Redefining What We Call Real

Documentary filmmaking has maintained its remarkable and celebrated presence for decades. From the earliest of films, artists were fascinated with the new medium through which they could capture a visual representation of life around them. Pioneering filmmakers such as the Lumière brothers, Dziga Vertov, and Robert Flaherty quickly recognized the potential and power of the camera in its ability to record the unfolding of events. Over the years, many filmmakers have used documentary as a way of expressing their voices and perspectives, spreading awareness for a cause, and obtaining an authentic, unscripted depiction of the world. As the art form has evolved however, debates have surfaced regarding what qualifies a film as a documentary as well as the ethics of a filmmaker’s involvement and manipulation therein. Others have questioned whether these films are ever even completely candid. As a result, these issues and more have caused audiences to question the very definition we often ascribe documentary films and as such, our relationships with these films are complicated.

Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North has been heralded as the first feature length documentary film, and for many years audiences were amazed at the fascinating depiction he captured of indigenous Inuit Nanook and his family as they lived in Canada. On the surface, the film was monumental in its release and appears to qualify as one of the first documentary films ever created. However the truth behind much of the film introduces complicated factors that have caused many to question whether it is a documentary or fiction film. From fabricated igloo’s to achieve a well-lit interior scene, to the fact that many of Nanook’s family were cast for the film, to the reality that Nanook’s name wasn’t even his real name, much of the film was fabricated. This comes as a shock to many because we expect documentary films to be authentic and honest. And yet the truth of the matter is that many documentary films are never entirely genuine. Filmmakers introduce elements of subjectivity in the ways they tell their stories. Scenes are manipulated. Environments and individual personalities instantly change when cameras are present. Facts can be distorted. And audiences are regularly cheated.

However, none of this is to say that documentary filmmaking is an unethical endeavor. It simply requires that our definition of documentary filmmaking cannot hold onto the belief that every film in the genre will depict a pure, authentic, objective reality. Many films are altered, edited, and adjusted for various purposes, often skewing reality, even if, for example, by small measures of chronology. Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera reminds us of this aspect of filmmaking when within the film itself it pulls out to reveal an editor cutting strips of footage we see moments later. (See photo below)  It is a startling, unconventional moment that makes the audience fully aware of the fact that they are watching a work that has been edited and altered.

What, then, can our definition of documentary filmmaking be if we recognize that there will always be an element of manipulation within the work? Author Bill Nichols provides a particularly accurate definition, stating, “Documentary film speaks about situations and events involving real people (social actors) who present themselves within a framework” (Nichols 10). John Grierson postulates that documentary films are creative treatments of reality (Nichols 5). Ultimately, as documentary film viewers, it is vital we recognize that artists will alter and adjust their work. Such is the nature of a medium that facilitates subjective expression, even in documentary filmmaking.

For decades, audiences have felt comfortable with the idea that all documentary films are depictions of pure reality. The genre of documentary filmmaking and the name itself seem to suggest this very thing. However, it is from the very first feature film within this genre, Nanook of the North, that we quickly realize this may not always be the case. Documentary films, rather than being completely real in their depictions of everyday life, are often adjusted, edited, crafted and created in such a way that it removes itself from being 100% genuine. Not surprisingly, this has caused us to reassess what qualifies a film as being a documentary. The debate is alive, even today. And still, regardless of whether we deem a film to be entirely authentic or not, as audience members, we will forever admire the genre for the way it allows for advocacy, exploration, and expression. Just as the early documentary filmmakers who helped birth this compelling genre, we too believe such aims are something worth pursuing.

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Works Cited

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary, Third Edition, Indiana University Press, 2017.

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