Presenting reality in documentaries

Yet documentary film, in more obvious ways than does history, straddles the categories of fact and fiction, art and document, entertainment and knowledge. And the visual languages with which it operates have quite different effects than does the written text.

Presenting reality in documentaries

Yet documentary film, in more obvious ways than does history, straddles the categories of fact and fiction, art and document, entertainment and knowledge.

And the visual languages with which it operates have quite different effects than does the written text. In the following interview conducted during the winter ofhistorian Ann-Louise Shapiro raises questions about genre, the relationship of form to content and meaning, with documentary filmmaker Jill Godmilow.

In order to explore the possibilities and constraints of non-fiction film as a medium for representing history, Godmilow was asked: What are the strategies and techniques by which documentary films make meaning? In representing historical events, how does a non-fiction filmmaker think about accuracy?

What are the criteria you have in mind when you call a film like The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl "dishonest"?

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How does the tension between making art and making history affect documentary filmmaking? Should documentary filmmakers think of themselves, in the phrase of Ken Burns, as "tribal storytellers"?

What kind of historical consciousness is produced by documentary film? We have been speaking about documentary film. I want to start with a question about the word documentary. How comfortable are you using that label? I do use it, for convenience, but I hate it.

Because everybody thinks they know what the term means, because everybody has seen some television programs labeled documentary neither televisual "white papers", that is, so-called objective journalistic presentations of social problems, or history programs that chronicle certain social movements, or portraits of famous artists or historical figures and the like.

Unconsciously embedded in these forms called documentary is the conceit of "the real", which substantiates the truth claims made by these films. These general notions about documentary film produce a fairly limited understanding of what non-fiction cinema can be and do.

They certainly don't encompass any of my recent work. I should say at the start that I am way out on the fringe of documentary filmmaking; you're not talking to someone who is in a central or mainstream position. I have actually spent a lot of time trying to figure out what to call the kind of work I do.

I've been looking for a label to replace "documentary" that would include, besides the kind of films I produce, all the films that make some kind of claim to represent a real not fictional world, and that do not contain performances by professional actors but by social actors that is, everything but scripted drama.

How can they all be in one class? I think they all exhibit a common defining trait: So I like to call this huge class of films "films of edification", or "edifiers". How else could Barbara Kopple's Made in America, a totally narrativized documentary that dramatizes the closing of a Hormel meat-packing plant in Minnesota into a tearful epic tragedy, sit in the same category as Ken Burns's Civil War, a nostalgic compilation film fashioned out of re-performed actual artifacts period music, period photos, period letters home from the front and on-camera expert speculations by American historians?

When I teach documentary film, I actually insist that we use my new name -- in fact I play a game with my students: It's just a consciousness training game to keep us from making unconscious assumptions about the form. Better than documentary is the label "non-fiction", but it's tainted too.

It's a term built on a concept of something not being something else, implying that because it's not fiction, it's true. When I made my film Far from Poland inI anticipated that I was going to have trouble getting it into documentary film festivals, and I did.

Far from Poland is a feature-length "non-fiction" film about the Polish Solidarity Movement, shot entirely in the United States, containing a total of five minutes of "actuality" footage supplied by the Solidarity Press Agency.

It combines re-enactments of certain texts, soap-opera-like interventions, interviews, speculations, formal devices, and some clearly marked imaginary history.

Presenting reality in documentaries

In the press release I called the film a "drama-tary" to indicate that it was not what's considered a classic documentary, but not a fiction film either. I was trying to skirt the odious word "docudrama", which it decidedly wasn't, and to call up a certain awkward, two humped beast, for imagery.The notion of documentary truth might be best understood as that truth which is found in the way that we mentally organize our perceptions.

Increasingly the theoretical understanding of documentary film is moving away from the notion of an inherent reality found within a film text and more towards an understanding of how texts are read.

's best documentaries found new ways to engage reality in a post-truth world Five types of nonfiction films challenged old paradigms and drew audiences into fresh ways of engaging reality. The notion of documentary truth might be best understood as that truth which is found in the way that we mentally organize our perceptions.

Increasingly the theoretical understanding of documentary film is moving away from the notion of an inherent reality found within a film text and more towards an understanding of how texts are read. A documentary attempts to educate the viewer by presenting facts through a series of observations.

The most dangerous thing in my view is the trend for constructed reality dramas. These are dramas presented as fly-on-the-wall, the viewer is encouraged to believe the characters are real by placing them in real locations ans situations.

For reality to be completely present in order to have a real documentary there should be ideally, no draw backs on objectivity in the portrayal of ideas.

Adolf Hitler was a Nazi dictator ruling over a powerful country like Germany, his influence and power to pressurise Leni Riefenstahl was unquestionable.

Webster defines documentary as “a movie or television program that tells the facts about actual people and events.” The conventional thinking about documentaries is that they document reality, represent the objective truth and do not include fictional elements.

Lesson Plan: Reality Media? | 56 Up | POV | PBS