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December 1997, Week 2


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Kevin Boon <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 11 Dec 1997 13:01:22 -0500
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Underlying the production of documentary film is a presumption that clear
distinctions between "truth" and narrative can be made, that documentary
film is true while fictional narratives are untrue. This is the same
objective/subjective problem that plagues criticism, literary studies,
science, anthropology, and so on. How does one observe objectively? Quite
simply, one can't. That's why directors get awards. They're thumbprints are
all over the film. So, the question, it seems to me, is not if the dubbing
in of sound after the fact is ethical, but whether or not anything else is
        I'm reminded of Broadcast News, when a single camera is manipulated in
order to create empathy from the audience. I'm reminded of the recent Oprah
interview with Paul Simon when she made some reference to a previous
conversation with Simon and he said, "I don't recall that," to which she
gave the pleasantly astonished and muted response, "Gosh, won't even
pretend on TV." I'm reminded of a comment a friend of mine made about the
Richard Beigh show about how they would round up friends and ask them to
play jilted lovers when they didn't have enough guests. I'm reminded of
Phil Donahue remarking how shocked he was when, as a reporter for one of
the big three, he arrived too late to get a shot of a priest leading a
crowd of recently rescued mine workers in prayer and the priest refused to
redo the prayer for the cameras.
        Strangely, people hang onto their faith in completely objective reporting,
objective filmmaking, objective writing, even though these processes are
all narrative. The distinction between documentary film and fictional film
has always been a matter of implication not a matter of truth. Even early
documentary films such as Nanuk of the North set up shots. Someone has to
position the camera, and that itself slaughters objectivity. Because it is
impossible to capture events the way the are in any pure, unaltered way, a
documentary filmmaker attempts to capture events the way s/he percieves
them. Thus, the experience the filmmaker had during WWI included
explosions. Since s/he can't caputre the expolosions at the moment because
of technological limits, s/he  adds them later, presuming that some
explosions are truer to the his or her experience than none at all.
        We never get realism, we get a narrative about realism. You could
certainly make the argument that some narratives are truer than others, but
no narrative can be considered absolutely true, because all narratives are
limited by the processes through which they are rendered.
        Therefore, a documentary filmmaker can take as much poetic liscence as
s/he deems sufficient to tell his or her story truth, to craft his or her
At 11:02 AM 12/11/97 -0600, you wrote:
>It seems that many documentaries contain shots which are either not what
>they purport to be, or which have been altered for dramatic effect.
>A couple of examples:
>1. Footage of a World War I bombardment which is accompanied by a sound
>track containing explosions. Since newsreel sound technology did not
>exist in 1914-1918, the explosions must have been added.
>2. A documentary on the history of the 1920's which uses black and white
>footage from gangster films such as Little Ceasar while discussing the
>rise and fall of Al Capone.
>In both cases the inaccuracies added to the interest of the
>documentaries. Both were true in the sense that WWI bombardments caused
>explosions, and Capone's gangsters did use machine guns, etc. But it is
>also true that these enhancing devices were not indentified as such.
>Hence my questions:
>How accurate should a documentary be? Who decides how much "poetic
>license" is permissible?
>Thanks for your thoughts.
>Peter Latham
>Online resources for film/TV studies may be found at ScreenSite
Online resources for film/TV studies may be found at ScreenSite