Similarities abound between the reporting methods used by documentary filmmakers and print journalists. But the results are regarded differently, with more people believing the documentary is more objective. The information on the screen often seems unmediated and more reliable. This perception is in part a holdover from television’s early years when its elder statesmen—Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite—assumed the stance of objectivity. Documentary also seemed impartial because an inanimate instrument like a movie camera, taking “truth 24 times a second,” seemed incapable of deception. Film (including video) is always in the present tense, while print journalism tends to reside in the reflective past tense.
But this perception of impartiality omits the human element. It is, after all, a human decision—an insertion of subjectivity—that places a camera in a particular location, chooses a lens by which to render space and perspective, selects a recording medium, each with its own bias in color and contrast, and decides when to turn the camera on. In the editing room, there are choices to be made about what material is significant and the order and juxtaposition of segments on the screen.
Documentary journalists use a variety of techniques to try to effectively bring viewers into contact with a subject, whether it be famine, family ordeals, or farmers confronting hoof-and-mouth disease. At the core of any approach is the presentation of compelling evidence, and this evidence can be gathered differently. Filmmakers working on issue-oriented documentaries might use a passive, observational style for events that tell themselves, use active, probing interviews where useful, or even bring two parties into confrontation to develop and present the crux of the information. In character-driven documentaries, a particular character or group is chosen to generate the basic situation, then followed and perhaps interrogated over time to illustrate the situation’s causes and its consequences.
What emerges, after editing, is never actuality but an artfully constructed impression of it, for all documentaries, even the most spontaneous, are constructs. Typically, authorship of a documentary rests with a team, the film ultimately representing their shared experience and perspective. This process starts as soon as they decide what images to collect for their film’s bank of visual and aural records, which are infused with the values, beliefs, circumstances and instruments current at the time of recording and editing.
Nearly every documentary relies on people who appear on camera as part of the story. From their perspective, the hope is that pertinent truths—as they understand them—survive the process of filming or reporting. But can the journalist or documentarian be trusted to accurately represent these truths?
When film is an intermediary, this question can become more difficult to answer. While a reporter conducts an interview, a camera takes footage. Taking and using is at the heart of documentary filmmaking and so, unfortunately, is misrepresenting, though it happens differently with film than it does in print. In reading an article, actions are described, voices are imagined. What gets lost are dense layers of meaning that the person conveyed vocally, facially and bodily. In the hands of skillful writers, these will be selectively implied, but to exist they depend on a writer’s sensitivity to nuance. The same transaction, captured by the camera, gets it all the first time, and the footage can be searched afterwards for deeper layers of meaning.
In making the BBC film “The Battle of Cable Street,” about the 1930’s British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, I learned most from running and rerunning sections of the interview. His paternal habit of widening his eyes when telling you certain things became more and more sinister as my editor and I realized when and why he did it.
A most extreme case of what a documentary can reveal—and perhaps set in motion—was Alan and Susan Raymond’s series in the 1970’s, “An American Family.” While filming the daily lives of the Louds, a family chosen as representative of American white middle-class life, the son announced that he is gay, the husband proved a compulsive womanizer, the wife filed for divorce, and the family went into meltdown.
When the series went on the air, critics and audiences alike were convinced that manipulative filming and the family’s desire to make a high dramatic impression had colluded to create these changes. And who knows that they were entirely wrong? All observation changes what is being observed, but being filmed 14 hours a day for seven months probably changes it more than most. When the Louds signed on, they were unaware of the crucible they were entering, although the Raymonds insist they duly warned them.
The public outcry surely affected how family members saw themselves on the screen. The Louds did not see the filmmakers’ perspective emerging until the programs were broadcast and, as a result, began to see each other in a different light. Shocked to discover what had been created from their input, some of the family objected bitterly, saying they felt like victims of alchemy and treachery. Lives were wrecked, careers broken, and for years the cause of the intimate TV documentary seemed irretrievable.
Like journalism, documentary filmmaking relies on distilling a story from what is remembered or recorded and involves reduction, simplification, rearrangement and re-creation—all hazardous to the truth. Who is to say that my notes and memories of an event coincide with those of anyone else who was present? Journalism is research and memory, assisted by notes and resting on subjectivity. Diligent journalists check facts and consult numerous sources to gain the increased perspective of multiple versions, but the writer’s point of view can only be minimized, never eliminated.
It is less easy to quarrel with a filmed record, but responsible documentarians feel accountable for fairness to their subjects and being fair about them—seldom the same thing, as the Louds found out. By their nature, documentary films often transform what is messy and contradictory in life into tidy and effective narrative. For example, if a film crew follows a person who is trying to buy a house, and a second film crew concurrently follows the sellers, there are now two strands of story to be intercut. Placing the salient parts of each story against one another—the buyer deliberating while the seller decides on the price—creates a juxtaposition for which no arbiter exists. A single decision during editing can make the seller appear venal and the buyers naive, or vice versa. Films contain dozens of such juxtapositions, and similar ones are certainly possible in print, as well.
The impulse to record and transmit truth always faces compromise because it rests on the quirks of memory, on ethics, on the ability to draw a wider perspective, and on the enduring need to tell a good story even when representing the real world. Knowing this, during the past two decades some documentarians have tried to show not only the result of their work but how they created it, and so have examined and shared the deceptions that reality, and films about reality, practice upon their makers and audiences alike.
Such transparency of the process by which documentaries are made is encouraging since, as with journalism, the more the public understands how a story is constructed, the more likely they are to ascribe fairness to it. And this is, after all, more than objectivity—is, after all, what journalists and documentary filmmakers should strive to produce.
Michael Rabiger was a founding member of the BBC Oral History series “Yesterday’s Witness” and is the author of “Directing: Film Techniques & Aesthetics,” “Directing the Documentary,” and “Developing Story Ideas.” During the past four years, he has chaired the film/video department at Columbia College in Chicago.