Who Do You Think You Are? history and memory in documentary form

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Originally screened on the BBC in 2007, the first Australian series went to air in 2008 on SBS – the Special Broadcasting Service which is a national public broadcaster with a special mandate to reflect the multicultural nature of Australian society. Each episode features a celebrity who traces their ancestry by talking with family members and searching historical documents. Of particular interest as related material for The Fiftieth Gate, in Advanced Module C Representation and Text, are those episodes which reveal the family history of indigenous Australians: Catherine Freeman (series 1), Christine Anu (series 2), Michael O’Loughlin (series 4) and Adam Goodes (which recently aired in series 6).  The episode which featured John Butler (series 2) is also of interest for the treatment of his forbears of Chinese extraction in 19th century Victoria.

Cathy Freeman

Common composition of subject occupying left third of shot and looking into the distance which is suggestive of the future. Visual information, know and established or accepted, is given on the left and new information occupies the right hand side of the frame. Notice the similarity of these shots from the opening sequences of Cathy Freeman’s and Christine Anu’s episodes.

Christiine Anu

It is useful for students to have a clear understanding of documentary conventions, as well as considering the composition of the interview shots. The following points, taken from a film resource written by Robert Yancke in 2009, could be used as a checklist when taking notes or preparing worksheets for different episodes:

  • reaction shot: medium or mid shot, or close up of a person just after significant information has been revealed
  • direct cinema: people are filmed in uncontrolled situations, usually without narration, which suggests an objective observation
  • direct interview: we see and hear the subject (interviewee) and the interviewer asking and answering questions
  • indirect interview: the subject speaks straight into the camera without obvious questions which gives the impression that the audience is being directly spoken to included

Watch some episodes via SBS on Demand or find out more about each series SBS Shop

Read the complete Primer of Documentary Film Techniques by Robert Yancke of the University of Minnesota

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