It’s Time to Stop Calling Observational Documentaries “Fly on the Wall”

"As far as I know, a fly is not an intelligent sentient being." - Frederick Wiseman on the labeling of his films.

fly on the wall documentaries National Gallery
Zipporah Films

The term “fly on the wall” is typically credited to Ricky Leacock, though I’m unaware of the source of that claim, and true or not his coinage is only as it pertains to documentary filmmaking. As one of the pioneers of the observational style of the 1960s, he joined Robert Drew and others in the Direct Cinema school, and variations of the phrase might have been stated by any of them. For example, Drew once said while shooting 1963’s Crisis: A Presidential Commitment that they “became part of the woodwork there as we did most every place else.”

Drew and his associates did start out making films where they came off as hidden cameras. The subjects didn’t acknowledge the small crew of one or two, and some of the candidacy feels so unguarded that it’s as if those on screen weren’t even aware they were being filmed. I recall D.A. Pennebaker talking about making Jane and the difficulties of shooting in Jane Fonda’s dressing room and it sounding like Hope Ryden was squeezed into spots where she probably did go unnoticed, even while she was attempting to get close enough with her microphone to record the dialogue.

Yet they also talk of having a personal intimacy with Fonda during that film, where they were “part of her family,” so it’s not like they were just these anonymous flies floating about. Like most of the Drew Associates, Pennebaker would later dismiss the phrase “fly on the wall.” In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter two years ago ahead of receiving his honorary Oscar, he said, “I don’t like to be a fly on the wall. I’d kind of rather be a cat, because cats can look out windows for hours, and you don’t know what they’re watching or how they’re reacting to it.”

Another time, Pennebaker was quoted at an Australian film festival as being against all the labels attributed to them: “Various people began calling our films ‘direct cinema’, others called it cinema verité, but nobody really knew what to call them. Some even called it ‘fly-on-the-wall’ but this wasn’t right, at least I never wanted to be a fly on the wall, it’s a kind of disgusting idea.”

Leacock, too, went against the very term he supposedly coined. At Hot Docs in 2008, he pointed out that “flies aren’t very intelligent. You have to know what you’re looking for.” Fellow Drew Associates member Albert Maysles said something very similar at a DGA event a few years ago. “a fly has no intelligence.” A decade earlier he explained to Salon, “People who feel they know what goes on in the relationship between the documentary filmmaker and the subject sometimes think: ‘Oh, it’s fly on the wall. You don’t want to be noticed or watched.’ That’s not it. A fly on the wall is a fly in the ointment — you’re stuck to the wall, you can’t move around.” That last part about ointment, he tends to acknowledge came first from Leacock.

Younger filmmakers are just as wary of the “fly on the wall” descriptor. At the same DGA event, Barbara Kopple claimed, “I am not a fly on the wall, but I am also not an elephant in the room.” Heidi Ewing added that the term “implies we don’t have perspective.” Never mind that in an interview with the Wall Street Journal about 12th and Delaware a year earlier, she said, “we tried to be sensitive, and just be a fly on the wall.” Others who aren’t observational filmmakers like to also use the term to point out that they are something else. Werner Herzog famously says, “We should not be the fly on the wall. We should be the hornet that stings.”

So, critics reviewing and discussing documentary can’t be too much at fault for using the term in describing a film, no more than we should be to blame for constantly using the label “verite” for the same sort, even though “cinema verite” technically means something entirely different (I have definitely used both). Of course, just because everybody else does it… The main problem with these labels, never mind the filmmakers who don’t like to be shoehorned with defining classifications, is that they’re simple and lazy, shorthand that can be used in brief reviews where fully describing a doc isn’t possible. There is no reason, however, for these to be included in feature and long-form criticism.

And it really shouldn’t be used with films and filmmakers where the laziness is more apparent because the term just doesn’t make sense. I’m mainly referring to reviews of the latest Frederick Wiseman film, National Gallery, which is a documentary of London’s National Gallery museum (see my review here). Wiseman is often lumped in with the Direct Cinema gang, but interestingly one of the main things that separates him would seem to be the most fitting for the “fly on the wall” term. His films are not as much about people as those of the Drew Associates bunch. He’s not part of a family, as Pennebaker put it.

But at the same time, Wiseman always has a presence in his documentaries, a weight that you feel of him not being a fly on the wall but something definitely on the ground. With National Gallery especially, his camera doesn’t seem to be eavesdropping on meetings and lectures and classes. It’s more of an attendee. Wiseman’s films are always a reflection of his perspective of a place, the pieced together depiction, abridged of course, of what he saw in his few months shooting at the location. If anything, he’s more aligned with another of Leacock’s ideas, the “feeling of being there.”

Here’s what Wiseman had to say about his objection to all the usual shorthand terms in an interview with David Winn of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences:

Well I think they are meaningless labels. Cinema verité is a pompous French term. I would never claim my films to be the truth. My films are a report on what I’ve learned. Someone else looking at the same events would see things differently. Observational cinema somehow seems to suggest that you just turn the camera on and let things happen in front of you, when in fact all aspects of movies are the result of thousands of choices. The term ‘observational cinema’ excludes the interpretation, selection and dramatic structure inherent in a making a movie. “Fly-on-the-wall” is another degrading phrase that is used. As far as I know a fly is not an intelligent sentient being. I am quite content to have my films called movies.

As much as I agree that “fly on the wall” is literally a wrong term for his and others’ documentaries, it’s also not something that was ever meant to be taken literally. But what has made it more and more dated, I think, is that we now might better associate “fly on the wall” observational perspective as being like voyeur and surveillance video. A true “fly on the wall” documentary of the National Gallery would just be footage from security cameras on the premises.

When critics use the term today, they show not necessarily a lack of understanding of how the films are made but at the very least a lack of attention paid on what they’re seeing. Film audiences, whether for documentary or fiction, shouldn’t be too conscious of the camera, because that can be a distraction from what’s in the frame, but they should be a little aware of what’s going on outside the edges of the screen, aware that they are watching a film. Critics should have an even greater consideration and awareness, especially with docs, as it’s our job to know or think more about the construct than the general viewer.

Watching documentaries is an act of engagement in a way that’s similar to observational filmmaking. Both only seem passive. And it makes sense that to the less-caring viewer watching things unfold without control on their part is even more “fly on the wall” than the filmmakers who were there and able to control what’s on the screen. There’s a difference, though, between the feeling of being there on the walls and being there attached to Wiseman or whomever’s camera, and it’s the latter that we’re experiencing.

I’ll let another modern documentary filmmaker give almost the last words on the matter. From my interview with Joshua Oppenheimer last summer:

The so-called fly on the wall documentary is a fiction. If I film you going about the day, the big event of the day will be me filming you, not your day. I think that by pretending that’s not the case, by saying, “I’m just a fly on the wall, capturing reality,” we’re actually denying the way documentary really works and then denying some essential insights into the form, which is that a camera operates as an occasion. It provides a space in which people come out with things that they wouldn’t otherwise come out with. They show contradictions, they show conflict, they show emotion that they would otherwise suppress.

Regarding Wiseman, just because he doesn’t always follow people and film them going about their day, that doesn’t matter. There are plenty of people in his films, and some in National Gallery are shown fairly close up. There’s no denying that like any documentary subjects they are conscious of the camera, even if they don’t acknowledge it, and are possibly being unnaturally more performative or more self-conscious as a result. But we can also substitute the place, which might not have human traits of performance and self-consciousness but still can be wholly changed by its being observed.

Now, to be fair to all other critics out there, here is a listing of all the instances I can find where I too have mistakenly lazily used the phrase (even if I do use “faux” often):

“With a faux fly-on-the-wall perspective, we look in on the making of the club’s new show, Désirs.” — review of Wiseman’s Crazy Horse at Spout (1/17/12)

“Somehow both first-person and fly on the wall at the same time.” — on Crazy Horse in the intro of an interview with Wiseman at Spout (1/17/12)

“Wiseman takes his faux fly on the wall style into Philadelphia’s Northeast High School to observe students, teachers and administrators.” on Wiseman’s High School in a list of best docs about education at Nonfics (8/27/13)

“Guo Xizhi’s Mouthpiece is part of the recent “vérité” tradition in Chinese documentary that continues to be partly inspired by the work of American filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, known for his faux-objective “fly-on-the-wall” approach to his subject matter.” — on Mouthpiece at dGenerate Films (12/15/10)

“Same as The Waiting Room, Code Black acts at times like a fly on the wall documentary, and both films are at their best when adhering to that aesthetic.” — review of Code Black at Nonfics (6/23/14)

“More abstract than could qualify it as the direct cinema style usually associated with observational documentary, the beautifully shot yet gruesome film is nonetheless as objective as any other fly on the wall film.” — on Our Daily Bread in a list of the best docs of the last decade for Cinematical (12/17/09)

I’m sure there have been others I can’t find through a basic Google search.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.