Animated Documentaries

Still from Animated Documentary Ryan (2004)
Still from Animated Documentary Ryan (2004)

This is an extrapolation of the second chapter (Recording Reality: Documentary Film and Television) of ’Representation’, a 2013 book by Stuart Hall, Jessica Evans and Sean Nixon, as seen from an animation student’s perspective.

Initially the word Animated Documentary sounds like an oxymoron, how can animation which by definition is a doctored form of image-making, be used to create non-fictional texts (Bonner, 2013, p. 62). Further reading into the chapter gives us John Grierson’s definition as a ‘creative treatment of actuality’ (Hardy, 1979, p. 11), this clearly focuses on the creator’s hand in the process of documentary filmmaking. This is further explained as a three-step process – the first step is the event in the real world, then the record of it on film, and finally the incorporation of this film into a documentary (Bonner, 2013, p. 62-63). For animation the way the event is recorded becomes important to maintaining a truth claim in the film, this makes the sound and visualization crucial as it can function as a record for the event.

Let’s look at Nina Sabnani’s shorts ‘Mukund and Riaz’ and ‘Tanko Bole Chhe’ that I have discussed in an earlier post, because they maintain some level of truth claim to them. The first provides an account of the experience of the partition of South Asia retelling the experience of Nina’s Father Mukund Sabnani. The title of the film itself gives away the relation to real people. The soundtrack in the film uses a ‘voice-of-God’ narration, similar to what is discussed in Nichols’s definition of Expository Documentaries. Tanko Bole Chhe also has a narrated track but this seemingly comes from one of the people who experienced the event, while the visualization follows animated characters created from the craft community’s work.

Both films are enriched by the use of animation in their visuals, in the case of Mukund and Riaz the event is a painful one to recall for many South Asians with heated opinions in every direction, the use of animation provides distance to the viewer that a graphic photographic depiction would not have done. The use of found cloth and materials helps add another dimension to the materiality of the film while adding to its truth claim. In the case of Tanko Bole Chhe the use of textiles directly from the narrators of the story not only helps fill gaps in places where footage would have been impossible to obtain, it adds value to the artisan community’s craft. In both cases they avoid the problem Bonner puts forth about reenactments (Bonner, 2013, p. 77-78) because viewers clearly knows they don’t represent photographic reality.

Still from Animated Documentary Ryan (2004)
Still from Animated Documentary Ryan (2004)

An arguably better known animated documentary is the 2004 NFB film ‘Ryan’ which tries to relay the characters mental state through literal scars and distortions on their face and body. The film jumps to flashbacks of still images as they are narrated trying initially to relate to the humor tropes of ‘cartoony animation’, when the true nature of the interviewee who was once a successful animator is revealed in a violent outburst it feels all the more real. This film displays a thorough understanding and use of ‘style’ as explained by Bill Nicholas with each of the five points being employed to put forth the filmmaker’s view point. (Nicholas, 2013, p. 102)

Each of these examples use animation not only as a superfluous addition but to add depth to the story.

  • Hall, S., Evans J. and Nixon, S. (2013). Representation. London: Sage Publications, pp 60-119.

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