Documentary Privilege

On the occasion of CPH:DOX and a recent posting about Peter Watkins, I started thinking about documentary films. There are a lot of films made and a not so small selection of those films will be presented at the festival that’s up and running here in Copenhagen. Looking through the catalog one finds the usual spectrum of what Jill Godmilow would call the “pornography of the real” and what Watkins would consider compromises the “Monoform of audio-visual media.”

Despite all the attention filmmakers pay their subjects, it seems to me, that most of the time the attention ends there. Festival goers, not just here but around the globe, consume these films as entertainment. The filmmakers, many of whom are more activists than filmmakers, have the expectation that by making a film they can bring attention to circumstances that are in need of change. Yet that only happens rarely. The privileged audience – the one that has a chance to see these films because most of them never reach further than festival distribution – assumes that by seeing the film they have given their attention to the issue. The audience is also self-selecting. The people who attend have either a connection to the subject or an interest in the subject of the film. Therefore, it is nearly inevitable that the filmmakers are “preaching to the choir” rather than reaching those who would disagree with their perspectives on the subject. Consumption of the film is the limit of action for most of the the people in the audience. It is rare indeed to see a film that sparks an audience to action.

The questions Watkins’ raises are about the form and structure of media. I’m in doubt that the form and structure of the storytelling has any bearing on the limited reach of most documentary films. In fact, as much as I love exploring alternative forms of storytelling, non-traditional approaches to storytelling tend to limit rather than expand the audience because the nature of film is to show us an ongoing present. A structure that breaks with traditional forms most often confuses rather than clarifies the story being told. Part of the problem is the fact that watching an ongoing present unfold doesn’t allow the audience to go back and re-look at what might be causing their confusion and thereby end it. The audience just leaves with questions about the filmmaking rather than questions about their relationship to the theme of the film.

Godmilow is concerned more about stance than structure. Her view is that “documentary films” propose the supposition or perhaps an assumption on the part of the audience that these films in some way have more veracity than fiction. Many of the filmmakers I know approach making a “documentary” from the stance that they are attempting to present the “truth.” Your truth may unfortunately not be everyone else’s truth. Purporting to know the “truth” seems best reserved for a higher power, if you believe in such beings, or the provenance of the delusional. What Godmilow has said is, “Don’t tell lies, don’t tell the truth, tell stories” and that there is no distinction between fiction and nonfiction in film.

So as you head to the theater to see a film, any film, remember stories are how humans structure experience. Look at everything you see with a critical eye before you assume that the story you’ve seen and heard bears any resemblance to the “truth.”

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