Engagement and the documentary

by Anne Fischel

from Jump Cut, no. 34, March, 1989, pp. 35-40
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1989, 2006

Documentary films are problematic. They purport to provide information about events, institutions and cultures. They organize that information, integrating and synthesizing it into a coherent picture of the world.

Documentaries awaken a desire not just for information but for insight, understanding, and intimacy. We want the camera to take us some place we haven't been and show us something we haven't seen, and we want it to do so in a way which "gives" us the experience. Seeing films about the !Kung Bushmen, the Loud family, or the inside of a juvenile court seems as good as being there; perhaps better, because it enables us to skip the complex and difficult processes of coming to know, and go straight to the vicarious ownership which film knowledge confers.

Yet, as anyone who has developed expertise in some subject, traveled to a foreign country, or moved into a strange neighborhood knows, we do not acquire knowledge so easily. We may gather information rapidly or slowly, but mastering the levels of a coherent social reality is a complex matter, requiring many initiations and much testing, much stumbling and confusion, and, above all, changes in the person who seeks to know.

Much of the critical attention directed at the documentary has looked at the completed work as a text, attempting to reveal both its artistry (its constructed nature) and its interpretive bias (its point of view). I intend to take a somewhat different tack, by looking at the approaches which filmmakers take to filming, the relations and commitments which their choices reflect, and the kinds of knowledge which those relations produce.

Let me first identify my own dispositions. I am committed to the continued development of a documentary practice. I believe that documentary films provide one of the most powerful means we have to represent communities to one another and to address social issues and problems. Precisely for this reason, filmmakers continually need to interrogate their own practices, evaluating the appropriateness and integrity of their methods, and the effectiveness and fidelity of the films those methods produce.

To concretize this discussion I will draw upon some of my own experiences as a documentary filmmaker. In 1976 I made a film called MISA COLOMBIANA in a tugurio, or shantytown, in Medellin, Colombia. The people in the community were unemployed urban migrants, squatting on municipal land, and struggling to find a footing for themselves in the city. They lived in terrible poverty, without adequate food or clothing, and without running water, schools, or health services. Nothing could have been more alien to my own experience.

Six years later, in 1982, while I was living in Boston, I made a film about eating disorders, called I DONT HAVE TO HIDE. I had been anorexic and I received funding for the film in part because the supporting agency knew my personal history, and believed I was uniquely qualified to treat the issues. I chose the topics and events depicted in I DON'T HAVE TO HIDE after discussions with women who were or had been anorexic or bulemic. I also appeared in the film, identifying myself both as the filmmaker and as a woman who had struggled with anorexia.

My earliest experiences in filmmaking took place with ethnographic filmmakers. Although the focus of my work has shifted, I tend to define personal realities as cultural systems, with their own sets of meanings, rules, and folkways. In this essay I will use "culture' in this loosely ethnographic sense, to describe any coherent social system which a filmmaker might seek to document.


It is more than forty years since John Grierson sought some identifying concepts for the documentary film. Grierson wrote of the importance of using natural material, and filmic situations based on actual environments and events. But he also noted that the array of films which could be labeled "documentary" with such minimal criteria was so large as to make the category almost meaningless. For Grierson the distinction between the documentary and its precursor, the film travelogue, lies in the depth of understanding which is achieved by the filmmaker and revealed in the film. The documentary, in Grierson's words, "must master its material on the spot, and come in intimacy to ordering it."[1][open notes in new window] The documentary does not simply describe or observe, nor does it play on the surface values of situations. Grierson wrote,

"You photograph the natural life, but you also, by your juxtaposition of detail, create an interpretation of it." (pp. 102-103)

From a contemporary perspective Grierson's formulation appears romantic and incomplete. Yet it remains pertinent. The authority and responsibility of the filmmaker stem from this ability to represent reality through the medium of images s/he creates and structures. Grierson evokes a central issue of documentary: the ambiguity surrounding the film's relation to the reality it purports to represent.

Furthermore, most documentaries do not make that relation explicit. Whatever the method, whatever the process by which filmmakers come to know what they know, they do not generally communicate that part of the story to the viewer.

Traditionally, documentary conventions have discouraged including reflexive accounts in the film itself. The process by which an analysis and a narrative are developed is systematically excluded. Instead, the films frequently offer images that project an unqualified certainty and confidence about the worlds they portray, suppressing any acknowledgement that reality is more ambiguous and complex.

This problem is not unique to the documentary film. In a sense documentaries share many of the problems of data-based research. Only recently, for instance, have social scientists begun to acknowledge the role of the knower in shaping the content of what is known. And only recently have ethnographic studies begun to look at what researchers actually do when they are doing their work.

Like films, the accounts of research which are published in journals and disseminated in classrooms are written to exclude the subjective aspects of knowledge gathering. In the words of Sir Peter Medawar:

"scientific papers are not meant to be records of the method of discovery, but rather a posteriori structures imposed upon the discovery to eliminate in the product as much subjectivity as possible.[2]

But scientific papers and documentary films serve a constitutive, as well as a descriptive, function. They help to construct the social reality of inquiry which, in turn, sets the guidelines for further work. When filmmakers do not integrate their intense subjective involvement in some formal way into the film, then the process of discovery is misrepresented and routinized. Such films communicate a distorted view of what knowledge is and how it is attained.

I am not suggesting that all documentary films should make their methodologies public, and I am certainly not arguing that documentary forms should be standardized. But I am suggesting that we need to confront the relation to knowledge which documentaries claim, and which audiences appear to expect.

Subjectivity, as Medawar writes of it, does not only mean bias, error, or chance. What I take him to mean by subjectivity is the engagement of the knower, that complex mixture of investment, absorption, curiosity, and desire that figures in the search for knowledge.

Seeing and knowing are political acts. In any filmic situation the filmmaker confronts a range of experiences from the very public to the very private. Sometimes situations reveal themselves readily; at other times, access must be negotiated in stages. Often the determining factor is the quality of relations between filmmaker and subjects, the extent to which people can feel a common sense of purpose, and can trust that they will be heard and understood.

In this context understanding means grasping the terms by which a community makes sense of its experience. But understanding also refers to the filmmaker's personal stance and to his/her willingness to be engaged, suspend preconceptions and judgments, and struggle honestly with differences.


Traditionally, documentary's starting place has been the filmmaker's desire to know a subject or a way of life with which s/he is unfamiliar. Whether it is Flaherty filming the Inuit, Fred Wiseman a department store, or Ricky Leacock a fundamentalist community, the documentary filmmaker is defined as an outsider, a stranger seeking entry to someone else's world.

Generally we assume that strangeness is a temporal — and temporary — condition. Someone we meet for the first time is a stranger, but in time s/he becomes familiar, and the condition of strangeness dissolves. Strangeness can be overcome by proximity, contact, or education. It is not in any sense a sociological, or existential, condition.

Another conception of strangeness more accurately describes the relation between documentarians and their subjects. In 1908 Georg Simmel, the German sociologist and philosopher, defined strangeness as an essential condition of certain social relations. "The stranger," wrote Simmel, is not

"the wanderer who comes today and goes tomorrow, but rather…the person who comes today and stays tomorrow. He is, so to speak, the potential wanderer: although he has not moved on, he has not quite overcome the freedom of coming and going.[3]

Simmel's definition of the stranger roots us in an ancient historical relation. The Old Testament constructs special rules of hospitality and interaction for strangers, who are not simply wanderers passing through, but persons whose ethnic or religious origins lie elsewhere. Simmel says that strangers are, by definition, not the owners of the soil, but the ones who import new qualities into the group, qualities "which do not and cannot stem from the group itself" (p. 402).

Strangers possess mobility, "that synthesis of nearness and distance which constitutes the formal position of the stranger" (pp. 403-04). The mobile person has contact with many members of the group, but is "not organically connected, through established ties of kinship, locality, and occupation, with any single one" (p. 404).

Because strangers are not committed to the perspectives and norms of the group, the strangers are free to view them "objectively." Objectivity, for Simmel is not a passive or neutral stance, but "a particular structure, composed of distance and nearness, indifference and involvement" (p. 404) Simmel describes the freedom needed to formulate a point of view which does not arise within the context of the social system it observes.

Strangers frequently become repositories of confidences. They get told things, or shown things, which are withheld from other members of the group. I have often been amazed at the apparent ease, even urgency, with which people would share their personal histories with me. Telling one's story to a stranger places it in another context, and therefore confers importance upon it. The perspective of the stranger offers another situation from which to view one's own life and give it shape and coherence, taking it beyond the level of daily episodes to another configuration of meaning.

Strangeness, then, is a form of relationship, characterized by freedom on the one hand and obligation on the other. The stranger's mobility allows an independence and psychic distance which members of the culture do not possess. Yet the role of the stranger is essentially one which can only be enacted in social contexts. It has no meaning except within a network of personal relations. Social and psychic distance do not diminish the intensity of the relations between strangers and group members, or between documentary filmmakers and their subjects. Rather, distance becomes a context, structuring forms of intimacy which can only take place between people with different cultural perspectives. What are some of the obligations conferred by relations between strangers?

In an essay entitled "Faithfulness and Gratitude," Simmel writes that all social relations are supported by the quality of faithfulness. Faithfulness is the state in which persons affirm, not their feeling for each other, but their commitment to the relationship they have established. Faithfulness is "the instrument of relationships which already exist and endure."[4] It is one of the means by which a social community preserves itself. Moreover, faithfulness

"more than other feelings is accessible to our moral intentions. Other feelings overcome us, like sunshine or rain, and their coming and going cannot be controlled by our will." (pp. 384-85)

Unlike other emotions, faithfulness is something we choose and enact, in order to complete our connections to other people. It is a political and ethical mandate which underlies the emotional content of relationships, even when they are experienced as problematic. The presence of faithfulness in relationships between filmmakers and their subjects is therefore a matter of choice, not circumstance. Its presence or absence affects how films are made, what they say, and how they say it.

Finally, strangers are not blank slates. The stranger's freedom is comparative, not absolute, for strangers bring with them their own contexts for perceiving and experiencing. The relationships between strangers and group members may be thought of as systems which incorporate and rework the features of each culture. Strangers are created by their social context, but they also bring new elements into the culture which may change the awareness of its members, and, in some cases, its historical and structural features as well.


Simmel's discussion of the stranger can help us understand the problems which documentary filmmakers confront, and the strategies they develop to solve them.

In making documentaries, filmmakers must observe events and make sense out of them. They move from observation — gathering information or data — to description, formulating a coherent narrative structure to convey what they have observed. Different strategies can be used to get from one stage of the process to the other. How these strategies are chosen and implemented depends upon the filmmaker's priorities and point of view.

One of the most common strategies involves developing, or adopting, a conceptual schema through which observations can be filtered. Methods of observation and inference are decided upon in advance and imported into the situation. Ethnographic filmmakers often proceed in this way. They bring to their fieldwork methods and analytic techniques which they have developed in previous field situations.

Etic approaches are enormously helpful to documentarians.[5] They may abbreviate, or eliminate entirely, the ambiguity and confusion which characterize initial stages of contact. They enable filmmakers to orient themselves and proceed purposefully in alien surroundings. Finally, they create classifying systems which can be applied in different situations, and used as the basis for cultural comparisons. In this sense, filmmakers have tended to recreate the values of traditional science, which seeks to interpret different events and contexts according to its own stable schemas of order.

Etic systems also carry certain constraints. They structure the filmmaker's relationships with people, defining them in advance as informants and systematizing the range of interactions which can take place. They can be both circular, and causal; the filmmaker who sets out to look for given phenomena will probably find them and will probably assume they are central aspects of the community s/he is looking at. Preconceptualized systems may also prevent filmmakers from discovering what community members believe to be important, and may bias the kinds of confidences which they are likely to receive. If people know what you want, they will probably try to give it to you. They will not court your rejection by offering something in which they think you have no interest.

Perhaps the most important point is that the filmmakers' primary relationships are not with their subjects at all, but with the aesthetic and intellectual paradigms they endorse. They are committed to a pattern of thinking which they import into the situation and impose upon it. The pattern will certainly yield some insights about the situation but it tells us much more about the filmmakers whose beliefs shaped the structure of discovery which is communicated in the film.

The second strategy documentarians commonly use is to approach their subject matter through a series of procedures based upon conventional visual styles and forms. We are all familiar with distortions of this method, most notably in television, where the standard television documentary provides a method of packaging, rather than a structure of disclosure. In less extreme situations, the filmmaker's vocabulary of visual forms and conventions serves the same purpose as the ethnographer's conceptual structure. It is not a neutral apparatus of perception, but an enabling grid through which experience is filtered.

The continuity of style exhibited by many documentaries is perhaps the clearest proof that filmmakers actually do proceed this way. Both the openly rhetorical style of Pare Lorentz and the observational style of Fred Wiseman display an approach which tends to remain stable over time, developing its motifs, and extending and clarifying its structural devices, but always remaining consistent with its own formal base. The filmmakers may be interested in their subjects and committed to portray what they learn from them honestly and without distortion. Nevertheless they are choosing to do so through the medium of a prior commitment to a set of formal concerns which structure what they observe and how they describe it.

I am not asserting that we can come to intercultural encounters purified of our own particularity, our own cultural and ideological givens. But the documentary enterprise provides, even requires, moments in which those givens can become the focus of scrutiny, and of struggle. Mobility confers the ability to reflect upon one's own culture, as well as upon the community one is filming. If each of us interprets reality through the medium of our own experience, then it is not only useful but imperative that we develop awareness of the cultural implications of our stances.

Without such awareness, knowledge becomes a subtle contest between different versions of reality. In such contests filmmakers are privileged. Their exclusive possession of technical equipment and media access guarantees them a power of definition which most communities do not possess.


Conceiving of strangeness as a positive and defining relationship between persons may help us resolve issues of ethical obligation between filmmakers and subjects. What responsibilities do filmmakers incur? Are considerations of fairness and legality sufficient to guarantee the wellbeing of the persons who are filmed? To what extent must filmmakers honor their subjects' world views, self-presentations, and disclosures?

The relationships between filmmakers and subjects have raised a set of political issues ranging from intrusion, invasion of privacy, and false representation, to domination and colonial penetration. The sad truth is that we have very few criteria by which to evaluate the political validity of documentary acts. Most of the criteria we possess are legalistic and tend to define the rights of filmmakers and subjects as dichotomous or competing. The filmmaker seeks access; the subject needs protection — against exposure or distortion or cultural appropriation. The rights of the one can apparently be safeguarded only by limiting the needs of the other.

This dichotomy makes sense only if we assume that the relationship between filmmaker and subject is essentially instrumental. What is really at issue here is not the presence or absence of legal safeguards, but the fact that filmmakers are not disinterested. All too often they perceive contacts with subjects as a set of tasks to accomplish in order to make a film. No wonder aboriginal peoples have so often experienced picture-taking as a violation of their personhood! No wonder that peoples of all cultures and levels of technological sophistication regard the camera with such cynicism.

 I made MISA COLOMBIANA in 1976. It was a time of great political optimism in the tugurio. Radical priests, members of a group called the Golconda, had organized the tugurianos, creating a sense of collective identity and community pride. The people had elected a governing board, and were meeting to discuss community issues. They had drawn up a map, indicating where homes could be built and streets should be cleared. Neighbors were helping each other construct permanent dwellings, with bricks made from the sand they had hauled from the riverbank. They had also formed a cooperative to market the paper, glass, and metal which many of them scavenged from the municipal dump.

The Tugurianos were proud of themselves and their accomplishments. They welcomed me into their community and helped me build a shack like theirs in which to live. They placed no restrictions upon my movements. Their only stipulation was that I live among them and participate in their daily activities. They believed that this would provide me with the knowledge and awareness I needed to represent their interests. For the Tugurianos a film which documented the conditions of their lives was, by definition, a form of advocacy. They perceived my work as a demonstration of political commitment. In response, they created a learning experience for me which catapulted me into empathy and identification with them.

The Tugurianos had little experience with film, or filmmaking. When I made I DONT HAVE TO HIDE I was faced with a very different constituency. The anorexics and bulemics with whom I worked were vulnerable, highly sophisticated, ambivalent about public exposure, and wary of being exploited. Like the Tugurianos, they needed to feel close to me, and to trust that I would represent them fairly. In this case, however, the relationship between us was not based on political sympathy, but on a common experience. The women confided in me because they knew I had been anorexic. My ability to make the film depended not just on what I could learn but on my willingness to acknowledge my own membership in the community.

I came to understand that my identity as filmmaker and knower conferred certain privileges. It offered a safety which I found difficult to relinquish. Living in the Colombian tugurio had been challenging. It was even more demanding and intimidating to identify anorexia as my own experience and to take responsibility for it, explicitly and visibly, in the film.

I am not trying to set myself up as an exemplar, but only to illustrate the multiplicity and complexity of the problems which filmmakers confront, and the necessity, which remains constant across situations, to let faithfulness create the context in which both understanding and filming can take place. Admittedly, this means giving up the comfort of certainties. Initially there may be no way to make sense of experience, to know what things mean, what is important, or how to act. There is also the risk — terrifying to all filmmakers — that no "story," no organized and coherent narrative, will emerge. The overwhelming temptation is to cut off the threat of chaos at its root and begin to structure the experience in terms of known conventions and categories.

Yet chaos in certain contexts can be a form of freedom. Michel Foucault teaches us that all systems of order are inherently legitimating. They exclude as much as they purport to explain. Thus, certainty represents the hardening of insight into ideology. What filmmakers — and, I would maintain, all researchers — need, are systems whose theories and methods support risk-taking by legitimating freedom from certainty, and contextualizing it as a viable approach to knowledge.

The knowledge gained through engaged and committed relationships with strangers is intrinsically like a dialogue. We must do more than observe, interpret, and validate our conclusions. Dialogic knowledge is achieved through interaction and negotiation. In this process all participants are active, and have a say in the decisions which produce formalized versions of their experience.

Jurgen Habermas has referred to this process as discourse, an activity which establishes the basis of communicative relationships. Discourse must guarantee openness of inquiry. Each participant must be free to introduce arguments and to counter those of the other. Discourse must offer each participant an equal opportunity for speech and for self-disclosure. And it must establish an equal distribution of power among the participants. In Habermas' model, discourse unites the personal and political dimensions of relationships in a process designed to facilitate the undistorted communication of experience.[6]

Habermas' model is admittedly a utopian one. But it points us toward a very different level of engagement than that required by observation. Discourse mandates that each party be open to the needs and interests of the other. The filmmaker must be flexible and vulnerable; she/he must be willing to be seen as well as to see. In some cases it requires sharing ownership of the film. In TWO LAWS, the film which Caroline Strachan and Alessandro Cavadini made with Australia's Borroloola Aboriginal community, and in Martine Barrat's videotapes of South Bronx gangs, subjects collaborated in the filmmaking process. Such collaborations not only influence the thematic content of the films, they generate stylistic and structural innovations as well.

Perhaps the most important task of the documentary film is to explore the ethical and ideological issues which link experience, knowledge, and representation. The documentary process challenges us to ask more questions, to probe our assumptions about film, culture and ourselves, and to experiment with new cinematic forms in which the issues we discover can be more fully addressed.


1. John Grierson, "First Principles of Documentary," Grierson on Documentary, ed. Forsythe Hardy (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1947), p. 102.

2. Cited in Robert Scott Root-Bernstein, "Creative Process as a Unifying Theme of Human Cultures," Daedalus 113 No. 3 (Summer 1984), p. 207.

3. Georg Simmel, "The Stranger," The Sociology of Georg Simmel, ed. and trans. Kurt H. Wolff (New York: The Free Press, 1950), p. 402.

4. Georg Simmel, "Faithfulness and Gratitude," The Sociology of Georg Simmel, p. 379.

5. The terms "etic" and "emic" are derived from phonology. An etic alphabet is a standardized symbol system for representing sounds in any language. An emic approach seeks to discover the significant sounds in a language as they appear to native speakers. Etic researchers bring their analytical constructs to the field situation and use them to observe and interpret the phenomena they are studying.

6. An excellent discussion of Habermas' model of discourse and the ideal speech community can be found in Brant R. Burleson, and Susan L. Kline, "Habermas' Theory of Communication: A Critical Explication," Quarterly Journal of Speech 65 (1979), pp. 412-428.


  • MISA COLOMBIANA, Documentary Educational Resources, 101 Morse St., Watertown, MA, 02172. (617) 926-0491.
  • I DON'T HAVE TO HIDE, Fanishr Productions, 47 Halifax St., Boston, MA, 02130. (617) 524-0980.
  • THANKSGIVING DAY, from the filmmaker, Anne Fischel, 127 Mr. Warner Rd., Hadley, MA, 01035.