How To Smartly Watch A Documentary

Whether documentary films are your schtick or not, everyone has watched some form of documentary during their lifetime. Directors utilize the evidentiary value of documentary films to outline arguments, issues, and concerns that may or may not be gathering the attention they deserve. However, because documentary films are always subjective stories that strive for objectivity, it’s important that viewers approach documentary films with questions and caution just like any presentation of history, evidence, argument, or truth.

History has been and continues to be written by the winners, meaning most published works prior to the post-modernist era have been constructed by the white, Western man (democratic imperialism and not honky tonk cowboys). It’s necessary to recognize racial, economic, and gender differences in order to fully understand the construction of our education system and social structure as well as our so-called “truths.” Until now this has been by and large ignored in favor of the educated white perspective. In order to ingest a documentary it’s important to have an absolute awareness of your own position within their culture as well as an understanding of the director, and/or subject’s position within the framework of the film.

By understanding the construction of a documentary, you have a better chance of soaking in the larger argument at work. It’s impossible to present an objective documentary standpoint within a two-hour timeframe, and this proves its inability to wholly inform the public of the multitude of factors that have influenced the subject of the film. I know impossible is a daunting word to use, but if we think about capturing an issue in a mere two hours, using impossible to explain the limitations of documentaries is fitting. Therefore, it’s necessary to have a foundational understanding of how documentaries work in order to be able to ask the right questions with the hope that viewers gain a critical awareness of the limitations and subjective perspective of these “evidentiary” films. By actively engaging with the film and its content, viewers are able to understand the complexity of the documentary because you end up asking the questions the director didn’t have time to fit in but wants to supply.

Questions to ask during a documentary:

– Who is the director, and why are they telling this story?

– Who are the subjects within the film?

– What is the director leaving out and why?

– Does this film utilize both sides of the story to support their argument?

– What approach is the director taking (it’s generally a mix of techniques)?

– All things History Channel and Disney Nature Films: these docs tell you everything you need to know and generally don’t offer anything but “History of” or a fictionalized narrative of the lives of animals.

– Perpetrator documentaries have become more popular in the last couple of decades and switch the perspective from the victim to the wrongdoer. “The Act of Killing” (2012) is one of the most well known perpetrator documentaries.

– Documentaries that make their case through interviews/testimonials are umbrella’d under the Participatory sub-genre. See “Gasland” or “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”

– All things Michael Moore sum up the Performative category of documentaries. The director fully engages with the film and its argument and influences the audience through their direct approach and involvement.

– Docu-Fictions, my favorite of the categories, seeks to find truth through a mixture of documentary elements and fictional narratives. One of my favorite quotes about Docu-Fiction’s claims, “If our social reality itself is sustained by a symbolic fiction or fantasy, then the ultimate achievement of film art is not to recreate reality within the narrative fiction, to seduce us into (mis)taking a fiction for reality, but, on the contrary, to experience reality itself as a fiction.”

– Slavoj Zizek on Krzysztof Kieslowski

Of course there are other techniques and documentary various documentary categories that have impacted the way evidence and issues are presented. Cinema is influential when it comes to perspectives on issues, social realities, and overall life. The combination of cinema and truths has an immense amount of implications and consequences for those who take things at face value. Those ill equipped to look at the bigger picture and deconstruct documentary limitations. All that being said, I hope you’re able take some of these questions with you as you begin or continue onwards with your exploration of the documentary genre!

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