Munificent Documentary



Some municipes at work on a Green Bay Media documentary shoot!

In the previous post I outlined the first half of an hour’s class I gave to students of Communications from Michigan State University as part of their British Mass Media Programme visit to the UK. Having considered how the ‘I’ of the film-maker interacts with the ‘You’ of other people, who are the subjects of the film, to create the ‘Us’ of the viewing community, we moved on to reflect on what Communication is, and what it is for, and furthermore what the role of a professional communicator might be – all in 20 minutes!

Looking into the etymology of a word is a well-tried (even hackneyed) way of opening up some levels of meaning within it. When asked about the meaning of the word communication only one of the students ventured anything, a hesitant, “Community?” Which is a pretty appropriate answer.

I suspect that, since Communications is a professional field with a high profile and since these days we are all busy ‘doing’ Communications on one gadget or another much of the time, it is very easy for us not to step back and take a look  at what this crucial aspect of life is for.

I said to these American students, as I say to all students, that one of the reasons for doing a university course is to find out what life is asking of you. It’s important to recognise that legitimate element of exploration. It may be that you don’t go on to specialise in Communications because you come to realise it’s not the area that excites you and that will keep you fascinated for the rest of your life. It can happen that students get thrown (or jump) into a degree course that requires all their available energy and they don’t get much chance to surface and figure out whether it really is the pond they want to be swimming in.

So, having barely met these young people, I invited them to take a step back for some perspective (cheeky, or what, on my part – but they went along with it good-naturedly).

I’ve always loved Latin (in a very amateur way) perhaps because I’m no mathematician and the solid geometrics of Latin grammar is the nearest I get to the puzzle-solving pleasure others find in calculations. Inside communicare is munus, a gift, but also a duty. The municeps was the official who carried out a responsibility officially entrusted to him for the good of the municipium, the civic body (hence ‘municipality’). There is an echo of this munus in the word ‘immune’ – exemption from a duty; and in ‘remuneration’ – the money given for the exercise of the responsibility.

Implicit in the munus, and with an older, Sanskrit root, is the notion of exchange and sharing, and it’s a sharing for the sake of the moenia, the city within walls, the recognised unit of interlinked citizens which has to be kept strong and protected for the common good.

Underlining this notion of service and responsibility, then, what function do Communications, in the modern sense, have for our communities, our societies? A link with that municeps is obvious. The professional communicator serves neighbours and does so by facilitating the sharing of life, whether that life is expressed in experiences, information, ideas…

The communicator keeps the life-imbued blood circulating around the civic body. This circulation enables individuals to act as a group more effectively because they learn about one another, about similarities and differences. The individual, in contact with others, is better able to conceive of the interests of the social group.

It’s the I/You/Us relationship again. (See previous post Dancing into Documentary)

Documentary holds out the promise of the Real and the documentary-maker claims to present the True. The documentary-maker’s function in the circulation of life within the social body is at the service of the Truth.

If that sounds like a munus for which you’d like to be a municeps then maybe documentary is for you. Plus it is the most brilliant fun.

We then watched a second student film as an example of an important facet of this Real/True aspect of documentary – witness. We’ll take a look in the next post.