Webster’s dictionary defines a document as “an original or official paper relied on as the basis, proof, or support of something” and “something that serves as evidence or proof” (Websters Dictionary, 2008). This something can be an audio or video recording, electronic mail, a photograph, and other materials that can be seen or heard. For a material (photograph, text, recording) to be considered a document, it must be readable (if a text), identifiable, and understandable, meaning, they are not distorted, blurry, or garbled.
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A documentary film, on the other hand, is a film that attempts, in some way, to record or document reality. The events included in a documentary are non-scripted and the people are non-actors (Hicks, 2007).
As a piece of work, documentaries are non-fiction. They consist of actual footage of events. Documentary films may need voice-over narration for the viewers to understand what is being shown, although there are documentaries that are self-explanatory and thus, do not require narration.
The scenes in a documentary are carefully chosen and arranged. Besides actual footage, scenes may also include interviews with people. Documentaries may likewise contain staging and reenactment of events that were not caught on video as they happened. The reenactment and staging may be based on how eye-witnesses describe how the event occurred (Hicks, 2007).
John Grierson defines documentary as a “creative treatment of actuality.” This definition has gained acceptance, although it does not perfectly represent documentaries that contain staging and re-enactments.
For the purposes of this discussion, three good documentaries shall be used as an illustration: Death in Gaza (directed by James Miller), Hearts and Minds (directed by Peter Davis), and Control Room (directed by Jehane Noujaim).
These above-mentioned documents are held together by a common theme: war. Death in Gaza is a documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian. It followed the lives of seven children: in school, at home, while studying, while playing, while helping the militant fighters, while making explosives, while mourning deaths of family members, and other aspects of their everyday lives. Besides being a poignant mirror of life at war, the documentary is also notable because of the fact that its director (James Miller) got killed while filming it. Segments about the director’s death were also included in the documentary. Hearts and Minds, on the other hand, is a documentary about the Vietnam War.
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What is very notable about the film is that it is accused of simple propaganda because of its very apparent anti-war stand. It is slammed as being biased. Finally, Control Room is a documentary about the US war against Iraq, and how it is being perceived by the people. Focusing on the Al-Jazeera network, it shows the importance of media in times of war, how media’s take and reportage of war can influence different aspects of war, such as perceptions of its importance (or lack thereof) from home.
While the above documentaries tackle war as the main theme, they differ in their approaches and their focus. Death in Gaza used innocent children as the main focus; Hearts and Minds focused on some important leaders, using poignant events to support the film’s apparent anti-war stand; while Control Room focused on a news agency, giving a hard look at the reportage of events and perceptions of war back home.
There are many ways by which the concept of a document forms our idea of the concept of a documentary. From the concept of the document, it appears that a documentary should be a record of events or events that can be used as proof that the event shown in the documentary actually happened and not just a product of imagination. Still from this concept, it could be gleaned that a documentary is a record of life as it is — unscripted, spontaneous. It is factual and, ideally, objective (Hicks, 2007). Jane Roscoe aptly calls it “factual programming,” (Roscoe, 2000). All the documentaries mentioned above all qualify for these qualifications: they are records of actual events and people; they are all factual.
Additionally, although a document is a piece of evidence, it may also be modified or distorted, in much the same way that a photo can be fixed to show something that was not originally there, among others. A voice or audio recording may also be edited, such that it may be made to contain something that will support a lie. Anchoring on this possibility (that is, a document may be altered), it follows that a documentary may also be distorted. Segments of a documentary may be modified.
This may be illustrated by the Hearts and Minds documentary. The sequences in this documentary were so chosen that they appear to support the anti-war “propaganda” of the director. It seems that there are other aspects of the war, particularly those that support the pro-war stand, that was not included. The narration that accompanies it is also angled such that the documentary does not completely show the real picture, but the picture or segment of truth that the producer wants to show.
Moreover, the characteristic of a document as a tangible thing — meaning, it can be seen or heard — also gives the documentary the necessary requirement of being likewise in a tangible form. Something is not a documentary unless it can be seen or heard. Again, the documentaries above are also in tangible form — they are broadcast, and we can hear and watch them.
Finally, because documents are actual records, it follows therefore that documentaries are all reflections of reality. The Death of Gaza shows this most of all by also including in the documentary the actual footage of the death of the director while filming it. As is sometimes used to refer to documentaries, the Death of Gaza is a record of actuality.
But while documentaries can be reflections of reality, they also show the truth that some reflections produce distorted images, as is the case of Hearts and Minds, as already pointed out above.
It is in this regard that, although there may be an apparent effort at objectivity in a documentary, it may most likely be subjective. After all, there is nothing that can be called one hundred percent objective, as the people involved in a project will always have their own biases. There will always be a side of the issue to which the filming crew, particularly the director, will be most attached. And this attachment will surely give the project a form of bias, however slight that bias may be. After all, only machines are capable of being objective, not having their own mind to consider things and make a stand, and a heart to be touched by the events that the documentaries present.
Jeremy Hicks. Dziga Vertov: Defining Documentary Film. London & New York: IB Tauris, 2007.
Roscoe, Jane. 2000. Documenting the Changes. Web.