The ingredients of BBC audio documentary about domestic abuse

“We cannot protect ourselves emotionally from the impact of a close voice-recording of someone sharing their story of love or suffering…” — Mia Lindgren.

“What is an audio documentary?”

The question was asking by Sam Coley in my class last week. Sam is Associate Professor in Radio Production at Birmingham City University. In the last week class, we learned about narrative for radio stories.

Several answers of the question came up from the students. “It should be a reality,” Victòria Oliveres — one of my classmate — said. Another classmate said documentary should touch the emotion.

In fact, there are many definitions or interpretations of documentary. Tim Crook — Chair of Professional Practices Board of Chartered Institute of Journalist said that documentaries depict or represent a real rather than imaginary world.

“But the end of the day, documentaries are stories from life,” Sam said.

As a story, Sam continue, documentaries should have the characters and the plot. There will be a conflict and — hopefully — some resolutions. It is also constructed by narrative.

“Most importantly, the story will say something about some universal idea,” he said.

An analysis of BBC’s documentary

On 12 October 2017, BBC published a documentary about domestic abuse in Indonesia trough the radio channel. Claire Bolderson, the journalist, went to Yogyakarta, one of 33 provinces in Indonesia. She interviewed a victim, activists, police, and several women in the city.

Listen to the piece here:

The story is started by a noise in a busy road of Yogyakarta. Then the narrator’s voice — who is Bolderson herself— describe the situation. However, it sounds like the narrator voice was recorded in a studio, not at the road.

The narrative is using the third person perspective. After describing about the setting, Bolderson interviewed a victim. The interviewee cannot speak English. As a listener, I can hear she is speaking in Indonesian Language for about two seconds, an then her voice was replaced by the interpreter voice, which is in English.

I think, this is the challenge of audio documentary. How to deliver quotes to the audience when the interviewee speaks different language?

In movie or film, subtitle can be used, thus the authenticity of the source — the accent, emotion, intonation — can be delivered to the audience.

In radio or audio documentary, subtitle is impossible. The only way is using an interpreter voice that obviously has different emotion and intonation. However, at least the message is just the same and the audience understand.

After giving a brief story about a domestic violence victim, the story moved to an NGO that work to advocate the victims, Rifka Annisa. Bolderson described the NGO’s office before quoting people from the NGO. This time, no interpreter’s voice because the source can speak English.

Until the end of the story, BBC uses the same pattern; description first, then quote from interview, move to another place, description, then quote again. This pattern was used until the end of the story.

Source: Rifka Annisa

Not all of the descriptions that read by narrator were recorded in a studio. In the middle of the story, when Claire was on the way to a hospital, she said something like this:

“I am on my way now to Panti Rapih Hospital…” with the noise of motorcycle as a back sound. As a listener, I imagined that Bolderson was on the motorcycle It sounds more real.

The main character in the story is Rifka Annisa, the NGO. The solution that was promised by the title of the documentary is also answered by the NGO.

The ingredients are complete

Mia Lindgren did a doctoral thesis about Journalism as research: Developing radio documentary theory from practice in 2011. She studied at Murdoch University, Australia.

Lindgren mentioned several ingredients that build a radio documentary, those are; scenes, sounds, narrator, music and interview. All of these ingredients are mixed together into a documentary through the use of dramaturgy.

This audio documentary about domestic abuse in Indonesia has all of the ingredients. It has scenes which bring the listener from one setting to another. The sounds of people talking, vehicle horn, and noise at the busy road help the listeners imagine where the journalist was.

There are two types of sound; wild sound that come for the real atmosphere and special effect which are created in a studio. In this piece, BBC only use the wild sound.

The other ingredient is narrator. Lindgren define a narrator as the glue holding together the many different component that make up the story line.

As I mentioned before, this documentary by BBC is using narrator to describe a situation that cannot be depicted by the sound. For example, the colour of building or how is the interviewee looks like.

“The narrator can be big like an almighty God that can see all parts of the programme and into the heads of all the participants simultaneously, or she can be small and cunning like an inner voice who whispers insights to you. The narrator can be formal or informal, full of humor or humorless, serious, critical or friendly; depending on which role she has selected for herself and which role suits the programme. The narrator can be almost invisible and objective, or very noticeable, dominant and subjective.” (Lindgren, 2011)

In this case, the narrator is big like an almighty God, formal, and very noticeable.

Music is also an important ingredient. It can illustrates about the place and time. If the scene comes from 1950’s, then old jazz or classic music can be used. If it comes from 1980’s, probably R&B will be a good choice.

Regarding to the place, music can depicts where the location is. When the scene takes place in India, an Indian song can be added.

BBC used several music in her documentary. Gamelan music — traditional instrumen from Java, Indonesia — played to show that the scene was in Yogyakarta, a province in Java Island.

The last ingredient is interview. Claire Bolderson, the journalist used a lot of interviews to build her documentary.

Source: Nathan Evans Illustration “Street Art” Interview 4 — BBC Radio Leeds

Expository and participatory mode

Bill Nichols in Introduction to Documentary explains the six modes that documentaries use. The journalist or producer can use one of them, combination of more than one, or use them all.

The six mode of documentary are; expository, poetic, observational, reflective, participatory, and performative.

The BBC documentary about domestic abuse in Indonesia combined two modes of documentary; expository and participatory.

Expository mode often uses a direct voice. There is a commentator voice that directly talk to the audience. For example, it tells the audience who a person in the documentary is.

On the other hand, in a participatory mode, the producer becomes a visible character who participate in the interview or events and interact with the subject of the documentary. The producer or journalist does not try to hide behind the camera or microphone. Nichols said that interviews are a classic example of participatory mode in documentaries.