Some Thoughts on Documentaries

Last semester I had to write a research paper on something pertaining to ethics in the media. I chose to write my paper on documentary film and dealt primarily with reality versus fiction. It’s not the greatest paper, but I thought I would share it. Let me know what you think.

Documentary Film: Fact or Fiction

Through the many different forms of multimedia that are available today, we are constantly being bombarded and heavily influenced by these communication devices. They include television, radio, film, newspapers, the Internet, etc. The sources are endless, as are their range of influence. Because the media wields this kind of power, the issue of ethics comes into play, and it would be expected of us to take it into consideration.

One form of mass communication that I would like to address specifically is documentary film, which is seemingly becoming more popular in recent years. In his book The Reality Effect: Film Culture and the Graphic Imperative, Joel Black quotes Don DeLillo (author) as writing the following in 1982:

The twentieth century is on film. It’s the filmed century. You have to ask yourself if there’s anything about us more important than the fact that we’re constantly on film, constantly watching ourselves. The world is on film, all the time. Spy satellites, microscopic scanners, pictures of the uterus, embryos, sex, war, assassinations, everything” (Introduction).

These words, written over twenty-five years ago, are still very much applicable to our current media-centered state. Black goes on to write about truth versus fiction in film. He makes an interesting point about films that combine both elements into the same package:

It is no longer meaningful or even possible to categorize movies into the traditional dichotomy of fictional films and documentaries—or “nonfiction films,” as they’re now called. More than ever, big-budget fictional entertainments invoke real historical references [. . .] or they implicitly claim documentary status for themselves [. . .] Meanwhile, so-called docudramas freely adulterate historical fact with far-fetched theories, as in Oliver Stone’s JFK (7-8).

While I see where the author is coming from and agree with his distinction between the two styles of filmmaking, I think that he’s shortchanging how much people know about film today. Since we are in a society that is so focused on film, and has been for several years, I propose that people, for the most part, can make a distinction between reality and non-reality in films. People know that Titanic is a work of fiction, along with Schindler’s List. These two films definitely have grounding in history, but are still narratives in the end. It’s when you have a declared documentary that contains fictional elements or doesn’t include certain truths that you have a problem.

Filmmakers like Paul Greengrass, who directed the Jason Bourne trilogy and United 93, uses the “shaky camera” and quick edits to give his films the realistic effect that Black writes about. Gus Van Sant, on the other hand, is exactly the opposite. In his films, such as Gerry and Elephant, he opts for longer shots and steady camera. His shots are bland and amazing. While these films attempt to be more realistic, they are not true documentaries.

At its basic definition, a documentary film is a non-fictional recording of life. While this definition is simple and somewhat easy to understand, there are different styles of documentary films.

In her book entitled Documentary in the Digital Age, Maxine Baker makes a case for the Lumière Brothers as being true documentarists. I agree with her assessment, and believe them to be one of the purest examples of documentary filmmakers. Auguste and Louis Lumière started out in the film industry by making a short film called Sortie d’usine (Workers Leaving the Factory) in 1895. Set outside of their father’s factory at closing time, all the film does is show exactly what the title says: Workers leaving the factory. It’s a simple little film, but it serves to show what a documentary truly is when you get down to it. It’s a recording of life (Ezra, 28).

Another reason why I think that the Lumière’s film is a pure example of documentary film is the time in which it was filmed. The first public showing of a film was also in 1895, but in Germany. They beat the Lumière brothers by a mere two months (Ezra, 2). When the Lumières made their first film, film was in its infancy, and people generally didn’t know all that much about moving pictures. When the workers leave the factory in their short film, they are the real deal. They are not painfully aware of the camera or infatuated with getting a few seconds of fame.

Now zoom ahead about 113 years later. In 2008 a documentary was released called American Teen. Written and directed by Nanette Burstein, the film follows the lives of four high school seniors in Indiana throughout their last year at school. In one interview, Burstein talks about American Teen and what it’s really about:

It’s really about being 17 and the pressures that you face from your peers trying to figure out who you are versus who you’re presenting to them. And then having to make these important decisions about your future while being completely ill-informed [or with] pressure from your parents to be a certain way. It’s really about the struggle to be that way (Reeler).

While I loved the film, I do question the authenticity of the subjects. Unlike the factory workers in 1895, the high school students are fully aware that they are being documented. I’m not saying that their personal stories, which they are very open about in the film, aren’t true. It just seems that in some cases, like in the more informal group scenes, that it serves more as a self-fulfilling prophecy than capturing real life.

Quite possibly the most entertaining documentary that I’ve ever seen, 2007’s The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is a great documentary which covers a conflict of epic proportions…at least for diehard classic arcade gamers. Seth Gordon’s King of Kong follows Steve Wiebe in his quest to beat Billy Mitchell’s high score in Donkey Kong. The story is a rollercoaster of emotions and completely sucked me into it. And that’s where the film’s problem lies. Calling itself a documentary it has unwritten rules to follow, namely the importance of telling the truth. Walter Day, who is the head video game referee at Twin Galaxies arcade, has criticized the film’s accuracy in a few areas. His main contention is how the film depicts the interaction between the two rivals, making Mitchell out to be a heartless bastard, and putting Wiebe on a pedestal so to speak. The problem with this is that it appears the director, Seth Gordon, made or authorized these changes in order to make it more entertaining for the audience. In a film like this you need a protagonist (Wiebe) and an antagonist (Mitchell). This decision, in my mind, takes away from the film’s credibility as a documentary. It’s closer to the afore-mentioned docudrama, like Titanic or JFK.

Along these veins is the ethical issue of manipulating the audience. I recently watched Michael Moore’s SiCKO, which deals with the health care industry in America. He starts off SiCKO with a collection of personal horror stories that people have had with their health care. Moore’s main point throughout the film is how money-driven our health care system is, and expertly compares it to foreign health care systems in Canada and Europe, which are basically free. He conducts several interviews with people in the industry and people affected by it, and also shows a lot of archival footage of the higher ups, including President George W. Bush. Overall I thought SiCKO was well made and enjoyed it. The main problem that I had with the film is Moore’s subtle manipulations of the audience through his audio and visual elements. I prefer a documentary that simply shows me what’s going on and then let’s me think about it, rather than trying to sway me to one side or another. (Tony Kaye’s documentary on abortion, Lake of Fire (2006) is a great example of attempting to be unbiased) For example, Moore repeatedly uses emotionally attuned music that fits with the point that he’s trying to make. It comes across as being manipulative and ends up distracting me from what’s going on in the film.

In summary, I believe that documentary films should make truth their primary focus during the creative process. Documentaries, fundamentally, show life as it is, raising awareness for important issues that exist in the world that we live in. The viewer should also be respected, not manipulated to agree with what the filmmaker has to say.


One Response

  1. Good work. Having just seen Bigger, Stronger, Faster, I think honest documentaries are still out there. I like both Kong and American Teen, but sure, I can understand your concerns with them. And regarding Sicko, well I didn’t enjoy it precisely because of the manipulation I felt Moore was trying to achieve. I like the subjects he tackles, I just don’t like he does it all the time. I missed Lake of Fire but should check it out. Anyway, nice paper!

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