HOW TO WATCH A DOCUMENTARY
The difference between a documentary film and a feature film is analogous to the difference between a nonfiction book and a novel: both may be based on "real life" (indeed, the best fiction is often drawn from real events, feelings, and experiences), but the relationship with the reader is different. From a nonfiction book, a reader expects that the narrative will be based on verifiable facts, and that the narrative is supported by evidence. The reader understands that the novel, on the other hand, ultimately comes from the author's imagination.
Both kinds of books are creative works: the phrasing of words, arrangement of materials, and the framing of the topic are artistic decisions made by the author. Both kinds of creative works can also have points of view: just because one is based primarily on evidence and the other primarily on imagination does not make one subjective and the other objective.
We must keep the same points in mind when we view a documentary film. A documentary, unlike a feature film, is based primarily on evidence ("documents"), which are ideally featured in the course of the documentary film. But a documentary film is nonetheless still a creative work that has a point of view. When we watch a documentary, therefore, we must be active viewers, analyzing the presentation of evidence and the construction of the narrative with a critical eye. We should also feel comfortable evaluating the aesthetics of a documentary film (light, sound, and images) in the same way that we might evaluate a feature film. (The one major difference: a feature film creator can manipulate images, sounds, and lights in the service of artistic creativity; ideally, a documentarian should not manipulate her sources, only the context in which they are presented.)
Documentary topics can vary: often a documentary centers on a notable event (or series of events); a notable person; or a notable social phenomenon. The key word here is "notable": one of the clearest ways in which we can perceive the viewpoint of documentarians is the way in which they choose and frame their topics. "World War II" may strike us as a self-evidently "notable" event; nonetheless, we can perceive the difference in viewpoint between the documentarian who focuses on military strategy ("How we won D-Day") and the documentarian who focuses on humanitarian tragedy ("Beaches of Blood"). So even the choice of topic tells us something about documentary that we need to engage critically.
Documentary sources also vary widely. Documentaries on recent events or persons will often incorporate video and audio footage of the event. Documentaries on persons or events that predate audiovisual recording sometimes rely on reenactments (which should be clearly labeled as such) or readings of pertinent documents. Almost all documentaries include interviews with experts. These interview subjects may be experts based on their personal acquaintance with a person or event (e.g., a soldier present at Omaha Beach on D-Day) or an academic with scholarly expertise in a subject (a World War II historian).
Like most nonfiction books, most documentary films have a strong point of view that we might even call an argument. Sometimes the argument emerges simply in the choice of a subject: the filmmaker who creates a film around human trafficking of children is likely trying to mobilize knowledge and sentiment against such practices. Sometimes documentary films are explicitly advocacy films: Al Gore's award-winning An Inconvenient Truth and most Michael Moore documentaries fall into this category. Both are technically documentaries, as they are based on evidence and not the creator's imagination; but they explicitly advocate for particular emotional, intellectual, and practical reactions from the audience. (The advent of multimedia synergy often assists this advocacy: Gore's film and Moore's are linked to websites that describe potential actions a mobilized viewer can take.) Therefore, watching a documentary should never be seen as a passive, educational experience any more than watching a feature film should be. Both have contexts, points of view, and should be subject to critical reading.
We should feel comfortable evaluating documentary films from two simultaneous angles:
what kinds of light, sound, image choices does the director make, and how do they contribute to the overall effect of the film?
do you feel that the documentarian relies too heavily (or not enough) on aesthetics to make her point (e.g., through use of sad music, dim lighting, special effects)?
how much does the documentarian rely on non-documentary effect (such as reenactments) to make her point?
what kind of "documents" does the film lay out, and how are they presented?
what has the documentarian done to mobilize the evidence toward her point of view? is there "missing" evidence?
how present is the documentarian herself (e.g., as an interviewing voice, or narrator), and what effect does this have on your analysis of her evidence?
how persuasive is the documentarian's point of view (or argument)? can you imagine a documentary on the same subject from a very different point of view?
This page has been written for Core II, section 9, taught at Scripps College in Spring 2010, by Andrew Jacobs. Feel free to link to this page, but please to not reproduce it without permission.