The popular perception of documentary film is that it represents the real word. There is some truth to this perception, as documentary films tend to tell fact-based stories about people, events and places. Yet this popular perception of documentary film belies how all films –from fiction to experimental – come to be made by people (i.e., producers, directors, cinematographers, editors, etc.). Documentary filmmakers interpret facts in the hope of telling compelling yet “truthful” stories. In this light, documentaries are less about the real world than they are about the audience’s perception of a real world.
This does not make documentaries distortions, but, a powerful mechanism, or mode of storytelling, that attempts to direct audiences to a kind of truth. Of course, audiences bring their own history to the experience of watching documentaries – including their own perceptions of truth.
So why study documentary as distinct from fiction film? It is the way documentary film positions its audience – and how those audiences see documentary film – that makes them worthy of distinct methods of critical analysis. In this course we will look at a variety of documentaries, across time and nation, in an effort to think through – even create – the ways documentary film positions its audiences and the ways in which audiences see and even use documentary film.