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October 4, 2004

Defining Documentary

I've been working on my Capturing the Friedmans paper, and today I've been reading Jeffrey Ruoff's excellent book, "An American Family:" A Televised Life. I've been making lots of useful connections, most of which I'm not quite ready to discuss just yet, but Ruoff discusses one debate that seems to haunt my personal project, not to mention discusion of the reception of documentary film in general. In this context, Ruoff writes:

Visual anthropologist Jay Ruby claims that documentaries mask their ideological agendas, fooling viewers into thinking they are watching objective representations of the world. Using this, albeit untested, theory of spectatorship, Ruby has argued [...] for a self-reflexive documentary that would acknowledge its constructed nature. [...] More recently, film theorist, Bill Nichols, while surely sympathetic to Ruby's formulation, has offered another text-based definition of nonfiction film. In Representing Reality, Nichols maintains that documentaries may best be categorized as works that present an "argument about the historical world" (95-6).
Ruoff, of course, goes on to complicate this comparison between Nichols and Ruby, but I think these two definitions of documentary speak to contemporary debates about this genre, including the battles over whether Michael Moore's F9/11 should be classified as a documentary (a debate that came up at a party I attended this weekend), and I think these definitions could have clarified our discussion somewhat. Moore's films are transparently reflexive, of course, with Moore himself playing a prominent role as a narrator, his looming presence in his films calling explicit attention to his directorial control. His documentaries are unambiguously argumentative (which is what makes Moore such a polarizing figure), though I'd argue that his best arguments are sometimes obscured by his tendency to overreach. But while viewers clearly see Moore as making an argument because of his reflexivity, they perceive that practice as defying the requirements of documentary film, which they expect to be "objective," showing "both sides" of the story (in some sense this expectation is derived from a false equation between journalism and documentary film, two entirley different activities).

Ruoff adds that Nichols' formulation may not hold for "observational cinema," such as An American Family, especially in terms of reception. In my experience, most viewers demonstrate some awareness of the constructedness of all documentaries, even those that use a "fly-on-the-wall" approach. In this sense, I'm less inclined to uphold the idea of a "naive viewer," especially one who is "fooled" into believing they are watching "objective representations" (here the ehcoes of "false consciousness" are far too strong for me to accept).

I haven't quite resolved this tension, but it seems to inform most conversations about how documentaries are received, an issue that seems particularly relevant in my paper on CTF, which has produced such a wide variety of responses (as the comments in my original entry on the film suggest). The "reality effect" is amplified in CTF by the use of home movies and home video belonging to the Friedman family, but Andrew Jarecki's directorial control over the film seems pretty explicit, in part because we hear him ask questions, but also because of formal flourishes, such as the time-lapse shots of the clock in Great Neck. Perhaps more importantly, Jarecki includes footage from several of the film's screenings, showing us the arguments provoked by the film, and in some sense, potentially steering our interpretation of the film, not necessarily in terms of Arnold and Jessie's guilt, but in terms of the questions that we ask after watching the film.

Posted by chuck at October 4, 2004 10:52 PM

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In regards to your last paragraph (and largely off the topic of your entire post), I was thinking about this and wondered what your thoughts were.

What is the cumulative effect of Jarecki's directorial influence?

I was thinking back to my first viewing of the film. The directorial hand is evident in the film, however, the ebbs and flows that we've discussed previously (what is revealed when) had the cumulative effect of making me still unsure of the actual facts, but feeling as I'd been taken through a clear recitation of the facts.

Does his directorial hand, then, actually lead to a different sort of objectivity?

Just a thought.

Posted by: Dylan at October 5, 2004 12:25 AM

That's an interesting question. Of course we know that Jarecki doesn't give us "all the facts," but the film, for whatever reason, has that effect. And because Jarecki won't answer explicitly the "innocence/guilt" question, either in the film or in interviews, he may appear more objective. I'm still drinking my first cup of coffee, so I'm not sure I have a better answer yet.

Posted by: chuck at October 5, 2004 9:38 AM

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