his television out of his car. Thoret comments on the frequency of transit spaces in Mann’s cinema (“crystalline waters, freeways and skylines, empty warehouses and airports” [2]) but for Hanna, even home is also a transit space. Halfway through the film, Hanna returns home to find his wife is preparing to go out without him. He goes to do the dishes, but quickly gives up and instead leaves the house. Mann then cuts to Hanna in a helicopter high above Los Angeles. Hanna’s visit to his home is simply a transition between work and work. Significantly, however, Hanna’s home situation does not impact upon his professionalism; he prioritises his work. Like Frank in Thief, he walks away from the domestic at the end of the film.

Hanna’s space therefore, like many of the characters is subject to the idea of displacement. At home, Hanna is displaced; he does not belong. Charlene, similarly, goes to Marciano’s home for safety, but the intrusion of the police corrupts the space. It becomes a disjointed environment, a domestic space being used for work. But at the same time this situation is complicated by the need to retain a domestic façade to lure Chris into capture. A further invasion occurs to Trejo, who is tortured in his home by Waingro. His wife is killed in much the same way as Alonzo’s wife in Miami Vice; both women are murdered in their home as a result of ‘work.’ Another example in Heat occurs in the aftermath of the bank heist when Cherritto who picks up a young girl as a hostage. The child does not belong in the gunfight, nor does the gunfight belong in the downtown streets of Los Angeles. Context in these four examples is held tenuously. Just because a scene is within a home does not mean it can be assumed to be a domestic setting.

Heat is a film of interplays: “the interplay between the intimate and the panoramic” (Dzenis, 8). But, indeed, this is true for the wider works of Mann. Interplays, fluctuations and binaries are all central to Mann’s world. Heat can be read as a film about relationships between characters, between criminals and police, between inside and outside, and between home and work. Mann’s treatment of these relationships is an extension of Anna Dzenis’s analysis. She reads Heat as a film of “poetic…oscillations between elaborately choreographed montage action sequences and close, intimate interior views” (7). Furthermore, as has been discussed, it is the breaking down of space that complicates Heat, and therefore it is the overlapping of ‘action sequences’ with ‘interior views’ which are the true poetry. In Heat, characters’ respective spaces implode.

Katherine Hayles comments in relation to the writings of Jean Baudrillard: that when implosions happen, that consume the lines between interior and exterior, they point to the constructed quality of human contexts and hence further emphasise the denaturing of humanity (275-6). This is the effect of Mann’s depiction of space. The borders are well defined, but their frequent transgression points a dehumanising portrayal of the world that his characters inhabit. Thoret, similarly, makes references to Mann’s treatment of dehumanised space. His sense of dehumanisation is similar to Mark Wilermuth’s. Both suggest the high-tech, technological dependant world of Mann shadows the characters. Mann’s treatment of space contributes to this sense of dehumanisation that these critics claim to exist in his films.

Heat gives many examples of dehumanisation. The violence, which comes as a result of displacement and violation of context, escalates throughout the film. This parallels the increasing transgressions, which occur because of the breaking down of interior-exterior definitions. The bank heist illustrates this. The police surround the crew and instead of a stand off they attempt to fight their way out of the circle in which they are being ensnared. The downtown shoot-out lacks the normal definitions of interior and exterior. It is also dehumanised in the sense that for the men involved, the exchange of bullets is the equivalent of the exchange of dialogue. Like Hanna’s dream, where he sits at a social function where no one speaks, dialogue as exchange is not possible for these men at work; they resort instead to violence.

The guns in which they battle with are themselves symbolic of the technology that oppresses their humanity. In their first meeting on the highway, both McCauley and Hanna have their guns prepared; neither is prepared to rely on dialogue as a means of exchange. They must be prepared for the invasion that will result in violence. Settings also frequently displace human existence. The finale takes place in an obscure location at an airport among concrete blocks and metal transformers in a field of overgrown grass. Everything in the location exists for the machines: “human beings have no place here, there is no space for them” (Wildermuth, 148). The technological aspect of the location is further emphasised by the runway lights, which surge brightly every few seconds. When McCauley comes out of his hiding place, the lights reveal him to Hanna who turns and shoots him; “it is no longer the men who arbitrate the fight but only the light” (Thoret, 13).

Setting of the finale in Heat where light plays such a vital role – source

Violence itself is treated in a dehumanised manner. While this seems an obvious point, it is Mann’s hyperreal stylised handling of his gunfights that make this worthy of further investigation. The MTV-edited, stylised deaths that occur in Thief owe to Peckinpah their look and choreography. Barry’s death is a case in point. The violence is sudden, but the moment the trigger is pulled, Mann slows the action down so we see in slow motion Barry’s wounded body being flung against a van by the force of a shotgun. Similarly, Leo’s death at the end is captured with the same attention to detail but, furthermore, with the same sense of parody. Neither death is realistic. Both are hyperreal. The spray of blood that surges from the back of Leo’s head is an exaggeration of death, distanced as far as possible from any association with humanity.

Mann’s academics have also pointed to Mann’s apparent illustration of the male fading from society (Thoret, 2; Sharett, 254). Mann’s character’s long to disappear: (Thoret) Frank wants to escape his business, McCauley wants to move to New Zealand, and Max in Collateral frequently escapes into his picture of the Pacific. This is an articulation of the dehumanising effect. The alienation that Mann’s protagonists feel in the postmodern landscape makes them desire being elsewhere. A move from the urban landscape to something idealised, leaving the isolating environment of the city for an imagined utopia. Just as technology overwhelms the human qualities of Mann’s world and violence conveys a literal dehumanisation in a hyperreal parody of death, the desire to leave is a desire to vacate space. Dehumanisation is generated from the portrayal of the environment, and the need of characters to leave it.

This is true for Mann’s world. As discussed, characters – as an expression of displacement – transcend space. Interior and exterior definitions break down, similarly the line between the domestic and work is mystified. Wives are forced to “walk among the remains of death people,” and men in a gun battle must negotiate a supermarket parking lot. World’s interrupt each other (Sharrett, 255). This is the destruction of context; it is the effect of dehumanisation. Mann’s films rely on violence to settle these interruptions, which, instead of solving the claims for space, only emphasise the disconnection of Mann’s world. Violence therefore only complicates the spatial situation. It disrupts context by consuming the lines that represent societal barriers.

Finally, there is one space that I have not considered that appears frequently in Mann. While space is held with a degree of anxiety, given the threat of violence and the barriers that are so easily transgressed, the sea is given special significance. For Mann’s protagonists it symbolises an eternal utopia, life outside the aquarium (Thoret). Character’s look at it, imagine it, seek it, but never achieve it. Thoret claims Mann’s characters are lost in space, (8) the sea therefore gives them a bearing. It is an unchanging aspect of Mann’s geography with an expanse that directly contrasts with the inhibiting urban landscape. It is significant because it is an non-corrupted and an incorruptible space. The context is pure, and away from the displacement that disrupts the context of the urban landscape. The sea therefore represents life without anxiety, without the threat of violence, and without the possibility of displacement. It is perhaps the only untainted piece of optimism in Mann’s cinema.

Dzenis, Anna. “Michael Mann’s Cinema of Images.” Sight and Sound 14.10 (October 2004) 14-16.

Groves, Tim. ‘Lectures on Michael Mann.’ Lectures presented at Victoria University of Wellington. September 4–October 9, 2007.

Hayles, N. Katherine. Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Lindstrom, J. A. “Heat: Work and Genre,” in Jump Cut 43 (July 2000 <>

Sharrett, Christopher. “Michael Mann: Elegies of the Post-Industrial Landscape.” Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers. Ed. Yvonne Tasker. London and New York: Routledge, 2002. 253-263.

Smith, Gavin. “Mann Hunters.” Film Comment 28.6 (November-December 1992) 72-77.

Steensland, Mark. Michael Mann. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2002.

Thoret, Jean-Baptiste. “The Aquarium Syndrome: On the Films of Michael Mann.”

Trans. Anna Dzenis. Senses of Cinema 19 (2001) <>

Wildermuth, Mark E. Blood in the Moonlight: Michael Mann and Information Age Cinema. North Carolina: McFarland, 2005.

Wrathall, John. “Heat.” Sight and Sound 6.2 (1996) 43-44.

Ali (Michael Mann, USA, 2001)

Collateral (Michael Mann, USA, 2004)

Heat (Michael Mann, USA, 1995)

The Insider (Michael Mann, USA, 1999)

The Jericho Mile (Michael Mann, USA, 1979)

The Keep (Michael Mann, USA, 1983)

The Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann, USA, 1992)

Manhunter (Michael Mann, USA, 1986)

Miami Vice (Michael Mann, USA, 2006)

Thief (Michael Mann, USA, 1981)

Documentary Storytelling

This lecture was delivered by Dr Claire Henry as part of Massey University‘s support of the Wellington Media Studies teacher cluster. Previously they have hosted workshops on journalism in the smartphone era and teaching script writing. The focus was on the form of Documentary and how this may be translated to students and the specifics challenges they might face in attempting this style of film making.

Introduction to Documentary as a Storytelling Form

Documentary has a fluid narrative approach, where production is an ongoing and dynamic process. Story shaping occurs during pre-production, production and post-production significantly more than narrative features which rely heavily on the pre-production process. Many characteristics of good storytelling in fictional films are shared with documentary including the role of exposition and use of narrative questions to engage a viewer.

Audience and Distribution

Documentary filmmakers need to consider the audience and distribution early – helps maintain focus of the story and give motivation for the production team. Useful to ask:

  • How does their film contribute the wider community?
  • Where will it be screened and to who?
  • What impact can documentaries have and what impact would they like theirs to have?

These considerations affect decisions such as duration and format as well as guide the storytelling process.

Collecting and Sifting for Stories

Look for ways to tell the story through more than just talking heads. A dynamc process of research could include newspaper, internet, family stories, myths and legends etc. Sift to find both an apparent subject, and a deeper subject – something that is a broader issue, something bigger. When presenting this information, ethical questions can be uncovered– how to raise the stakes? How to make the story fit the 3 act structure? Useful resource that explores these ideas is Michael Rabiger’s book, Directing the Documentary.

Narrative Perspective in Documentary220px-nanook_of_the_north

  • POV – single character – Nanook, Basterdy
  • Multiple characters – Up, Capturing the Friedmans
  • Omniscient – The War Game Peter Jenkins – complex far reaching ideas
  • Personal – Stories we tell, Cameraperson (connection to the stylistic trend of a personal voice and presence in the film, technology ubiquity, home videos)

Pre-production: Planning Models and Documents

  • Concept – the ideas (why, what, effect) in 100 words
  • Research – pre-interviews; books, articles, newspapers etc. Other docos, research the form as well as the info
  • Proposal/Treatment – an explanation of the documentary you intend to make – what will be shot and why, and how it will be arranged to make a particular statement
  • Pitch
  • Script
  • Short list
  • Storyboarding


  • Some docos scripted in advance
  • A scriptwriter may be call in after a production to write a script from the footage
  • There may be no script and the edit is based on a proposal, treatment, or the director’s vision
  • Pre script vs post script – same format, revised with new info
  • 3 column script – simple/effective (narration, visuals, sound)

Challenges for students

  • Collaboration – newly formed group could collectively write a collaborative contract outlining
    • 1. project statement,
    • 2. group goals,
    • 3. group governance (specific roles ad responsibilities, meeting place and times)
    • 4. conflict and resolution procedures.
  • Technical and logistic issues
  • Unpredictable subject, weather, outcomes… Good project planning and contingency plans required + flexibility and problem solving skills.

Teaching Script Writing

This post originally appeared on Cargill’s Classroom 

This session led by Stuart Hoar was facilitated by Massey University for the Wellington Media teacher cluster. It focused on his experience of teaching script writing to students and what he felt, from his experience, are what young filmmakers need to understand.

Stuart regularly claimed how crucial it is for students to recognise structural paradigms in what they watch. They need to understand narrative paradigms, but not necessarily in order to follow them. This begins with the three act structure which recalls Aristotle’s three essential units of drama (beginning, middle and end).

He had many a point to make about narrative paradigms:

  • It is not a rule bound structure; it is instead grounded in principles.
  • The first draft should always be written without care towards these principles, but the review of this should always be through the lens of the paradigms.
  • The screenplay is written for the reader. The reader decides whether or not it will be made into something that is visual.
  • Tension = drama (dramatic stakes)
  • The audience wants to be engaged. We have dramatic expectations that can be capitalised on. We understand instinctively dramatic narrative; we have unconscious expectations of how this happens.
  • Genre and formula – our expectations get caught up by genre, we want surprise and comfort at the same time.
  • The dramatic structure is about what is happening to the characters and why
  • Act One makes a promise
    • It contains the ordinary world of the drama. By the catalyst, we need a perspective. We need to vicarious relate to the viewpoint. We must recognise that we are with that character.
    • Catalyst – inciting incident – sets something in motion and asks the dramatic question
    • Crossing the threshold – reaching the point of no return. Main character might refuse the dramatic question. But it is embraced by the end of act one. Audience must be engaged by 20 minutes in.
    • Sets the emotional tone, introduces the characters, takes us to the first TP – the point of no return.
    • Releasing the tension after the TP – how do you do this? Who knows. Write your script.
  • Act Two: complicates and escalates the action towards the next turning point
  • Act Three: answers the question.


Task: Use 2001 A Space Odyssey – first 12-15 minutes. The perfect one act structure – Kubrick not associated with Hollywood, but there is still structure. 

  • What is being set up here? Ordinary world?
  • Catalyst? Turning Point?
  • Climax and resolution? What is being paid off?

Oscars 2017 – Thoughts and Predictions

Annual post giving some brief thoughts on the Best Picture nominees at the Oscars. Last year’s thoughts are here


Superb concept, brilliantly realised in the most part despite a finale that felt overwhelmed by itself. The ideas that the film explored like nature of language and universal communication spoke deeply about current world tensions.


A remarkable text that never felt cinematic. Moments of visual storytelling, but it is the performances that shone through the fence metaphor that clouds an otherwise nuanced work.

Should win: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress

Hacksaw Ridge

Familiar ground until those incredible visceral battle scenes recalling Saving Private Ryan. However, have to agree with Alfonso Duralde who recalled Francois Truffaut’s words in their review titled “Mel Gibson Says War Is Hell — Except When It’s Awesome“:

Making an anti-war film is essentially impossible, since to portray something is to ennoble it.

Should win: Best Sound Editing

Hell of High Water

A really enjoyable, thoughtful duel-mismatched-buddy-character-study. Moments of brilliance. Feels like it belongs in the shadow of No Country For Old Men despite actually having an ending. 

Hidden Figures

A effective popcorn film that is uplifting and generally fun to watch, but it suffers from being derivative. The three real-life women on which the film is based are the true winners here.

La La Land

A delicious spectacle that oozes with love for cinema. A lot of the criticism is valid, but the volume of it is undeserved. The musical as a genre has never felt more relevant to contemporary cinema.

Will Win: Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Cosutme Design, Best Production Design, Best Score, Best Song, Best Sound Mixing


The first half was a magical piece of filmmaking. Pure storytelling reliant on the magical performance of Sunny Pawar and beautifully shot rural India. The rest of the film has Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel pretending to be people that I couldn’t be bothered caring about.

Manchester By The Sea

Incredible drama that unfolds with the control of a expert filmmaker. The writing is the real strength here. Structurally the film is a marvel, every scene and moment feels important; it unravels with masterful storytelling and three central performances that are worth all the hype.

Should win: Best Original Screenplay


In one of my Media Studies classes earlier this year a student raised the idea of films having the power to create empathy. I had just seen this film – which is such a strong example of just that. Moonlight is an evocative character study; letting the audience in on a suffocating world that fights against our desire to answer the age old question: “who am I?” It says something vitally important while pushing the boundaries of cinema.

Will win: Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay

Other Will Wins

Best Foreign Film – The Salesman, Best Animated Film – Zootopia, Best Documentary Feature – O.J.: Made In America, Best Visual Effects – The Jungle Book

[My] Should Wins

Best Film – Moonlight, Best Actor – Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea), Best Supporting Actress – Naomie Harris (Moonlight), Best Cinematography – Moonlight, Best Foreign Film – Toni Erdmann, Best Visual Effects – Swiss Army Man, Best Sounding Editing – Arrival

The Spice Girls and Cultural Politics

The recent release of the ‘comeback’ single from a trio of the Spice Girls raises questions about the relevance of the cultural politics which the group successful embraced during their most successful years in the late 1990s. The latest song, which is a leak not an official release, captures a familiar brand of identity politics with commentators referring to it as a “Girl Power anthem“. I wrote the essay below in 2006, exploring the idea of the Spice Girls as a popular culture phenomenon and their cultural politics.

6925404431_45273d40a5_bPopular music plays an important social and cultural role; “it provides…role models, [and] expresses social attitudes” (Bodkin 2000, 41). As a case study to argue the intrinsic relationship between popular music and cultural politics, this essay will focus on the Spice Girls and their first album Spice. While the Spice Girls were largely dismissed as artificial, (Leach 2001, 148) closer analysis of their message of ‘Girl Power’ and their accompanying image reveal a group that is culturally political.

Cultural politics is a broad sweeping term that can be used in relation to many conflicts in society. It is a concept which recognises society is made up of different viewpoints and refers to the ways in which co-existence is maintained (Opie 2006). In other words, a system of negotiation between different belief systems must be found for this co-existence to operate. Furthermore, within this system, a dominant – or hegemonic – group usually emergences and this position can be challenged. Sue Abel notes: “hegemony is always a process in struggle, it is never stable. It involves negotiation” (2006). Popular Music provides a medium for this negotiation to take place. Simon Firth agrees. He suggests we use pop songs to create for ourselves a particular sort of self-determination, a particular place in society (1987, 140).

The Spice Girls is one of many examples of bands that could be considered subordinate and therefore compete for equality. The primary and most palpable reason for this consideration is that the group consists of only females. Typically in rock and pop music a woman’s participation is limited to supporting a male performer in the role of a backup singer or groupie, or featuring in their videos and other merchandise (Schilt 2003, 5; Cohen 2001, 232). The Spice Girls, by definition, oppose these widely held stereotypes. In addition, the group is packaged in such a way that they do more than just represent achievement in a male dominated environment; they are constructed to be role models for adulation and to provide “legitimisation for various modes of rites of passage into the world of femininity” (Lemish 2003, 17). It is in this way that the Spice Girls are noticeably political.

The place that the Spice Girls have in history is very significant in relation to the message that they conveyed. They formed in late 1994, but did not break into the spotlight until their debut single, ‘Wannabe,’ in July 1996 (Spice Girls 1997). They followed on from the Riot Grrrl movement, personified by Alanis Morisette, which had its roots in punk. This movement was characterised by a portraying a sense of womanhood that challenged sexism (Schilt 2003, 7). But unlike the Riot Grrrl’s before them, the Spice Girls “were an undeniably commercial product” (Leach 2001, 148). However, to conclude at this point is to understate the significance of the Spice Girls: “they weren’t just another pop group, they were an ideological package” (The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock, 209).

The Spice Girls’ ideology is best summarised by their use of the phrase: “Girl Power.” In the Spice Girls book, that was published in 1997 just before the release of their second album, the opening pages claim ‘Girl Power’ to be:

… when…You help a guy with his bag
You and your mates reply to wolf whistles by shouting ‘get your arse out!’
You wear high heels and think on your feet
You know you can do it and nothing’s going to stop you
You don’t wait around for him to call
You stick with your mates and they stick with you
You’re loud and proud even when you’ve broken out in spots
You believe in yourself and control your own life (Spice Girls 1997, 7).

From these statements, ‘Girl Power’ appears to be an expression that connotes independence and self-respect. It is a show of strength and perseverance in the face of stereotypes that expect women to be weak and subordinate. The similarities to feminism are actually articulated in the book: “Feminism has become a dirty word. ‘Girl Power’ is just a nineties way of saying it!” (Spice Girls 1997, 49).

One of the doctrines of ‘Girl Power’ speaks of standing by your friends, an idea that is inherent in the construction of the Spice Girls. The notion of sisterhood is strong in all Spice Girls related texts including their movie, which shows their togetherness through group activity and avoidance of the ‘bitchy’ and jealous female cliché. The book further emphasises the friendship between the five; Melanie C says “We really care about each other and want the best out of each other, so we all look after each other” (Spice Girls 1997, 48). By extension, this sisterhood that the Spice Girls promote is inclusive of the audience that participates in their music. Dafna Lemish says, on this feature of the Spice Girls, “Their music style, forms of performance and body display, as well as celebration of girl talk and female friendship and networking, create a special space for a rebellious female voice” (2003, 19). Therefore ‘Girl Power’ can be taken to be a political message addressing gender inequality.

spice_girls_2008_02_croppedRelated to this is the Spice Girls’ treatment of men, which follows from the feelings of independence articulated by artists like Tina Turner and Madonna. While Madonna was a ‘Material Girl’ and Tina Turner asked ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It?’ the Spice Girls set out new criteria for men to take note of related to the new independent self-respecting woman that the group were promoting. The political aspect to this challenge is evident in the liner notes to their first album. They return the male gaze: “what you looking at boy?” compare themselves with peace activists: “freedom fighters” and make political statements: “spice revolution.”

The Spice Girls’ address of men in their lyrics summarise their attitudes. They set out rules that subvert the stereotypical roles in modern relationships. ‘Say You’ll Be There’ demystifies the nagging demanding woman by having the female say, “there’s no need to say you love me,” instead “all I want from you is the promise that you’ll be there.” And to reinforce the idea of the independent woman they sing, “if you can’t work this equation then I guess I’ll have to show you the door.” Similarly, various other moments in other tracks demand respect and claim a sexual power. In ‘Something Kinda Funny’ the group sings “play my game or get left behind,” in ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ they say “giving is good as long as you are getting” and in ‘2 Become 1’ the woman becomes the dominant and the initiator: “I need some love like I never needed love before (wanna make love to ya baby).”

Moreover, the Spice Girls, through how they address sexuality and men, subvert the ‘slut-virgin’ binary. ‘Wannabe,’ the group’s debut single that went to number one and stayed there for seven weeks, articulates many of the group’s attitudes towards sex that subsequent tracks elaborate on. In the song Melanie C sings: “If you want my future, forget my past.” Such an expression contests the stigma attached to losing one’s virginity. While it is socially acceptable for any male to have a sexual history, negative discourse surrounds the non-virgin female. ‘Wannabe’ claims that it is acceptable that girls can have sexual histories too. Similarly ‘Love Thing’ rejects the idea of love, but approves of desire and sex. This song bridges the gap between the ‘slut-virgin’ binary. These statements are consistent with the group’s articulation of ‘Girl Power’ as an expression of feminism.

However, while the idea of sisterhood is established and a challenge to men’s supremacy, the image of femininity within this collective is a celebration of difference. Here is where the political aspect of gender is evident with the Spice Girls’ progressive portrayal of femininity. In popular music “[t]he construction or performance of gender … is influenced by and also influences specific social and cultural contexts” (Cohen 2001, 232). The Spice Girls were constructed as being five different types of the same facet of society. They assumed five unique personalities and adopted pet names: baby, scary, sporty, ginger and posh spice. In doing this they create a definition of womanhood that is diverse and varied. One can be physically active and outgoing like Sporty Spice, wild and loud like Scary Spice or elegant and sophisticated like Posh Spice.

Outlined above is a number of ways in which the Spice Girls can be seen to be a political. However, while critics have accepted their attempts to make feminist statements, they also argued that the promises they make are empty; “there is no encouragement for girls to use music as a form of expressing anger towards a world that marginalises them” (Douglas 1997, H34). Questions are raised like ‘what are they being asked to do when the Spice Girls encourage them to “Do It”?’ However while these criticisms point out these contradictory struggles with ease, (Leach 2001; Lemish 1998; Dibben 1999) they fail to account for the overall image and appeal of the Spice Girls which makes any issue regarding any specific contradiction inconsequential.

The political significance of the Spice Girls is in line with Simon Firth’s analysis of popular music as a means of creating communities. He argues that the experience of popular music is an experience of identity (Firth, 1996, 121). The Spice Girls construct a feminine space and legitimise various modes of femininity, and in doing so create a community with their audience in which their principles are upheld. The space in which they created is a challenge to hegemony. Therefore there is a political element to their message, one which attempts to reconstruct culture through a 90s form of feminism.


Abel, Sue. “Maori and Tikanga Pakeha Media.” Lecture Presented at Victoria University of Wellington. September 12, 2006.

Bodkin, Sally. “When Humpty Dumpty me the Spice Girls.” In Spring into Music:

Conference and Workshop Papers. Havelock North: Organising Committee of ‘Spring into Music,’ 2000. 41-50.

The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock. Eds. Simon Firth, Will Straw and John Street. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Cohen, Sara. “Popular Music, Gender and Sexuality,” in The Cambridge Companion to

Pop and Rock. Eds. Simon Firth, Will Straw and John Street. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 227-242.

Dibben, Nicola. “Representations of Femininity in Popular Music.” Popular Music. 18.3.1999. 331-355.

Douglas, Susan. “Girls ‘n’ Spice: All Things Nice?” The Nation. 25 August, 1997: H34.

Firth, Simon. “Towards an Aesthetic of popular Music.” in Music and Society: The

Politics of Composition, Performance and Rejection. Ed. R. Leppert and S. McClary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. 133-150.

–. “Music and Identity.” In Questions of Cultural Identity. Ed. S. Hall and P. D. Gay. London: Sage, 1996. 108-127.

Leach, Elizabeth Eva. “Vicars of ‘Wannabe’: Authenticity and the Spice Girls,” in Popular Music, 20.2. 2001. 143-167.

Lemish, Dafna. “‘Spice Girls’ Talk: A Case Study in the Development of Gendered

Identity.” In Millennium Girls: Today’s Girls and Their Cultures. Ed. Sherrie A Inness. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998. 145-67.

–. “Spice World: constructing femininity the popular way” in Popular Music and Society. 26.1. 2003. 17-30.

Opie, Brian. “Introduction to Literature and Cultural Politics.” Lecture Presented at Victoria University of Wellington. February 27, 2006.

Schilt, Kirsten. “‘A little too ironic’: the appropriation and packaging of Riot Grrrl politics by mainstream female musicians,” in Popular Music and Society. 26.1. 2003. 5-16.

Spice Girls. Girl Power! Secanucus, New Jersey: Carol Publishing Group, 1997.

Spice World (Bob Spiers, UK, 1997)