Among the qualities that distinguish films considered documentary are: (1) explicit reference to the historical world that surrounds the film, (2) a persuasive effort that encourages viewers to see or understand some aspect of the actual world in a particular way, and (3) an indexical relationship between the image and the reality it refers to. Indexical images match in their particulars the physical appearance of what they represent. They do not possess a general likeness to a model or referent, as a painting would; they are closer to an exact replica of what came before the camera. The cinematic image can capture the look of a person, place, or event precisely. The optical properties of cameras, lenses, and recording media – from film to memory cards – capture aspects of the world with great precision. This allows the indexical image to serve as documentary evidence, as footage from surveillance cameras demonstrates.
The offsetting fact that images can be creatively altered or politically manipulated, be they celluloid or digital, allows for expressive or persuasive intent to complicate the relation of the documentary image to reality. Documentaries are not raw documents or evidence in the way a medical X-ray is. They are complex forms of communication and, like any other form of communication, they convey something of their creator’s goals or intentions. Caution must be exercised in assessing how images serve as evidence.
Take, for example, Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious film of the Nazi party’s annual rally in 1935, Triumph of the Will. The film, then as now, relies heavily on its indexical relation to what happened before the camera. The historical actors are authentic and the event actually took place. But Riefenstahl worked closely with Nazi party officials to plan and stage the rally in order to film it more effectively. In other words, she did not just catch reality as it unfolded around her but staged that reality for maximum cinematic impact. Like modern-day political conventions, the entire rally is orchestrated as a media event for the camera rather than as a historical event the camera manages to record. Some historical events, such as the press conference, photo opportunities, political rallies, demonstrations, and conventions, only exist in the form they have in order to be filmed or televised. Documentaries inevitably shape as well as capture the reality they represent.
Filmmakers use their works to convey their own point of view, sensibility, or perspective even though other interpretations are always possible. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), for example, presents evidence that supports his contention that the American occupation of Iraq was totally unjustified. All the evidence he assembles serves to advance a specific argument. Among the most persuasive forms of evidence used are those images and scenes that carry a strong emotional impact, such as a mother who became a vocal critic of the war after her son died fighting in Iraq. In many documentaries the emotional impact of images outweighs their strictly evidentiary value. The realism of the documentary image makes viewers feel as if they are witnessing an actual event, or receiving evidence of what really happened in an almost unmediated form. Indexical images are a potent source of documentary evidence, but the interpretation of these images introduces subjective and persuasive factors that allow the same evidence to serve more than one purpose .
As a rhetorical form of communication, documentary film seeks to move or persuade its audience. Persuasiveness is achieved by adhering to the “three Cs” of rhetoric. These are what were called “proofs” by Aristotle because they provided proof of the validity of the case being made. The three Cs require that a documentary be (1) credible – the filmmaker or any commentator who appears on his or her behalf must appear trustworthy; (2) compelling – the evidence provided should carry an emotional charge that will move the audience, and (3) convincing – the claims and statements made, either explicitly by a speaker or implicitly by editing, music, composition, and so on, must appear truthful.
What is crucial, rhetorically, is the impression of truthfulness. Rhetoric comes to the aid of those who favor a particular course of action when scientific or purely logical analysis cannot decide the issue conclusively. What is known as fact and is now part of the historical record or what is known as true and not open to dispute must be respected, but this is not as great a safeguard as some might think. That global warming has come to be accepted as scientific fact, for example, does not determine what policies governments should adopt, nor does it determine what actions businesses should take. Specific choices become defended by rhetorical means.
The assembly of raw footage, with its powerful indexical relation to the historical world, into more elaborate, rhetorical statements about the world became a common practice in the 1920s. The documentary film provided a potent way for the state to advance its own agenda and for other organizations and individuals to present their own values and views, even if they challenged official state policies.
Decades later, numerous documentaries take up issues and topics that do not involve the state directly at all, from questions of gender and ethnicity to concerns about the environment. In fact, some films, such as Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006), make clear that the state has become a problem rather the means to a solution. An Inconvenient Truth does not criticize specific state policies directly but makes clear that global warming has become an increasingly serious issue despite the various measures different states have adopted. The implication is clear that the measures taken so far are inadequate. The history of documentary film stands, on one level, as a record of the failure of western democracies to address successfully issues such as poverty, disease, environmental degradation, social justice, and war. It was, ironically, the need of the state to promote its particular approach to such issues that led to the rise of the documentary film in the first place.
- Aitken, I. (ed.) (2006). Encyclopedia of the documentary film. New York: Routledge.
- Barnouw, E. (1993). Documentary: A history of the non-fiction film. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Nichols, B. (2001). Introduction to documentary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
- Ward, P. (2005). Documentary: The margins of reality. London: Wallflower Press.