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The truth is rarely pure and never simple. — Oscar Wilde

This course has focused primarily on fictional narrative films, but we have screened a few documentaries. Night and Fog, The Man With a Move Camera, Triumph of the Will. Even from these examples, you can see that the subject is a complex one.

We are bombarded with documentaries, pseudo documentaries, propaganda films. They create the images in our minds — and the narrative in our heads, of history, politics, products — truth. Every night, we watch the news: mini-documentaries. We watch commercials – which can often seem like documentaries. In school, the teacher sets up the projector for a documentary on how to protect yourself from HIV. You access YouTube to watch a comparison of two smart phones. And then there’s the History Channel!

We have all been in documentaries and made documentaries. Are the subjects of our family videos. We record history with our cellphones.

So what is a documentary? Bordwell’s discussion of the subject in the textbook is an excellent place to start. Please read it.

A documentary is any film that says it’s a documentary. It pretends to present “factual information about the world”.

But what is fact? What is truth?

A better question to ask is what creates the impression of truth.

In between the subject and the audience is the film. It is assembled, shot, edited, staged (or not) narrated (or not), performed (or not) set to music (or not). In short, it is manipulated. But in such a way that we say “this is true”.

This is not a pipe.

Bordwell talks about the types of documentary. Often, these types are combined.

  • The compilation film: archival images assembled by the director. Night and Fog is a powerful example of this.
  • The interview or talking heads documentary.
  • The direct cinema documentary: records an event as it happens.: cinema verite.

With a documentary, the willing suspension of disbelief is that we are not suspending our disbelief. (a new quotation from Chairman Rey)

This is the most famous influential, and most debated. documentary of my lifetime: The Zapruder record of John Kennedy’s assassination. Do not watch it if you are squeamish.


What is truth?


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