Truth and Documentary

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We hear it all the time. Its a documentary and therefore true, right? Wrong. There are many kinds of documentary just as there are many kinds of truth. One clue that helps separate propaganda from factual information is the director’s ‘on-screen’ performance.

At the propaganda end of the spectrum, or the ‘performative documentary’,  the filmmaker actively persuades the audience to a particular view. For example, Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) is an overt attempt to dissuade Americans from returning George Bush at the 2004 USA presidential elections. It is an award-winning documentary even though it uses fiction-film techniques (mixed media animations, photos, archival footage, elaborate editing, split screens, flashbacks, plus irony, humour and drama). The director, Michael Moore, is on-screen for much of the time attempting to persuade us to his point of view.

At the factual information end of the spectrum, or the ‘observational’ documentary’, an arms-length camera is usually the storyteller. For example, Cunnamula (2000) is an award-winning exposé of life in an outback Queensland town. The director, Dennis O’Rourke, is never on-screen. Using an unobtrusive camera and long unedited scenes, the film allows the subjects to tell their own story without interference. This type of documentary  has more authenticity and ‘truth’ than others, although the filmmaker still shapes the story.

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