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Testing For Documentary Values – Six Vital Questions

To distinguish a documentary from other nonfiction forms, or to check whether you have strayed beyond the pale, see how you answer these six vital questions:

1. Does it depict actuality— that is, real people in a world that exists, or did exist?

2. Does the film arise from a belief of some kind? Documentaries nearly always involve beliefs— either those of the participants, or of the filmmakers. A very brief documentary might profile a large beetle trying to climb a stalk in order to take wing. As a kid I once sat with my father watching this happen, and we were both entranced. Its clumsy and laborious climb, and the obstacles making its take-off so uncertain, gave its progress great dramatic tension. When the bug finally went buzzing on its way, it was as if we’d seen a marathon. Something like this could become a complete story about effort and belief, because the beetle assumed it could fly while we doubted its aeronautics—and it proved us wrong.

3. Is it concerned with raising awareness? Outstanding documentaries take us into new worlds, or let us see familiar worlds in new ways. They direct and intensify our consciousness of currents, customs, and beliefs in the real world. Examined in depth, a corner of life becomes a strange and profound dream in which we see cause and effect anew, and experience new emotions that encourage us to take action.

An actor faces having a sex change operation in The Person de Leo N. Can she dispense with lifelong disguises?

4. Does it show a range of human values? Memorable documentaries usually focus on people struggling with their share of the human predicament, and trying to accommodate or change it. Patricio Guzman’s masterly Nostalgia for the Light (Chile, 2010, below) compares astronomers at work in the Atacama Desert observatory with lonely, elderly figures digging nearby among the sand dunes. Tragically, their unending search is for the bones of their “disappeared ones,” those young idealists whom the Pinochet dictatorship liquidated as enemies of the state, and disposed of like garbage. The film explores the irony of scientists seeking to understand the origins of life while nearby, families try to comprehend the brutality that obliterated their loved ones with neither explanation nor comment.

Memorable documentaries show people struggling with their share of the human predicament, and trying to accommodate or change it. (Frame from Patricio Guzman’s masterly Nostalgia for the Light.)

5. Does it involve conflict? Most compelling stories are about people striving to accomplish something that matters to them, which means they are in internal or external conflict. Whether or not they succeed keeps us enthralled. In Winged Migration (France, 2001, below) directed by Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud, and Michel Debats, the “characters” are different species of bird, each compelled to migrate in order to survive. As they wing their way high above the incandescent beauty of Mother Earth, each bird must expend every ounce of energy to overcome the huge distances, treacherous weather, and cold that saps their reserves. Sadly, those weaker or unfortunate do not complete the journey, so the film becomes a haunting metaphor for the transience and brevity of all life, most particularly that which is human.

The “characters” in Winged Migration are birds struggling to survive. (Photo courtesy of The Kobal Collection/Sony Pictures/Matheiu Simonet.)

6. Does it imply social criticism? Nonfiction genres—such as the travelogue, industrial, infomentary, and educational films—routinely present a body of information without calling into question any of the human values involved. A factually accurate film that shows how razor blades are manufactured would be an industrial film, but a film showing the effect of repetitive precision manufacturing on workers, and which stimulates the spectator to draw socially critical conclusions, can only be called a documentary—however accurately it also relays the physical process of manufacturing.

Excerpt from Directing the Documentary, 6th Edition by Michael Rabiger © 2015 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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