The fictions of documentary

by Julia Lesage

from Jump Cut, no. 34, March, 1989, p. 34
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1989, 2006

Documentary film and videomakers understand that the way they manipulate images and sounds, as well as how they choose their subject matter, makes fiction and documentary genres merge. Some topics and speakers seem more "dramatic," "moving," or "memorable," and thus get chosen for a documentary portrayal. We may say, in this sense, that all documentaries are fiction. However, such a statement needs expansion to explain how documentaries do and could work, especially in the United States at this time.

This special section is organized from an examination of the existential conditions underlying documentary production and reception to an analysis of the fictions inherent in television news. In "Engagement and the Documentary," Anne Fischel offers a reflection on her own diverse documentary filmmaking practice and a theoretical analysis about the ways that the film/videomaker's personal and political engagement with the subject matter and the people filmed enhances, indeed, makes possible, in-depth documentary portrayals.

Discussing another, more experimental, filmmaking strategy, Cohn Chambers and John Hess describe the lyrical vision of Dutch filmmaker Johan van der Keuken, whose images and sounds draw upon a meditation on daily life and the environment and whose montage is often structured connotatively to make a political point.

In "Hurting Women," Loretta Campbell discusses three documentaries made specifically to combat the abuse of women. INSIDE WOMEN INSIDE; SUZANNE, SUZANNE; and TO LOVE, HONOR, AND OBEY, all distributed by Third World Newsreel, show the specific oppression of women, as it exists on an institutional level in the prison system, and as it exists on an intimate personal level, in the family. These films deal with women's oppression in the United States across racial lines, and they optimally would have a role to play in many kinds of political organizing situations. The films prove Anne Fischel's theoretical argument about engagement as an effective approach to media making. Viewed together, they also offer an opportunity to reflect on why they have drawn primarily an audience of women. The issue of "engagement," especially in terms of documentaries that depict women's oppression, can be applied to audiences as well.

In "Inventing and Preserving Appalachia," Jane Gaines analyzes two major ways that regional or folklore documentaries are limited by previous ideological constraints. She takes up the case of Appalachia to demonstrate how conceptual structures shape social discourse about a region; often the discourse that defines a region as a region has come not from the people living there, but from academics and promoters of development and tourism. Second, documentary forms also bear an ideological weight, especially the cinema verité form. Gaines analyzes these theoretical issues, applicable to folklore documentary media in general, as she looks at the history of the Appalshop media group and a number of their films.

Filmmaker and novelist, Owen Shapiro and Thomas Friedman, have discovered another constraint on expressing a theme with which they are personally engaged. They have discovered that there is a cultural "meta-theme" surrounding the Holocaust which dictates that not only certain issues but also certain images and cinematic forms be used to treat Hitler's extermination of the Jews. In "Their Holocaust upon Watching Ours," the filmmakers reflect on their own cinematic practice and the confused reception of their works. Shapiro and Friedman discuss the difficulty of finding an apt way to express the knowledge and experience of the children of Holocaust survivors, especially since parents have often refused to discuss their own traumas and real memories of the past.

Finally, two essays describe the ways that the news is a fiction. Tijani El-Miskin discusses a TV docudrama filmed like a news broadcast and compares it to H.G.Wells' socially disruptive radio program, WAR OF THE WORLDS. This NBC docudrama, SPECIAL BULLETIN, depicted a nuclear explosion (set off by anti-nuclear activists!) in Charleston and looked on television very much like the evening news. Reversing the situation, examining news that is supposed to look like fact, Mariko Tomita and Carl Bybee offer a theoretical framework in which to understand the ways that industrial and ideological constraints shape the news so that the "facts" presented there have often less explanatory value that do images and situations in media which is more obviously fiction.