What is a documentary film?
We list nine of the most commonly cited texts regarding the documentary film tradition (see Table 1). All are uniform in their approach to documentary film studies: they first outline what defines a documentary film and then explore the difficulties of capturing events using audio-visual materials.
Table 1. Standard texts on documentary films
|Ellis JC, McLane BA. A New History of Documentary Film. New York: Continuum, 2005.|
|Rosenthal A, Corner J. New Challenges for Documentary, 2nd edn. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2005.|
|Nichols B. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001.|
|Plantinga CR. Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film. Cambridge, UK; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1997.|
|Winston B, British Film Institute. Claiming the Real: The Griersonian Documentary and Its Legitimations. London: British Film Institute, 1995.|
|Barnouw E. Documentary: A History of the Non-fiction Film, 2nd rev. edn. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.|
|Nichols B. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.|
|Jacobs L. The Documentary Tradition, 2nd edn. New York: W.W. Norton, 1979.|
|Grierson J, Hardy F. Grierson on Documentary, rev. edn. London: Faber, 1966.|
Film historians have struggled to define the documentary film format. For the purposes of our article, we focus on two accepted aspects of documentary films that are relevant to decision science: the representation of events in documentary film and the relationship between documentary films and their viewers.
A fundamental feature of documentary films, in contradistinction to fiction films, is that the film images attempt to represent historical events and portray things as they happen6,7 (see Table 2). Sometimes this occurs in real time as the event occurs, or it may occur in a simulated setting where the intention is to portray things as they would normally occur. Whether it is a scene from a correctional institution’s mental health hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts, as seen in Frederick Wiseman’s classic documentary film Titicut Follies, or a public hospital ward in Cuba as seen in Michael Moore’s recent Sicko, the sights and sounds represented in the film images ‘bear an indexical relation to the historical world’.6 John Grierson, one of the first documentary filmmakers, encapsulated this indexical relationship between film and the historical world by defining the documentary film as a ‘creative treatment of actuality’.6,8,9 Documentary films consist of places and sounds that represent a real place and time. A documentary film documents evidence and information from the world which legitimates its usage as a source of knowledge.6,10
Table 2. Similarities and differences among documentaries, feature films, and decision support tools
| ||Documentary||Feature film||Decision support tool|
|Defining feature||Represents historical reality||Does not represent historical reality||Represents historical reality|
|Concerns||Objectivity and bias of images||No concerns regarding objectivity and bias as this is fiction||Objectivity and bias of images|
It is precisely because of the indexical relationship between the images we see and hear and the historical world that documentary films have a unique relationship with viewers, the second aspect of documentary films that is of interest to decision science. ‘As viewers, we expect that what occurred in front of the camera has undergone little or no modification to be recorded on film or magnetic tape’.6 When viewing documentary films, the viewer assumes that the projected images remain identical to the actual images or events that ‘we could have witnessed in the historical world’.6 Because film images represent ‘reality’, we as viewers, perhaps naively, assume there is a pure, unmediated truth to the images that cannot be said of fiction film with its use of studio sets and special effects. This purity of objective reportage is one of the reasons why documentaries are separately indexed in catalogues or video stores apart from fiction films.9 Documentary filmmakers assert a belief that the images they present in films actually occurred or existed in the actual world.9
The unique relationship between documentary films and their viewers is similar to that between patients and decision support tools (see Table 2). Patients expect that the information and material presented in decision support tools are ‘true’ and unmediated. It is not a coincidence that great attention is given to issues of objectivity and bias in decision science, and remain some of the key features of quality criteria for decision support tools.4 But as with decision support tools, ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ remain an elusive goal in documentary films. Below, we explore the issues of truth and objectivity in documentary films and then the issues of objectivity and bias in audio-visual materials for decision support tools.
Truth and objectivity in documentary film
Although film images may be of real places and events, they are representations, not actuality. As with the shadows emanating from the fire in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, film images are ‘shadows’ of reality and can often differ from the historical record.6,11 In every shot of documentary film, there are myriad choices of colour, film stock, perspective, angle, sound, speed, placement and time. These choices are sometimes fortuitous and other times carefully crafted by the filmmaker. Such choices in documentaries can ‘provoke and encourage response, shape attitudes and assumptions’.6
Consider the choice made by Wiseman in Titicut Follies to film a psychiatric ward using black and white film. Would the dreariness and institutional nature of an insane asylum have been conveyed in the same way if the saturated colours of Technicolor had been used? What appeared to be prima facie an objective account of the historical record can quickly become a contrivance. This manipulation is encapsulated in the following musing by the historian turned film critic, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.:
Yet a moment’s reflection suggests that the line between the documentary and the fiction film is tenuous indeed. Both are artifacts; both are contrivances. Both are created by editing and selection. Both, wittingly or not, embody a viewpoint. The fact that one eschews and the other employs professional actors becomes in the end an economic detail. And the relation of any film to reality, depends, not on the amateur standing of its elements, but on the artistic vision of those who must put the elements together.12
The unmediated honesty of documentary film can easily be manipulated to evoke a particular response with selected colours, edits, narrative voice-overs or intertextual cues chosen by the filmmaker.
The heightened awareness of the manipulation possibilities in filmmaking led to the development of a subgenre of documentary films that attempted to increase the ‘reality effect’ of documentaries by capturing events untampered.13 Variously referred to as observational documentaries, direct cinema or the aptly named cinéma vérité (‘true cinema’), this style of documentary filmmaking emerged in response to concerns that documentaries were not wholly pure and unmediated.5,6,9,10,12–14 This style of documentary is founded on an ‘ethos of observing and recording; the function of the filmmaker became to transparently observe the world’.9 These filmmakers eschewed influencing profilmic events – what occurs in front of the camera – with cues or instructions to the participants being filmed.6 They also avoided artificial lighting, music external to the observed scene, re-enactments, voice-overs or tampering with the raw footage. The filmmaker is transformed into the proverbial ‘fly on the wall’ observing and recording events transpiring before the camera lens, as the events occur without interruption. In its most pure form, cinéma vérité attempts to become completely transparent ‘capturing people in action, and letting the viewer come to conclusions about them unaided by the implicit or explicit commentary’.13 The cinéma vérité filmmaker aspires to invisibility.5,9
The chief criticism of this style of documentary filmmaking is that it pretends to be something that it is not.9 Regardless of how small and unobtrusive a camera or film-crew might be, their mere presence results in an altered form of reality as persons being filmed react to the unnatural presence of the camera. Simply the awareness of being filmed suffices to distort reality into something quite different.15
Beyond the problem of invisibility, however, there are additional reasons to hold suspect the claim of pure objectivity. Every documentary film has a perspective and point of view that originates and is structured by the filmmaker.9,15 No film can escape a perspective, and under the guise of objectivity or truth, filmmakers have smuggled in subtle and not-so-subtle slants on the subjects they represent’.9 Consider the insight from Wiseman, one of the greatest living documentary filmmakers, regarding the objectivity of documentaries: ‘I don’t see how a film can be anything but subjective… They are not objective because someone else might make the film differently’.9 The current discourse surrounding documentary films breaks with traditional claims of ‘objectivity’ and ‘truth’ and instead emphasizes ‘the subjective identity of the filmmaker within the body of the film’.14 It would be difficult to describe Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko without reference to his sardonic wit displayed in his voice-over narrative or the intentionally chosen provocative scenes. The same subject matter would be treated entirely differently by another filmmaker. The documentary filmmaker, such as Moore, acts ‘explicitly as the filter through which the world enters discourse’ of the film’s subject.14 The final product – the documentary film – is moulded and shaped by the filmmaker. The proverbial ‘camera that never lies’ is simply a falsehood. Cameras do not deliver unmediated truth, ‘production means mediation’.16 In the final analysis, a documentary film is a view from one window on the world: it objectively records the filmmaker’s subjective experience of the world, ‘the filmmaker’s witness’.10