Central Question(s): Representing ‘Truth’ on Film

It is a common misconception that documentary got its start as an art form both ‘above’ and fundamentally ‘apart from’ fiction film. In fact, documentary is—and always has been—a film genre, one that was intimately wrapped up in the politics, frivolities, and consumer-driven market of ‘the movies.’ In fact, while the form has changed quite significantly in its general intents, mechanisms, and market appeal over the past 100+ years of its existence, one component that hasn’t changed is its existence within the realm of film as a genre.

Interestingly, we see a rather different phenomenon in the literature world. In the world of literature, the distinction between ‘stories that are intended to represent real events,’ and ‘stories that do not represent real persons or events that actually occurred’ seems to be much more fronted. Specifically, the distinction between the forms ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ would rarely be regarded as a difference in genre. To make a scientific comparison, one might call ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ literature the phylae of prose literature, with ‘prose,’ ‘drama,’ and ‘poetry,’ being the kingdoms and the unique genres of both fiction (e.g., ‘science fiction,’ ‘romance,’ ‘literary fiction,’ ‘young adult,’ etc.) and nonfiction (e.g., ‘self-help,’ ‘memoir,’ ‘history,’ etc.) being separate orders beneath them.

On the other hand, with film, these distinctions appear to be equalized. The kingdom is ‘film,’ and beneath it, we are already at its genres: drama, comedy, action, thriller, horror, documentary (etc.).

If I were to ask a handful of individuals without formal film schooling or experience in film theory what a documentary’s purpose is today, I would no doubt get a mix of answers all along the same lines of “to explain something” or “to inform.” I would be extremely hard-pressed to find even one answer along the lines of “to entertain.” Even first-year film students often arrive at a similar conclusion. Certainly, documentaries can be entertaining. They can be funny, compelling, shocking, disturbing—all qualities shuffled among the various other genres of film. But few would argue that a primary or even secondary purpose of the documentary genre is to entertain.

I find this modern misconception very interesting, because it really gets to the root of the disconnect between the modern conceptualization of the documentary as something ‘above’ and ‘apart from’ fiction films and the deeply rooted history of the form in its entertainment value.

The documentary genre

So what actually distinguishes documentary from other film genres?

Well, as is the case with genres by nature of their definition, film genres vary by their conventions. In particular, the genre of documentary is distinguishable from other genres by the following unique conventions: 1. the use of unpaid actors as the ‘subjects’ of the film, who are implied to represent themselves.

This is actually the only unique convention to the documentary form, as the appearance of individuals who are implied to represent themselves is scarce in other genres of what we could call ‘fiction films’ (a misnomer I will dig into in more detail later), and these scant appearances actually have a specific name: the ‘cameo.’ The ‘cameo’ is, by definition, a brief appearance by an actual (usually famous) person appearing as themself within the fictional world of the film. These appearances are typically intended to ground an otherwise wholly fictional story into what could be reasonably considered ‘our reality.’

For example, in the women-led heist film Ocean’s 8 (2018), the film presents an extended scene of multiple cameos within the fictional universe of the film during a scene which presents a recreation of the ostentatious, star-studded Met Gala, wherein the film’s main heist is to occur. Not only was the in-film Met Gala intended to represent the actual event; the creators of the film went a step further to fully ground this action film in what could plausibly be ‘our reality’ by including a litany ofreal celebrity cameos of various figures from Kim Kardashian to Serena Williams.

These cameos, which mirrored the red-carpet interviews one finds on Access Hollywood, were certainly numerous, but none were extended. For to surpass a few seconds dedicated to each celebrity cameo would irreversibly muddle the film’s existence within genre as a non-documentary, action-heist film in a way that would be unacceptable, and frankly, confusing to movie-goers.

Other conventions that are often ascribed as being central components to documentary which are in fact commonplace in non-documentary films could be narration (Forrest Gump (1994), The Shawshank Redemption (1994)) or even the representation of real persons or events (which would also characterize historical reenactment films such as Vice (2018), biopics such as Rocketman (2019), and even ‘based on real life’ films such as Goodfellas (1990)). Even conventions such as direct camera address are prevalent enough in non-documentary films (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), while conventions mostly present only in documentary, such as the interview, are not ubiquitous enough throughout documentaries to effectively ‘characterize’ the genre.

Let us now briefly return to the first and only unique convention of documentary that I have identified: namely, the use of unpaid actors as the ‘subjects’ of the film, who are implied to represent themselves. The implication that the subjects are representing themselves simply comes from the layout of the credits (or lack thereof). In documentary credits, we see the names of the subjects portrayed either alone or adjacent to “as him/herself” rather than to the name of their character. Additionally, in early films where the subjects were intended to be represented anonymously (or names were not recorded), the lack of any indication that characters were being ‘played’ (even ones with such simple descriptions as ‘man driving car’) suggests that the subjects were instead representing themselves.

Note that in my definition, I did not say, “subjects who represent themselves,” but instead, “subjects who are implied to represent themselves.” I also did not say, “documentaries feature real people as subjects, not characters,” because documentaries have contained and certainly still do contain characters. This is now where we come to the problem of the historical representation of truth in documentary.

 Truth claims in documentary

I argued earlier that unlike ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ being perfectly acceptable terms to indicate the distinct forms of prose writing, we should not fall into the trap of calling non-documentary genres of film ‘fiction film’ or documentary ‘non-fiction film.’ Why? Because documentaries are inherently, by the nature of film as an art form, at least in part fictitious in a way that non-fiction is not.

For example, if we find out that the author of a memoir misrepresented or spun the content of a conversation they had, even changing the words slightly in a way that the other participant may object to, we say “they lied,” “they spun the truth,” or we would object to the truthfulness of the memoir. On the other hand, if a documentarian edits a conversation in an interview in such a way that the content is potentially different from what the original speaker had stated, we usually brush it off and say, “they had to fit the content into a movie.”

Thus, the reason I say that every documentary, even the modern capital- ‘I’ Informative documentary contains a kernel of fiction, is the fact that making the documented content into a film that is meant to entertain or stir the viewer in some way necessarily involves editing, reordering, and ‘re’-presenting the content that was recorded into a story. Furthermore, even the subtler, more insidious components of the ‘artistic choices’ (music, transitions, camera angle, framing, etc.) that a documentarian makes in service of ‘creating a film,’ including the larger decisions (content to include/cut, interviews to solicit/avoid) contribute to the crafting of a ‘story’ in the director’s vision.

Furthermore, even the subtler, more insidious components of the ‘artistic choices’ (music, transitions, camera angle, framing, etc.) that a documentarian makes in service of ‘creating a film,’ including the larger decisions (content to include/cut, interviews to solicit/avoid) contribute to the crafting of a ‘story’ in the director’s vision.

This ‘story-spinning’ that is inherent to the crafting of a documentary becomes particularly problematic in the case of ethnography, or the portrayal of the ‘story’ of a group of (often marginalized) people. And ethnography, one could certainly argue,was essentially the sub-genre of choice for the early, highly formative years of the documentary genre.

For example, Nanook of the North (1922), often credited as the ‘first documentary,’ sought to represent the life and trials of the Inuit peoples indigenous to the northern part of North America. Filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty certainly entered the framing of this film with an agenda in mind. It is now widely recognized that he staged, falsified, and fictionalized various elements of the documentary, from the hunting methods used by the Inuit people at the time of filming (he had them resurrect an older, far more dangerous method of hunting because their contemporary use of guns didn’t sit right with his vision) to the very name of the main character (it was actually Allakariallak, not “Nanook”).

Flaherty’s decisions in this film, on the whole, served to effectively distance the Inuit peoples from any contemporary problems and politics the tribe were undoubtedly involved in as their resources were depleted and livelihoods threatened by European colonizers and place them in a timeless limbo that was fundamentally apart from the European ‘modern’ reality.

Meanwhile, these heavy-handed ‘story-spinning’ directorship styles have certainly carried into more contemporary titles such as Sans Soleil (1983). This documentary film by French director Chris Marker presents a collage of scenes taken from on-location shots in Japan, Guinea-Bissau, and Iceland with a wandering narrated essay of the filmmaker’s musings on broad subjects such as ‘modern progress’ and ‘memory.’ Interestingly, this stream-of-consciousness style musing is narrated by a woman, Florence Delay, in the style of a letter correspondence (“He wrote me…” is a refrain Delay repeats as she voices what the audience assumes must be the director’s own musings, though this context is not made particularly clear in the realm of the film).

The film has been extensively lauded by (mostly male, mostly white) critics for decades, with little attention paid to the extensive personalization and re-interpretation of the extant, living stories of the many non-white subjects portrayed in the film whose voices are never heard from. Worse yet, the film actually capitalized on the popular ‘Japan-bashing’ phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s, where the success of the ‘Tiger Economy’ in the personal technologies industry was taken as a major wake-up call to Western markets, who must rear their heads in answer or be ‘conquered’ by east-Asian markets as the ‘new world power.’ The film also plays on the same tired trope of exoticizing ‘Africa’ (the film does not mention Guinea-Bissau directly, nor do the commercial synopses for the film) as a land-before-time, a monolith of primitivism, and the antithesis of the ‘modern,’ ripe for personal exploration for the purpose of self-enlightenment by white travelers.

Thus, the documentary form has gleaned its ‘entertainment value’ from that kernel of fictionalization that was so deeply seeded into the genre at its conception, which has permeated its contemporary form.

But ought documentaries represent truth in the first place? The more cynical or more apathetic among us may argue that the truth simply cannot be represented on film, and so one should not try. The overly idealistic might say, “Of course it can.” The realistic answer, I believe, is to say “Maybe, at least partially, when done the right way”—perhaps ‘ethically.’

Where we go from here

I would argue that truth cannot be re-presented on film in its raw, ‘intact’ form. To claim otherwise would be a harmful lie, a mirage of a goal for well-intended but misguided filmmakers to chase after for another several generations, only to certainly come up short. However, in my practice, and in the practices of some incredible directors whose films I have personally witnessed, I have seen—or I believe I have seen—the ‘truth’ of the subject’s own lived experience, their ‘true story,’ artfully re-presented in partial forms.

I thus believe it is possible to re-present the ‘truth’ (or, perhaps more appropriately, individual ‘truths’) on film in parts, pieces, glimpses. These stories may or may not be narrative. They may or may not be ‘intact.’

What they do not claim, and what such stories/directors are particularly self-conscious about, is their omnipotent authority to represent the whole, ‘intact’ truth of their subjects’ lived experiences. But the parts they do represent are conscientiously represented in good faith; in self-questioning, at times contradictory ways; through intentionally imperfect means; and to highly compelling, transformative ends.

I would like to offer up some of the most compelling pieces I have had the delight of viewing in the realm of documentary, from directors who truly seem to understand the limits and potentials of their abilities to re-present ‘truth’ on film. I would also like to offer up some of my own work as an answer to this central question/these central questions on ‘truth’ in documentary:

1. What are the limits of representing ‘truth’ on film?

2. What does it mean to approach the representation of truth ‘in good faith’ in the context of documentary film?

3. How can documentary films best represent the truth of their subjects?

4. In what ways can we utilize the ‘vices’ of film as a medium to reveal its virtues and to represent the truth(s) of documentary subjects?