Friday, July 02, 2004
Some Thoughts On The Nature Of Documentary

Every time Michael Moore releases a film, I find myself having the same conversation. Someone -- generally someone who disagrees with Mr. Moore, though not always -- comes along and says, "Yeah, but it's not a documentary." This time around it was my mother... her statement, after lamenting that Fahrenheit 9/11 was all anyone was talking about, was that "it's an editorial, not a documentary!"

After a brief statement to the contrary -- was this really the best tactic to take with her heavily-film-educated daughter? -- I let it drop; the part that I found most irritating was not the refutation of Moore's opinions (I'd assumed that much, what else is new?), but the unawareness of the simple wrong-ness of that line of reasoning. Not that Mom's alone in that -- far from it, although conservatives seem to place a special stake on it whenever Michael Moore comes into the conversation. There are an awful lot of people who have never given the subject much thought. Indeed, outside the cloistered little word of documentarians, society in general is woefully uninformed on the subject, including the well-educated. So, to address the topic once and hopefully be done with it (for this blog, at least), a few thoughts on the word "documentary" and its meanings and implications.

"Documentary film" is an incredibly broad, dynamic genre. One of the best definitions I've ever heard for "documentary" came from a nine-year-old. He said that a documentary was "a movie about real things." In many respects, this is about as rigid as most of us feel comfortable being. Another useful one, posited by John Grierson in "Cinema Quarterly" is this: "Documentary is the creative treatment of reality." This, obviously, can embrace a huge amount of material of all different kinds; the only requirements are that a) reality be involved (separating documentary from fiction film) and b) that creativity also be involved (separating documentary from journalism.) To pull the boundaries in a bit tighter (thus excluding, say, docu-drama and "reality TV" from the category), we might lean on the definition from the Film Studies Dictionary: "[A]ny film practice that has as its subject persons, events, or situations that exist outside the film in the real world." (No, "Temptation Island" doesn't exist outside the show.)

Note what is not assumed in any of these definitions: there is no mention of objectivity as a prerequisite; nor is there is any disqualification for manipulation of material. Obviously, there are other definitions, some of which are quite a bit more rigid than these. When I studied documentary from an anthropological perspective in college, one of the main frustrations came from the fact that, while film is obviously an invaluable tool in documenting other cultures, the imposition of the filmmaker's perspective was highly undesirable. And yet, true objectivity is impossible... as soon as you set your camera up here instead of there, as soon as you point your lens at this rather than that, you've made a subjective choice, and thus have, in a small way, imposed your perspective. For an anthropologist, documentary film is more of an intellectual trap than a creative medium, and many hours have been spent trying to find ways around this problem. Nobody has succeeded yet.

Fortunately for us, the definitions favored by most practitioners aren't nearly as limiting, and we can use documentary film as an artform rather than a quantitative research tool; so for us, the looser definitions will suffice.

Therefore a few misconceptions about documentary film, discussed:

1) Documentaries are supposed to be unbiased.

The only way to ensure a lack of bias is to maintain strict objectivity. Apart from being impossible in this imperfect reality, this is considered neither necessary nor even particularly desirable in a documentary film generally speaking. Documentarians are NOT journalists, and so don't work under the same conventions and guidelines as journalists. To be sure, there is some amount of bleed-over between documentary and journalism, and this is fine, so long as we recognize that journalistic documentary is merely one point along an immensely broad spectrum that also embraces dozens of very non-journalistic sub-genres, including propagandistic documentaries, abstract documentaries, art documentaries, et cetera. A lack of bias is a quality that documentary film can include, but it's far from a defining element.

2. Propaganda isn't documentary.

This is one of those problematic statements, made trickier by the connotations that have been attached to the word "propaganda." You say "propaganda" and all anyone thinks of are Nazis and communists (or, alternately, WWII newsreels, which were heavily propagandistic.) People rarely think of advertising (which is refined commercial propaganda) in this context, although it fits very comfortably inside the definition. You'll also notice that much propaganda still fulfills the few requirements of documentary film.

In the most general sense, propaganda is any message that is intended to serve a particular agenda. If we use this definition as a guide, then every political speech, every campaign ad, every editorial, and 95% of Fox News qualifies as propaganda. And yet, few of those who throw the word "propaganda" at Michael Moore would feel comfortable applying it to, say, Sean Hannity as well. Here we see the subjective side of the word "propaganda" coming into play.

What most people mean when they start throwing around the word "propaganda" in a perjorative sense is that they believe the message in question is false. This becomes a game of semantics -- in order to argue that "propaganda" isn't "documentary," you have to have already decided what you're referring to with those terms -- something few outside the field have considered prior to making the statement. I personally prefer to leave the connotations of veracity and falsehood at the door. It's quite possible to discuss the merits and weaknesses of a given film without making sly innuendoes about one's odious totalitiarian leanings and commitment to honesty. This use of the word "propaganda" also overlooks the fundamental point that sometimes propaganda is true and correct; just because a point is made in the service of a given agenda doesn't mean that point is inherently wrong.

If we apply the word "propaganda" to a Michael Moore film in the less-charged, intellectually-honest sense, then it's a reasonable point to make; indeed, I've made it myself in this very blog. It would be better for everyone, though, if we could limit ourselves to that formal definition. Assuming we do, then propaganda often meets the criterea for the documentary genre quite easily, and I'd argue that Fahrenheit 9/11 is included. Certainly, there are also types of propaganda that don't fit in -- advertising, for example, or propaganda that's so far out as to have little basis in reality (although this in itself presents some semantic issues). Here we start bumping up against the debates that have been frustrating us for centures: questions of libel, questions of artistic merit, and so on. Some propaganda films that espouse appalling agendas -- for example, Triumph of the Will -- were remarkably artistically innovative for their time; and what qualifies as libel is always a sticky subject. Obviously there is very little consensus on the subject as a whole, and I wouldn't claim to have any easy answers. The best we can do is try to look at the world with an open mind and take each case as it comes.

3. Documentaries are never staged or scripted.

We can throw this one out immediately: anyone who has ever watched a documentary that includes a re-enactment of some kind has seen a staged and scripted bit of documentary. No sane filmmaker would go into a production without some idea of what he or she intends to shoot, and any amount of planning is arguably a form of staging and scripting. There is a point beyond which most documentarians will not go; a film that is heavily staged and scripted is moving off into the realm of docu-drama. But there's not any definitive guideline saying how much is too much; it's strictly down to the filmmaker and her material to decide. Again, this isn't journalism, and documentarians are not bound by the same standards and practices. Our primary job is to tell a story that is firmly rooted in external reality, but to do so in an artistically interesting way.

This argument is one that always interests me, because it's one I've been having with myself for a long time now. I feel much less conflicted about Fahrenheit 9/11 than I do with some of Moore's previous work; it's a far more solid film than, say, Bowling For Columbine (in technical documentary terms, of course). In thinking about the question over the last couple of months, I've found that I'm beginning to soften considerably, becoming more willing to take a broader position that encompasses more than I was previously. Mr. Moore seems determined to make me question my assumptions... and fair enough, that's kind of his thing. And as with all things in life, I reserve the right to change my mind.

For the record, I still think there are many better docs out there, though. May they one day get as much recognition as Fahrenheit 9/11.
4:16 PM ::
Amy :: permalink