IV. TOWARDS AN OPERATIONAL DEFINTION OF DOCUMENTARY:
“Naming matters. Names come with expectations; if that were not true, then
marketers would not use them as marketing tools. The truthfulness,
accuracy, and trustworthiness of documentaries are important to us all
because we value them precisely and uniquely for these qualities. When
documentaries deceive us, they are not just deceiving viewers but members
of the public who might act upon knowledge gleaned from the film.
Documentaries are part of the media that helps us understand not only our
own world, but our role in it, that shape us as public actors.”
Patricia Aufderheide, “Documentary Film- A Very Short Introduction”
IV.1. What is Documentary?
Having viewed the current state of documentary from the macro perspective of the digital revolution, let us now narrow our focus and direct our attention to the form and aesthetic conventions of documentary itself. As is often the case with revolutions, one of the unfortunate side effects of the digital revolution has been a tendency on the part of some to either deny or ignore the value of past history or traditions.
In the case of documentary, this is particularly unfortunate, because there is a rich documentary tradition dating back to the end of the 19th century that is arguably still of great relevance event today. Finding a definition of documentary from within that tradition that would apply both to analog and digital documentary would help make that case to the new generation of Digital Natives mentioned in Chapter I.
However, there are a few major obstacles.
Perhaps the chief impediment is that fact that while documentary is a universally recognized cinematic form, an agreement on exactly what is, and what is not, a documentary has proved elusive throughout the course of cinematic scholarship from the early 20th century to the present day. Indeed, the issue has frequently been the subject of heated controversy.
For example, noted American documentary theorist Bill Nichols has posited that there are three ‘commonsense assumptions’ in all documentaries:
1. Documentaries are about reality; they’re about something that actually happened.
2. Documentaries are about real people.
3. Documentaries stories about what happens in the real world.
One of the problems inherent in Nichols' definition is that the definition of reality itself has been a classic conundrum for philosophers since ancient times, a conundrum which has yet to be resolved. As is well known, new scientific discoveries in the 20th centuries have constantly forced us to radically re-assess our perceptions of reality, shattering in the process all hope of a deterministic world view.
We are now limited to defining our reality as the currently accepted scientific definition of that reality, fully aware that the definition will soon be subject to modification. For better or for worse, we find ourselves in an indeterminate universe, where the only constant is change; as the ancient philosopher Heraclitus put it: “All entities move and nothing remains still.”
In the cinematic world, the issue of what constitutes accurate or acceptable portrayal of reality has also been a hot potato since newsreels began to recreate historical events for the camera in the earliest days of the cinema up until the present day. For example, in 1898, travel was expensive and time-consuming, so staging the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor in some bathtub in New York made perfect sense, at least from a producer’s point of view. At that time, there were no ethical standards for documentary, since the medium had yet to be defined.
Today, of course, if a news correspondent is reporting from Baghdad, he or she has to physically be in Baghdad, and not in, say, New York or London with a digital green screen backdrop. Similarly, if a Richard Attenborough BBC special on wildlife intersperses, without a disclaimer, images of animals shot in zoos with the same animals in the wild, there is a major scandal, and the BBC has to promise to identify all faked scenes on air, and, to never to do it again.
However, contemporary educational channels like The History Channel ( and others) are now full of dramatic re-enactments of historical events, and few object. It would appear, then, that some re-enactment is tolerable, as long as it is acknowledged, and not deceptive. Nichols addresses this issue when he elaborates on his first assumption:” Documentary films speak about actual situations or events and honor known facts; they do no introduce new, unverifiable ones. They speak directly about the historical world, rather than the allegorical one.”
It might appear that Nichols accepts the re-staging events, as long as they honor “known facts”, but then, in his clarification of his second assumption, he writes,” Documentaries are about real people who do not play or perform roles.”
Here, it would appear he has ruled out re-enactment, but again, he employs highly subjective terms such as “real”, not to mention “play or perform roles” .He further adds to the confusion by observing that Robert Flaherty’s legendary “Nanook of the North “(1922) ‘can be said to be one gigantic reenactment, yet it retains significant documentary qualities.”
According to Nichols’ own stated criteria, it would seem that “Nanook of the North” would definitely not qualify as a documentary; however, he then skirts the issue by not following his argument to its logical conclusion – that Nanook of the North is not, by Nichols’ definition, a documentary. Instead, the question goes unanswered, and that raises further questions.
For example, how exactly would Nichols differentiate between Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North “and F.W. Murnau’s “Tabu “ (1931) ?
In both cases, the director shot his own story with local amateur talent on exotic locations. In other words, they both made what might be called fiction films shot in a neorealist style. As Murnau’s biographer Lotte Eisner wrote,” The old argument about whether it (Tabu) is a documentary or a “feature film” is pointless. Murnau did not set out to observe native customs or record them in scientific detail. He was an artist who had set out with the endless European nostalgia for beauty and the sun. What he sought, he found. And he transformed it and gave us a glimpse of it.
Robert Flaherty was a paid collaborator of Murnau’s on “Tabu”; according to Flaherty’s brother David Flaherty, the difference between the two related more to dramaturgy and aesthetics, rather than cinematic method.Eisner cites as evidence the differing treatments on the same subject written by each, but also notes that the two shared writing credits on the final film, with Murnau credited as both director and producer. Regrettably, there is no mention of “Tabu” in Nichols’ book, but he does write that Vittorio DeSica’s “Bicycle Thieves” (sic) can also share these qualities with “Nanook” without being considered a documentary at all.”
Unfortunately, Nichols does not elaborate on why one is a documentary, and the other cannot be “considered a documentary at all.” Since he himself states that “Nanook of the North” is not only fiction, but is a “gigantic reenactment”, it would appear that, by Nichols’ definition, the film widely recognized as the first American documentary, is not a documentary at all.
Perhaps Nichols is showing due deference to an iconic figure in American documentary history, but he does not appear to be employing consistent criteria.
What one can say in Flaherty’s defense is that one can hardly pass judgment on the documentary ethics of his work ex post facto; when he was making his pioneering work, there were no critical criteria for evaluating documentary in the United States. Flaherty was simply working on uncharted territory, and doing his creative best to tell a story he wanted to tell.
As noted previously, terms like “real” are highly subjective, and can be defined almost at whim. A classic cinematic response came from the late great Italian director Federico Fellini when he was castigated by ideologues for apparently abandoning the Neorealist ethic in films like “La Dolce Vita” (1960) and “8 ½ “(1963):’ Realism is a bad word. In a certain sense, everything is realistic. I see no dividing line between imagination and reality. I see a great deal of reality in imagination.”
So where does this leave documentary? In academic circles in Western Europe and the United States, the post-modern critique of photography and other depictions of reality became popular towards the end of the Twentieth Century, causing considerable debate.
In “Collecting Visible Evidence”, for example, Jane M. Gaines summarized the evolution of this post-modern position when she wrote that there is no “real” world to depict, and that the only reality that we can be sure exists are the images that the artist has created. Hence, for Gaines, “true” documentary becomes impossible . However, for the broadcaster, the documentarian, and the media consumer, there is another, even larger context to consider: our collective consciousness and our collective understanding of that reality.
Patricia Aufderheide, former Board Member of the Independent Television Service in the United States and Founder-Director of the Center for Social Media of American University in Washington, D.C., offers another perspective when she puts the concept of “reality “ in the context of mass communications: “Reality is not what is out there, but what we know, understand and share with each other of what is out there. Media affect the most important real estate of all, that which is inside your head. Documentary is an important reality-shaping communication because of its claims to truth.”
In other words, the relationship between the reality being represented in a work of art, such as a documentary, should not be conflated with the internal realities in the minds of the viewers consuming that documentary. They are separate, and distinct realities, although they are not mutually exclusive.
 Patricia Aufderheide ( Documentary Film- A Very Short Introduction )Oxford University Press, 2007, p.4
 Bill Nichols (Introduction to Documentary) Second Edition, Indiana University Press 2010, pp,7-10
 Bill Nichols ( ibid)p.8
 Bll Nichols (ibid) p.8
 Bill Nichols (ibid) p.13
 Lotte Eisner,(Murnau) University of California Press, 1973, p.204
 Link to “Tabu: : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zlw0fGA9sEI
 Lotte Eisner (ibid) p.218
 Nichols ( ibid) p.15
 Federico Fellini ( Fellini on Fellini) Delacorte Press, 1976, p.152
 Gaines ( ibid) p.2
 Aufderheide, (ibid.)p.5