Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Truth Is Subjective - Documentary Marathon

The search for truth seems to be inherently placed within our hearts. Every generation has searched for some sort of answer to why we are here, and how things got to be the way they are. It has taken art to give us a way to express that ultimate question without ever really answering it. From philosophers, to painters, to poets, they all questioned our existence in thoughtful new ways.

When film came along, we simply wanted to capture, and that we did. Some of the earliest recorded footage of all time are documentaries. These include a man sneezing, a train coming straight towards the camera, or any other number of mundane activities. What captivated the audience is the sheer idea of a moving picture.

Fast forward one hundred years and we have so many styles and forms of filmmaking that it's hard to imagine such a simplistic view of cinema. Nowadays our truth seekers are documentarians. They are out there on the front lines fighting for injustice, examining the human condition, and reporting back to us in subtle, nuanced and stylistic ways.

It's interesting that I begin these genre studies with documentaries because to many doc's are the lesser of the art form of cinema. They are the red headed step child, if you will. They are often thought of this way because many wonder how a director can truly put their stamp on a film when all you are doing is filming people talking. What they fail to realize is a documentary can be just as manipulative, if not more, than a narrative film. This can be both good and bad.

The documentary medium prides itself on realism. These are real people in real situations doing real things that we just so happened to catch on camera. This is the allure of such a genre. But whether or not it is intentional, the director cannot help but manipulate his audience. Each shot is a manipulation because they are telling us where to look. What is important here? They show us. What am I supposed to pick up from this scene? Oh wait, there's a close up on that guys hand and what it's touching, that must be something important.

This is why the documentary genre of filmmaking is so interesting. While it does capture truth, that truth is very subjective. It is at once the truth of what is happening in front of the lens, and how that lens is affecting those in front of it, whether they want it to or not. It is also the truth of the director. Take a recent film, Fahrenheit 9/11, and examine the truth and "truth" in it. Michael Moore comes out swinging with many, many accusations, some of which are undeniably true, others not so much. What is interesting isn't that everything placed into the film is one hundred percent accurate, but that everything there is one hundred percent Michael Moore.

The director chooses where to cut, what conversations to show the audience and even how relevant they are. This makes the documentary the most director driven form of filmmaking. Guised under the umbrella of truth seeking they get away with much more than the average director, and this is one of the many things that makes documentaries so fascinating.

While I examine this genre of films, I want to try and keep these aspects in mind while also not letting them affect my thoughts on what I have seen.


Marcy said...

I recently watched Bowling in Columbine in history class. Michael Moore is technically a terrific documentary filmmaker, but there is no doubt that his documentaries are extremely biased. And there is nothing wrong with that.

It's obvious that he only shows what he wants to show and everything he shows is a way for him to prove his own point/opinion about a certain subject matter. Moore's brief interview with Dick Clark made Dick Clark seem like a pretty bad guy. But is he? So I agree with what you said about documentaries being overly subjective, but I don't think it's necessarily problematic to be swayed when the documentarian makes a good point.

I like it when documentaries leave some sort of subjective fingerprint. It makes everything a little more interesting.

Marcy said...

*Bowling for Columbine, my mistake.

Dead Pan said...

Marcy, That is exactly my point. And it offers up the possibilities, if the viewer is interested, for us to go educate ourselves on the subject and find out in which ways we agree and disagree rather than take everything that is said at face value.

Alex DeLarge said...

I just finished reading Erik Barnouw's book [DOCUMENTARY] and highly recommend it! There is no such thing as a "true documentary" because by actually filming something...we change it. Even the best fiction is "documentary" to a degree; that is, a filmmaker wants us to focus upon truth as s/he sees it but from a new perspective, often through another character. I reviewed Alain Resnais documentary NIGHT AND FOG on my blog a month or so back, please check it out.
And keep up the good work:)

Dead Pan said...

Thanks Alex for the recommendation. I completely agree and that's exactly what I was saying, you just put it better than I. haha

Antony said...

It will not really have success, I feel this way.
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