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The Great Lie of Documentary Film

Author. Educator. Artist. Matt writes about what fascinates him. His background includes film production, teaching, and counseling.

Townspeople look on during the filming of a documentary about Sinenjongo High School in Joe Slovo Park, Cape Town, South Africa.

Townspeople look on during the filming of a documentary about Sinenjongo High School in Joe Slovo Park, Cape Town, South Africa.

When we think about the purpose of documentaries, we often think of fact-based educational films or visual histories. The truth is, however, that as the film industry has progressed, it has become quite difficult to label what it truly means to say “documentary” film. Originally the title was accepted as a guarantee of truth, but with the public’s realization of the manipulative abilities of special effects and the psychology utilized in the editing room, images captured on film have lost much of their merit. The information age has forced us to pry apart our acceptance of what is real, question the honesty of the “real” images we see and examine the validity of the promised delivery of truth from the documentarian to the viewer.

How Do Documentaries Lie to Their Audience?

Today, the so-called documentary comes in a multitude of shapes and forms with countless ambitions. John Grierson calls it a “creative treatment of actuality,” suggesting that the particular forms and strategies we find in any particular documentary film are closely related to, if not determined by, the film's purpose. Bill Nichols has noted this by stating: “Documentary has come to suggest incompleteness and uncertainty, recollection and impression, images of personal worlds and their subjective construction." If such subjectivity, even in a genre defined by its objectivity, is accepted as inescapable, the question lies in how films today can work in different ways to foreground unconscious or figural assumptions that lie behind social and cultural constructions of reality.

Selective Observation

Modes of documentary such as "direct cinema" and "ethnographic documentary" allege to simply observe, as objectively as possible, the real world. The camera simply records reality, it does not attempt in any way to shape, organize, or manipulate it. These days, however, most of us are not so naive to believe that this goal is ever attainable.

Even in Lumiere's Workers Leaving the Factory, - a forty-five-second "documentary" of workers leaving his family’s factory in 1895 (and the first bit of motion picture film ever shot) - you can see clearly that Lumiere had his workers collect just inside the factory gates and wait there until he got his camera rolling. It is also clear that he had instructed the workers not to acknowledge the camera, to just keep walking past it as if it wasn't there. This early attempt to document “real” life reminds us that "ALL images are selective and partial representations of some unseen, unaccounted for, and much larger context, and because the image has been freed, or isolated, from that larger context (which is unavailable to the viewer), images can easily be made to mislead and misrepresent that context.” When one thinks of the process that goes into a film and the choices that must be made ahead of time (the kind of camera, the kind of film, the coloring if any, the pace, etc.) it becomes clearer as to why so many find it difficult to continue attributing the term “objective” with film of any kind. Even the choice of subject matter is based on the filmmaker’s opinion concerning what is important, valuable, or meaningful enough to be shot and, just as importantly, what is not.

This "truest and most human story" was plagued with controversy over staged scenes and false "facts", not the least of which was that Nanook's name was not even Nanook.

This "truest and most human story" was plagued with controversy over staged scenes and false "facts", not the least of which was that Nanook's name was not even Nanook.

Definitive Cultural Reality

One area where this problem has found prominence is the portrayal of the complete reality of a culture. The films of exotic peoples and places that we have come to associate with ethnographic documentary are actually deviations from true documentary. In their representation of human societies, they routinely sacrifice the infinite complexity of reality in an attempt to produce a definitive cultural analysis for the sake of entertainment and the forwarding of a political or social agenda.

If we accept that the portrayal of a complete and objective reality is certainly impossible, the greater problem for the filmmaker then lies within how to advance the viewer past his own embedded assumptions. Acclaimed director Trinh T. Minh-ha, who has great concern for this predicament, has responded by making films that seek directly to “jolt us from our Discovery Channel expectations of documentary, and make us aware of our own narrow Western cultural view.”

This brings us to the concept of the “other”, or how “we” as a collective (whatever that crowd that might be) view those outside of our own. Certainly Western culture is not the only assemblage guilty of social and cultural constructions and assumptions of reality. Creativity and objectivity will run into conflict no matter where the film is produced. However, we live in a society that is essentially a melting pot of races, ethnicities, religions, and countless other groupings allowing people to identify and limit themselves as one thing and not another, that is riddled with inherent assumptions about “others”. Fortunately, there has been an increasing awareness of the importance of accurate portrayal in film of people, life, and events both within our own and outside, in order to force a reevaluation of fixed and unjustified notions.

Vincent Moon and crew prepping for the filming of their documentary An Island about local band Efterklang on the small Baltic island of Als.

Vincent Moon and crew prepping for the filming of their documentary An Island about local band Efterklang on the small Baltic island of Als.

Subjective Construction

The trend of recent documentaries has therefore seen a growing acceptance of truth as being the subjective construction of our perceptions. In response, Linda Williams calls for a definition of documentary “not as an essence of truth but as a set of strategies designed to choose from among a horizon of relative and contingent truths.” This claim brings us closer to the idea that documentary truth lies in an understanding of film as being similar in its processes to the way that humans organize the world through perception. Williams is suggesting that in our everyday lives we choose to obtain from our experience of the world an understanding of it based on the constant perceptions and organization of that experience.

Again this brings us back to the concept of truth. As the belief that truth in imagery is a function of the image’s relationship with its subject pushed farther into the background, there seems to be a drive towards understanding truth as being perception, that which defines our world for us.

The Thin Blue Line

A primary example of this truth as perception theory is Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. One dark night in 1976, a Dallas police officer named Robert Wood was shot dead by someone inside a car he had stopped for a minor traffic violation. We are introduced to that man who was convicted of that murder as a young drifter named Randall Adams who is, during the film's production, serving the 11th year of a life sentence. The chief witness against him, David Harris, has been sentenced to death for another murder. In the tense last moments of The Thin Blue Line, we hear a tape recording of Harris confessing to the murder of Wood.

This film used several strategies to force us to think for ourselves rather than succumb to the age-old habit of thoughtless spectator. To begin with, most controversially, Morris incorporated dramatization into the film to recreate visually the verbal accounts of witnesses; a move that denied the movie “documentary” status in some circles. In conjunction, what makes this film unique is that it allows the portrayal of multiple points of view, challenging us to derive our own conclusions from the contradictions delivered by all those involved.

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The viewer is pulled into the surreal world of the criminal investigator as, like the detectives on the case, he is presented with the clues in “real life” succession. The dramatizations never claim to be anything more than what they are: a recreation of a certain person’s point-of-view. In fact, certain images during these dramatizations, such as the fading back and forth of contradictory automobile descriptions, serve as lyrical symbols that highlight the realness of the film. We choose what we believe about what we see, and create elaborate storylines to which we refer in order to make our way through life. This film makes a declaration of truth by attempting to illustrate this process of the construction of our understanding of reality. Therefore, a definition should be given for “Documentary truth” that incorporates the processes in making, not simply the ‘actuality’, of an image.

Filming of a documentary about sea turtles with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Filming of a documentary about sea turtles with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In much of this film, we see that the search for meaning in the world is related to the search for aesthetic pleasure. The police officer made no attempt at hiding the fact that he found aesthetic pleasure in the details of the case he was trying to extract the truth from; his mind, in the process of searching for truth, was searching for aesthetic understanding. The implication of this for documentary film is that aesthetic constructions do not need to be contradictory to the documentary’s interest in exploring the truth. In fact, the mind’s search for truth, if we understand it as a part of the selection and creation of meaning through perception, would seem to be fundamentally linked to the search for aesthetic pleasure.

At the end of the film, when we realize that Randall Adams is in fact innocent, we expect to feel a sort of closure, but in fact, even if you are familiar with the story and are aware that he was released soon after the film, you are put into the place of those who viewed the film in 1988 and left knowing that regardless of what happens next, this man has spent the last 11 years of his life in prison for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This non-fiction film reveals injustice, but in the end doesn’t portray it as unexpected. Adams’ innocence is suggested as a possible reality in a surplus of alleged truths in the very beginning. Therefore when his innocence is revealed as the “real” reality we are disheartened almost as much by his misfortune as our inability to derive that conclusion on our own, almost like guessing wrong on a multiple choice question.

Tongues Untied

In a film that addresses the relationship of “we” to the “other”, Emmy Award-winning director Marlon Riggs uses beautifully articulated anger to place sexuality in a contemporary social context in his acclaimed account of black gay life, Tongues Untied. Using poetry, personal testimony, rap and performance, Tongues Untied describes the homophobia and racism that confront black gay men. Some of the accounts are upsetting: the man refused entry to a gay bar because of his color; the college student left bleeding on the sidewalk after a gay-bashing; the loneliness and isolation of the drag queen. Riggs also steps away from the direness to present the rich flavor of the black gay male experience, from pride marches and smoky bars to the language of the "snap diva" and vogue dancer.

It presents the situation, politics, and culture of black gay men using an intense mixture of styles ranging from social documentary to experimental montage, personal narrative, and lyric poetry.

Riggs is angry that black homosexuals are ignored within the larger gay culture and discriminated against by black heterosexuals and makes an attempt to affirm and validate his existence. As he recounts his experiences of bullying as a teenager, we recall our own adolescent doubts and anxieties. Yet, while many sympathize with the adolescent facing hostile schoolmates, the compounding of racism and homophobia call upon a leap of imagination for many non-black gay viewers. Although we are reminded of the jeers of our youth we quickly become acutely aware of the fact that, unlike Riggs, for most of us that was a temporary hardship.

Though Riggs envisioned his film primarily as a motivator of black gays (“We could make a serious revolution together,”) its technique compellingly challenges all audiences without subordination. Elevated from the academic spectator, the viewer becomes a participant in his performative representation: as a student of "SNAP!thology"; as a silent intermediary in the "religion vs. politics" debate sequence; or as a capable interpreter of streetwise black gay vernacular. Blending songs and archival footage of the Civil Rights Movement with contemporary scenes at gay pride and AIDS demonstrations, Riggs sounds a call to action with the defiant battle cry: Black men loving black men is the revolutionary act.

Tongues Untied - Trailer (1989)

Using forms of artistic expression significant to black gay culture, Riggs designs animated, empirical illustrations to make his arguments and communicate his internalized anger and ultimate celebration of male love. The penetrating poetry of Essex Hemphill and his contemporaries steers the narrative through scenes of nightclub "vogueing," a nostalgic do-wop quartet's crooning, and the jokes, gestures and jibes of the black gay community. By connecting these sequences through varied editing techniques reflective slow-motion sequences, rapid cuts, gradual dissolves, portraits screened over moving images Riggs effectively portrays the rage and compassion that characterize his confliction and forces an awareness in the viewer of the humor and sadness that is his everyday life. This awareness was his goal from the beginning, and not surprisingly it was the lack of awareness on the part of “others” that almost kept the film from being shown on public television.

The Washington Post's David Mills, writing on July 19, commented on this ignorance by insisting that "The only thing Tongues Untied promotes is a deeper under-standing of the world...Viewers who think they simply can't deal with the sight of two shirtless men rolling around in bed in slow motion, well, perhaps they should consider this an instructive dose of reality."

Construction of Meaning Instead of Truth

By viewing the current path that the documentary is taking, it is evident that filmmakers wish to suggest that the truth documentary film seeks to put forth is precisely the construction of meaning that takes place when confronted with contradictions. That in our ever-growing and ever-changing society the threat of alienation for some is becoming vastly apparent due to antiquated assumptions and inherent convictions. That the truth lies somewhere between what we see and what we know but never just one or the other. That our willingness to accept what is put in front of us is keeping us from experiencing the whole world around us.

A small hindrance to all of documentary film is that it has long been considered a lesser form of the drama. This is an obstacle that many documentary filmmakers have in response, to survive or gain public space or attention, have adapted techniques, such as sentimental closure, to give the audience that sort of satisfied, complete, and untroubled feeling. It is only recently that Western films, even fiction films, have begun to explore the realm of open-endedness. More contemporary documentary filmmakers are attempting to educate their audiences while still leaving much of the film to the viewer's own interpretation. The documentary utilizes a wide variety of stylistic techniques but ultimately thrives on the driving force that what you are seeing is “the real”; not necessarily the images projected on the screen, but the content. Most ironically, it is now the documentary filmmaker, whose intended message is established with the conception of film production, that is beseeching you to think for yourself, and no longer just believe everything you see and hear.

Filming the National Geographic Documentary about Camp Leatherneck,  a 1,600 acre Afghan Armed Forces base in Helmand Province, Afghanistan

Filming the National Geographic Documentary about Camp Leatherneck, a 1,600 acre Afghan Armed Forces base in Helmand Province, Afghanistan

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