MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

What’s the Truth About Objectivity in Documentaries?

The idea of a documentary film tends to evoke a certain perception that what we’re seeing on-screen is purely non-fiction, a “document of the truth.” But is it possible to say that any documentary encapsulates some objective idea of “truth,” as opposed to the story the filmmaker seeks to tell, albeit through footage taken from “real life” rather than a narrative fictional script?

Last week at AFI Dallas, there was a panel on “protecting real life from filmmakers” (moderated by MCN’sDavid Poland) that briefly raised an issue I would have liked to have seen explored in greater depth. Doug Pray, in discussing his film Art & Copy, talked about how he was unable to get any footage for his film about the advertising world in which the folks who work in that industry had anything negative to say about either the business in general, or any particular ad campaigns specifically. This made me ponder the nature of documentary filmmaking, and how a filmmaker decides what to shoot in telling a documentary story, and which 90 to 120 or so minutes out of perhaps hundreds of hours of footage will be used in shaping the story told by a given film.

Are documentaries journalism or storytelling, feature-length beat reporting, op-ed or color commentary — or some combination of those, or even none of the above? Is it necessary for a filmmaker to capture both sides of a given story to be fully objective? And if a documentary filmmaker unabashedly focuses his lens only on the moments or interview bytes that tell the story he wants to tell — or that his subjects want to tell — has he made what can be objectively called a documentary, or has he made propaganda promoting a particular cause or idea?

In documentary filmmaking, the director has a host of decisions to make, all of which affect how objective the truth is that his story will tell. What or who will the subject be? What’s the thesis the film seeks to prove or disprove? Where or on whom will she focus her lens? What will be within the shot — and what will be just outside the frame? What footage will stay or go, and in what order will it be presented? How might the presence of the camera and crew affect the actions and reactions of those being filmed, and in what way will the subjects strive to present themselves to the world? What we see is only what’s within the frame, but what’s outside that rectangle of screen may tell another story entirely. Sometimes, what the director chooses not to show us may, in fact, be more important than what we do see — or might have changed our perception entirely, had we seen it.

One of the more controversial examples of this is Roger & Me, the 1989 film that made Michael Moore a household name. In the film, Moore documented the impact of General Motors shutting down factories in Flint, Michigan, Moore’s hometown, and his attempts to speak to Roger Smith, chairman of GM, to talk to him about why the factories had been closed and the impact the loss of employment had on the 30,000 people laid off by the decision. 

John Pierson, who sold Roger & Me to Warner Brothers for the unprecedented sum of $3 million and set a new bar for deals for documentary films, later published an “Open Letter” to Moore on indieWIRE in which he defended the film Manufacturing Dissent, which was critical of Moore’s methods, and accused him of having actually interviewed Smith and then chosen to omit that footage. Pierson said in part, “Did I know you had interviewed Roger Smith when “Roger & Me” caught lightning in a bottle back in 1989?  No.  Do I have any first-hand knowledge now that you covered it up?  No.  But do I fully and completely believe the testimony of people who were there with you in Flint and have absolutely nothing to gain by lying – eyewitnesses like Nader organizer James Musselman or even Roger Smith himself?  Yes I do.”

Moore still (so far as I’m aware) claims he never interviewed Smith for the film. But Moore was not then and never has been a filmmaker who’s made any claims to objectivity in his work. He’s an activist at heart, and he makes films that speak to the issues he cares about — and that paint the side of the story that supports his position. The films he makes, while sometimes very good, serve more as agitprop for his particular viewpoint than objective documentation.

Albert Maysles, who along with his brother David has been credited with creating the “cinema verite” style of filmmaking, is an example of a documentary filmmaker who believes in, as much as possible, keeping the subject of documentary “real.” In a fascinating 2006 interview with Williams Cole for The Brooklyn Rail, Maysles had this to say in talking about today’s reality shows: “A true documentary is shot with no control. You might even call it the uncontrolled cinema. Because once you begin to control the audience it’s not even the real thing.” Later in the piece, Maysles goes on to discuss the controlling of cinema through editing, ” … it’s a whole range of decisions that you make. If you choose a range of decisions that get to the true character of the material itself, without violating what appears to be the case, then you control it so it won’t be changed.”

Did the Maysles’ find a way to capture objective truth in a way that most other filmmakers simply haven’t been able to replicate? And have today’s documentary filmmakers strayed too far from the idea of documentaries as capturing reality, or are they merely evolving the art form to a different level?

In a 2005 piece titled “There Is such a Thing as Truth” for NPR’s All Things Considered, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris had this to say, “Truth is not relative, it’s not subjective. It may be elusive or hidden. People may wish to disregard it. But there is such a thing as truth. And the pursuit of truth: Trying to figure out what has really happened; trying to figure out how things really are.” (You can read the full piece, along with the rest of Morris’s writings, in the archives section of his website.)

More recent documentaries such as Trouble the WaterFor the Bible Tells Me SoDear Zachary, andWho Killed Sister Dorothy? each tell a story from a specific point of view or thesis: Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath from the eyes of New Orleans resident Kimberly Rivers Roberts; an examination of spiritual teachings of homosexuality from a decidedly pro-gay viewpoint; an ode to a son about his murdered father with a life-is-more-tragic-than-fiction turn; and an examination of the tense political situation surrounding the murder of an activist nun, told with a clear perspective with regard to the good guys and the bad guys, from the filmmaker’s perspective.

Docs like Lake of FireJesus CampProm Night in MississippiNeshoba, Deliver Us From Evil,Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Iraq in Fragments at least attempt to cover both sides of the story — or at least show their subjects in ways that allow a viewer from either perspective to find something to which to relate; it’s often the subjects in the films themselves who polarize viewers to either agree with or despise them. Lake of Fire, for instance, could be considered either pro-life or pro-choice in nature, depending on your point of view. While I cringed at the words and actions of the more violent “pro-life” activists, I know staunch pro-lifers who point to the graphic depiction of an aborted fetus and the undeniable visceral effect those images have on the viewer as proof that the film leans strongly to the right.

Then there are the agitprop docs, which might be said to be the spiritual documentary godchildren of Michael Moore. These films have stories to tell with the particular purpose of persuading the viewer to believe a particular point of view or to take some action. Documentaries such as An Inconvenient TruthNo End in SightCoca: The Dove from ChechnyaFuelRIP: A Remix Manifesto, and this year’s Sundance hitThe Cove (pictured above) aim to incite the viewer, to stimulate a visceral response to what’s being seen.An Inconvenient Truth proved to resonate tremendously with its presentation about global warming and incitement to change the world (though it’s arguable how much real-life impact that message has ultimately had); No End in Sight was tremendously effective at presenting a particular thesis around the war in Iraq and proving its point that we’re in up to our necks in a situation that will be very difficult to get out of without repercussion; Coca: The Dove from Chechnya presented a viewpoint of the Russian-Chechin conflict significantly ignored by the media, largely using footage captured on home video cameras and smuggled out of the country; and Fuel (which premiered at Sundance two years ago as Fields of Fuel) was pretty much propaganda for its position that biodiesel is the key to saving the world.

RIP: A Remix Manisfesto is a fascinating discussion of issues around intellectual property versus artistic freedom, and it does present both sides, but the perspective is so openly skewed toward the artistic side of the equation that it loses whatever objectivity it might have gained in telling the other side, particularly given all the shades of gray surrounding the issues presented. The Cove, on the other hand, positions its story with the structure of a narrative thriller as the scaffolding to get the audience invested in the outcome, then slams us with intense, horrific real images captured by hidden cameras, of subjects acting as they normally would in going about their gruesome task, with no idea their actions were being recorded for posterity. Of these films The Cove and Coca probably come closest to being able to claim the visual capturing of real events, although you could argue that the editing of the material presented still impacts its objectivity.

There are docs that set out mostly to tell a story — in which the meta-argument becomes: how much truth must be mixed in with the storytelling for a film to be a documentary? With American Teen, for which filmmaker Nanette Burstein took heat from some critics arguing that the film was too polished, the stories too finely tuned, the setups too obvious. Did Burstein document honestly and objectively a year in the life of these American teenagers? Or did she portray the story she wanted to tell, using bits and pieces of the lives of these real teenagers, chose because they fit the constructs of the “types” she wanted represented in her film, in order to spin her tale?

And then there’s Sacha Baron Cohen, who pretty much defied all boundaries with his film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, and looks to push the envelope even further with his upcoming film Bruno. Cohen’s films could be said to fall more in the realm of the “mockumentary,” but I’d argue that Cohen is holding up a mirror to society that reflects more honestly its real moral character, its flaws and foibles, because the subjects are being more honest in their reactions than they would be within a traditional documentary framework. With Borat, and now Bruno, Cohen captures facets of racism, xenophobia and homophobia in ways that I can’t imagine being explored within the framework of what might be considered a “proper” documentary, and the end results he gets are fascinating, even if viewed purely from an anthropological standpoint, for what they say about our society.

As for myself, I’m not sure there is such a thing as pure objectivity in documentary filmmaking — or really, in any art form. In fact, I’m no longer even convinced that there’s such a thing as an “objective truth” to capture at all, regardless of the intent one has or the media used; every event has myriad points of view, and even if you capture the truth as one given subject sees it, aren’t you still missing the pieces of other perspectives that would add up to the whole? And even if a filmmaker believes he’s genuinely capturing the reality of what unfolds before him, is it possible to sever elements like the choices of how shots are framed and edited, which bits of dialogue are included or excised, or even what music is used where, from the end result of whether a document shows a black-and-white truth versus showing the story the filmmaker sets out to tell?

And for that matter, is the whole issue of “to be objective or not to be objective” even relevant to the art of documentary filmmaking at all, or should we just accept that there are many ways to tell a story, and appreciate the points of view that filmmakers present for what they are?

– by Kim Voynar

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So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

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But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

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