“The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture.” – Susan Sontag
You’re at a restaurant with your friends talking about work and how you find it so difficult to stay on top of your diet, when your waiter arrives with the 1000-calorie burger you just so guiltlessly ordered. The world is dying to know how much fun you’re having, so you pull out your phone and decide to record a ten-second Snapchat video.
Your famished friend excitedly reaches for his fork to eat but you yell, “WAIT!” because you want his food to look flawless in your video. His untouched food is evidently more important than his hunger pains. The video gets posted and everything looks perfect. How many people will know that you were screaming and playing director just seconds before clicking the record button? To everyone who is watching, it will probably seem as though they are watching real, unaltered footage of your life.
And so, through this, comes the question of actuality and authenticity in documentary films.
Many different elements go into documentary filmmaking. There is usually the voice of the director, the character’s point-of-view, an argument, authority, soundtracks, editing, expressivity, and some form of persuasion. When we watch a documentary, we trust that the filmmaker will show us something credible and authentic. This does not necessarily mean that we are being shown the “truth.” There will always be subjectivity involved in terms of what the director wants us to see or how he/she wants us to react.
Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 documentary “Nanook of the North” is considered one of the first full-length documentaries to ever be made. Its main goal is to showcase the lives of Nanook, an Inuk man, and his family. It was discovered later however, that a big chunk of the film was staged. So why is it still considered a documentary? Because there remain important, authentic elements in the film that preserve the 1922 Inuit world for us. We see things like wild animals, pet wolves, arctic landscapes, hunting techniques, and children—all things that are not staged.
Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” is another remarkable documentary. The director shows her audience that the truth depends on who’s telling it. She interviews a number of characters to find out more about her dead mother and her family secrets. What is striking is how different people have completely different answers to the same questions. The film ponders truth and memory, and ultimately shows us how the stories we tell make us who we are. It does a more-than-effective job of making its viewers question what “real” really means.
“Miss Sharon Jones” tells the touching story of how the title character rose to fame despite the countless obstacles she had to face. After being criticized for her color and size and then dealing with the much greater battle against cancer, Sharon Jones continued her love of singing and relentlessly chased her dreams.
If you watch the film on October 14th, you might ask yourself the following questions: How does the soundtrack music in the film make you feel? What emotions does the film target most? What do you find authentic in the film? Whose voice and point-of-view is being shown? What purpose do the interviews throughout the film hold? Asking such questions and looking past what is on the screen, helps interpret the many layers of documentary films.
Documentary can be used for propaganda; to make social changes; to tell personal stories; to merely preserve a time; or just to present cities, landscapes, and people. It ranges from free and direct cinema, to reality television and modernist documentary (along with many other sub-genres). It is not concrete, nor easily definable, but rather a complex web of history, reality, production, and representation.
Next time you Snapchat bits of your life, try to ask yourself why you think the material is worth sharing, or why you chose to manipulate reality if you did. Was it to make it more interesting for your viewers? Why did you decide to share this part of your life and not another? Lastly, how is this similar to the way documentary filmmakers arrange and present their films?
FUN FACT: “Cinéma Vérité” is a term used to describe a style of documentary filmmaking that avoids any artificial effects and attempts to show raw footage only.