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Thoughts on Documentaries and Objectivity…

I caught The King of Kong at the weekend and I really enjoyed. It’s a fantastic underdog tale set in a fascinating subculture that really deserves to be seen. However, the movie was beset by claims after the fact that it had been somewhat unfair to Billy Mitchell, the reigning Donkey Kong champion who found himself cast in the role of villain. While fictional movies take liberties with their characters all the time, I can’t help but wonder what sort of standard should apply to documentaries. They obviously require some basis in fact, but to what extent is possible to be entirely fair and objective in bringing any subject to screen?

Something to chew on...

Fictional characters can be complex. The can live on long past a movie’s two-hour runtime, festering in a viewer’s subconscious as we attempt to piece together rationales, excuses and motivations. However, I’d suggest that – as a rule – most fictional characters are several orders of magnitude simpler to comprehend than any real-life people. Writers and directors have a page limit or a runtime in which to build up a fictional character from scratch, and to create a facade that might be convincing enough to create the illusion of depth, or even some semblance of it.

Documentarians have the opposite problem. Instead of constructing a fictional character from the ground up, they have to whittle away at subjects that actually exist and condense the essence of a single character into a relatively short runtime. So they have to make sure to capture the heart of that person within a very narrow window. There’s always going to be the question as to whether they should recut the footage to emphasis what they deem important, and whether that is unfair to the person being covered. Undoubtedly there’s a lot of stuff omitted from any given documentary that might colour the audience’s reception of a particular individual.

Don't spare us the Gore-y details...

However, I’m inclined to believe that the medium and the style of the project has to be taken into account. Producing a two-hour documentary on any subject from video games to the health service, is never going to be a comprehensive examination. It isn’t going to be stored in libraries with reels and reels of audio conversations catching every word publicly uttered by any given individual. If you want to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, then there are archive resources available for you to explore. They can be found on-line easily enough, and this is the era where that information is readily to hand. It’s unreasonable, I’d argue, for any viewer to expect a full history of a given topic served up in a single documentary film.

It’s more feasible for a director to serve you up their own sharp observations, pieced together as best they could be, in order to give you an idea of what they experienced in following their subject. Condensing the facts of a three-month shoot in close proximity to a subject is nearly impossible, so it seems fair that viewers may have to settle for an attempt to capture and serve the feeling behind it all. Billy Mitchell may have done things slightly differently than we saw in the film, but he still said those things he said in the film, and he was still as remote and detached from his challenger as the movie made him appear.

Moore than a little biased?

I’ve always subscribed to the idea that documentary films work best when treated as arguments rather than statements. I don’t go to documentaries to be informed of the raw facts. I go because I want to be convinced – it’s a chance to look at how a film-maker sees a particular event, and to see whether it lines up with the version I might have expected, or if it’s something new. Sure, there are documentaries like Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man that tells stories we might not know about, but even those stories are told from a certain perspective and with certain preconceptions.

The documentarian isn’t just objectively capturing what happened – if they did, they wouldn’t edit down footage and interviews – they are trying to convey a sense of what happened, as seen through a particular viewpoint. No documentary is ever entirely neutral on its subject matter, despite how it might claim to be. Even in researching the material, the film-makers undoubtedly reached a conclusion that they are sharing. Even the very act of deciding what material is and isn’t relevent can be seen to support one particular perspective of events at the expense of another.

Fair game?

I find the best way to react to films like those produced by Michael Moore is to treat them as arguments. They are clear political opinions, articulated with great skill and sophistication, built around the idea of convincing any audience to adopt a clear stance. Moore picks the facts that support him, and ignores those that don’t. There’s no way to call that “objective” while keeping a straight face. Moore is perhaps the most obvious example, but I’d argue that films like Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth do the same sort of thing: they put a particular agenda in front of the viewer, and it’s up to them to decide to accept or reject that viewpoint. It’s obviously more apparent with politically themed documentaries, but I’d make the argument it occurs across the board.

So, that’s how I look at documentaries. I don’t think it’s ever truly possible for a documentary to be completely objective – level-headed in handling its subject, perhaps, but not entirely objective. I’d argue that they function best as an illustration of how the film-maker in question sees the world, not as a statement of how the world actually is.

12 Responses

  1. I’m with you – I’ve long been of the opinion that the only unbiased documentaries are those “observational” sort created by National Geographic.

    Beyond those, everybody’s telling the story they want you to tell.

    The question then becomes how well do they tell it? How much does the story stick with you and change the way you look at an issue?

    Good post – hope the interest in docs continues to climb and that viewers are compelled to learn more about the stories at hand.

    • Thanks Ryan. I love the “story” analogy, because that’s a lot of what these are – a person (or a group’s) particular view on a particular subject. Is it entertaining? Is it convincing?

  2. Of course, it also goes without saying that the level of objectivity versus willful or unintentional misrepresentation of facts varies from documentary to documentary. If every documentary is an argument, we can’t view what they’re arguing as purely subjective expressions of opinion. It’s the job of the viewer to weigh the evidence presented and determine whether it is a credible and convincing documentary and not whether it merely conforms to one’s own worldview.

    On a related note, I’ve always felt that the narrower the scope of a documentary, the more interesting and convincing it turns out to be. Michael Moore’s Sicko was much more interesting and convincing than Capitalism: A Love Story because its focus on the problems of private insurance and the demonstration of something potentially better was a simple argument to make. His sprawling criticism of aspects of capitalism in the latter documentary was unfocused and ultimately ineffective from my own point of view.

    • I definitely agree with you on the latter, if only because there’s only so much space in two hours (or less) and it’s hard to convincingly cover a giant philosophical subject in enough time and detail to engage. After all, most of us know the broad strokes of a lot of things, it’s the nitty-gritty stuff that is truly interesting.

  3. Documentaries are filmed essays, meaning that they have a particular point of view (an argument) which they support and present to the audience. They’re not news media (news channels, newspaper), which should be as objective as possible. Instead, they’re based upon the filmmaker’s perception of reality and the filmmaker’s interpretation of the facts. That’s the intention of most great art – to get you to consider a perspective other than your own and which you may not have considered otherwise. They are not supposed to be objective. It’s nice when they are, but it’s not a requirement.

    • I think that’s a valid point. Ryan made a great “story” analogy and perhaps “essay” is better – because a documentary is typically intended to be at least a pervasive as it is informative. It’s not necessarily in a political manner, but even in a “hey, that movie had a point” sort of way.

  4. Good film story is here which tagged by you i am really very impressed with your post,
    Thanks for sharing….

  5. This is something I always consider when watching a documentary and it’s seldom that you can be sure when a person is being caught in a prism which shines a light other than what they had intended.

    As broadcast news is evidence of, and of which anyone who has ever written a philosophy essay is certain, words (as well as pictures) can be used to tell any story the author wishes to when said artist has the power to edit, juxtapose, and create the context in which the gathered content will be “used.”

    Some documentarians are good at simply observing their subject and showing as many sides as they encounter. Others (cough, Moore, cough) can’t resist the temptation to not only color but construct a meaning for their project before the fact and then go about searching for “quotes.”

    There’s a fine line to be walked when making any sort of work that is going to be represented as non-fiction.

    • That’s an itneresting thought: is there really that big a difference (I mean, beyond technical and practical ones) between the standard we hold “documentaries” and straigh-tup adaptations of “true stories”, if you catch my drift? Both claim to capture real events, and both attempt to reduce those events down to an easily-digestable two-hour runtime, so is there really that big a difference in how we judge them? I mean, we don’t mind films narrative shortcuts as long as the core idea is true, so does the same hold true of documentaries?

  6. As a journalism Student who wants to make documentaries I feel that a documentary film should strive to be as unbiased and objective as possible, but i also understand as you said it is reasonable for directors to omit footage that could put individuals in archetype. Also I feel that by creating a documentary there is some need to make it entertaining and to do so a filmmaker would need to create characters out of these real-life people, so an audience can relate to it. I do feel that certain documentaries require a more fact based portrayal, for example if it is a Biography there will obviously be more bias towards the main subject, but in a film that can affect a businesses such as Morgan Spurlock’s 30 days more objectivity should be attempted because it could incur greater consequences.

    • Maybe I’m just skeptical, but I’ve always felt that even imparting more than a basic amount of information is inherently political and can easily betray bias. The argument over creationism has turned teaching into a political act, acknowledging that what you choose to tell people informs a bias one way or the other. (Notably, neither side seems to suggest teaching both ideas equally and letting kids work it out for themselves, so politicised is the debate.)

      If you’re making a documentary, I’d argue it’s impossible to give complete coverage to all sides and views. Even your choice of interviewees or the questions you ask are going to betray some element of your own perspective (or, at least, a perspective) on the matter. Spurlock is just – I think – a bit more honest about it, and while I am a bit tired of some of his gimmickry, I do respect that.

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