Is it possible to achieve objectivity in documentary film?

Objectivity is defined as the discipline of ‘striving (as far as possible or practicable) to reduce or eliminate biases, prejudices, or subjective evaluations by relying on verifiable data.’ When watching a documentary film we generally assume that it is objective by that definition, however it is extremely difficult for most film-makers to objectively capture reality on screen, as through the process of making the film and becoming more and more familiar with the characters involved in its story, it is a natural reaction to draw conclusions and consequentially become biased. It is also important to note that a hugely influential aspect of documentary film making is the editing process, not only must a film maker choose what questions to explore and who to follow on screen to make a film objective, the editing process must also be objective in choosing what parts of the film to cut and which ones to leave in the final draft of the film. Many documentary films, while still being entertaining and insightful, have failed to successfully capture reality due to their makers prejudices.

For example, some of Michael Moore’s documentary films are in my opinion biased by the fact that he is a distinctly left-wing filmmaker, which leads me to believe that he is subjectively choosing what information he will include in his films to suit his anti-establishment driven following. Documentary filmmakers Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine set out to make a film in support of Moore’s work some years ago, but instead found that some of his films had been edited to such a degree that it compromised the entire truth behind the film. The most notable example that the pair uncovered is this; ‘Roger & Me’, Moore’s hugely successful account of what Moore portrayed as a fruitless attempt to force Roger Smith (the former chief executive of General Motors) to answer questions about their policies in closing the car manufacturing plants, was infact not that fruitless at all, according to Caine and Melnyk. They claim that Moore interviewed Smith on camera twice, but the scenes were left out when the film was edited, apparently for greater dramatic effect. This is one of the most extreme examples of biased documentary filmmaking that I can think of, but the faults of the director don’t even need to be that great to make a prejudice documentary, all he or she needs to do is become too emotionally involved in the story, concentrate on one point of view while ignoring another, or heavily provoke their subjects to compromise the objectivity of a documentary.  Many film makers do provoke or interrogate their subjects in their films to prove a point or message.

This style of provocation in documentary film making started with the French ‘Cinema Verite’ tradition of the early 1960’s. Where earlier documentary films had simply observed or sympathised with its subjects, Cinema Verite prodded and provoked its subjects to explain themselves and their actions. The most highly regarded and notable film of the Cinema Verite tradition is ‘Chronicle of a Summer’, the 1961 film by ethnographic film-maker Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin. The film begins by following female volunteers on the streets of Paris, asking passers-by ‘Are you happy?’, to which each person answers differently but most answer very superficially, aware of themselves being filmed. The second half of the film is much more interesting in my opinion, a group of young Parisians who have never met and who all come from different backgrounds (an African man, a Jewish lady who is a holocaust surviver, a student etc.) all sit down together and through the question Morin asks them, they get to know each others life stories. While the film is constructed in a very creative and forward-thinking way and should be celebrated for its groundbreaking technological advancements (utilising handheld cameras and sync sound equipment) one has to wonder whether a documentary film in which the director is so personally involved in the interviewing process can be considered truly objective. The film makers place people in situations and provoke responses from them in this film, so questions are raised as to the authenticity of the documentary, such as why were these people chosen to be grouped together? And what is the relevance and purpose of the questions being asked? The term ‘Cinema Verite’ was coined by Rouch and Morin for this film, but it is not the kind of film that was later described as Cinema Verite as it is so provocative and in my opinion, not an objective portrayal of reality but instead an insightful look into the actions and performances of normal people when they are aware of a cameras presence.

Another example of a brilliantly original and touching documentary, that tries to be objective but is in many ways biased due to the emotional investment of the director is Zana Briski’s ‘Born into brothels’, a documentary about the children of Calcutta’s red-light district made in 2004. The premise of the film is that it is told from the children’s point of view, they are given cameras with which they take photographs of their surroundings, family and friends and then discuss them. Through this technique Briski does achieve quite an objective view of the situation in which the children live, as they are not provoked to tell stories specifically about their encounters with the prostitution industry, but instead stories that they think are indicative of their lives, giving us a much more realistic view of life in Calcutta’s red-light district than the gruesome and sensational one we have come to expect from such documentaries. It is quite an observational film, rather than a provocative interview-based documentary, which I find to be a far more objective way of capturing reality on film. However, as unbiased as the film may seem Briski herself does admit in the film that she feels a very strong emotional connection to the children and consequentially interferes with their lives by trying to get them into schools which, while being an honourable thing to do, does compromise the objective integrity of the documentary.

On the opposite end of the moral spectrum in ‘American Movie’, a documentary directed by Chris Smith following an aspiring film maker’s attempt to make his first feature, objectivity may be slightly compromised for different reasons. It is the story of filmmaker Mark Borchardt’s struggle personally, financially and spiritually over the course of two years to achieve his dream of making a horror film. Although the film feels authentic and claims to be totally unscripted I can’t help but feel that it is a little too outrageous to be an honest depiction of reality, and it makes me wonder whether the characters were prompted to act in certain ways at times (especially the character of Mike Shank!) to give the film a more comedic edge. However, ‘American Movie’ seems to have all the ingredients of an objective documentary, with many different views being expressed, and both central and peripheral characters having an input in the interviewing process, it is hard to believe but perhaps it’s true that reality is even more bizarre than fiction, and ‘American Movie’ really does objectively capture these odd yet lovable characters lives!

There is such a fine line between an objective documentary and a biased one, so I have found it quite hard to find a documentary which I would consider to be truly objective, but I do think it is possible to objectively capture reality in some documentaries. A mere two films spring to my mind as good examples of objective documentary filmmaking. The first is the controversial ‘Supersize Me’ documentary directed by Morgan Spurlock in 2004. The film follows Spurlocks dissent into serious ill-health when he decides to act as a guinea pig to examine the effects of eating nothing but McDonalds food for a month. He undertakes this experiment not knowing what the consequences may be, and documents how his health is effected by the fast food. This documentary objectively captures reality by conducting a real-life experiment and having the findings of this experiment examined by doctors and officials from the health sector (to be exact, he consulted three doctors, a cardiologist, a gastroenterologist, and a general practitioner) which verify that the data depicted in the film is true.

‘Gimme Shelter’ directed by the Maysles Brothers in 1970, who were renowned directors of the Direct Cinema movement of the late 1950’s and 60’s, is another film that I believe objectively captures reality by simply observing events as they unfolded, naturally and spontaneously, as if the filmmaker were a mere fly on the wall. This style of uncontrolled, ‘candid cinema’ is in my opinion the most objective style of documentary filmmaking. ‘Gimme Shelter’ is the story of the events that took place before and during The Rolling Stones disastrous Altamont Free Concert in 1969. What was originally intended to be the biggest party of that year, relying on love and peace to restrain some 80,000 people from rioting and becoming violent (as the band decided that not only would the concert be free, but would also have no security staff!) ended in tragedy when a reported four deaths, four births and uncountable injuries occurred. Most of the violence was believed to have been incited by the Hells Angels, a notorious motorcycle gang who took it upon themselves to beat anyone who tried to get on stage during the performances. However, even though this fact is well known and widely believed, the Maysles treated the subject with respect and placed no blame in the film, letting the Hell’s Angels defend themselves through voice clips taken from a radio show, and drawing no conclusions as to who the blame should lie with for the brutal murder of one man who produced a gun during the Rolling Stones performance. The film is edited in such a beautiful and unbiased style, with shots from many different perspectives and scenes that neither glorified nor condemned a single band member, audience member or Hell’s Angel but depicted them all as individuals acting very naturally as themselves. I find this film to be truly objective as it shows these events from a simply observant point of view, and the point of view is that of a bystander who has no connection to any of the characters or subjects and takes no sides in the telling of this unbelievable story.

In conclusion, yes, it is possible to objectively capture reality on film, but the more documentaries I watch the harder I think it must be. In my opinion the only ways to objectively capture reality are by observing events as they happen and not interfering, and if you must interfere then interfere thoroughly by getting many opinions and points of view across, taking no sides in the matter. Above all the secret to a good objective documentary is in the name, a document, it should document its story as it happened truly, untainted by the filmmakers beliefs or personal opinions.


7 thoughts on “Is it possible to achieve objectivity in documentary film?

  1. Hi, I feel that this article is insightful and I would like to cite it in a paper I’m doing on documentaries. May I have your permission please?

  2. i think Super Size Me was subjective because Morgan was often seen consuming more than an average McDonald’s patron would purchase at the window. Often shown with two drinks, sandwich, fries, and a desert, he intentionaly exceeded what many people eat from a drive-thru or at home. Add to that he had to choose what he edited before presenting it to viewers makes the entire production subjective. Respectfully!

  3. Hi Megan, I did a Google search for “objective documentary” and your article from 2011 is the first result, so it appears that your SEO efforts are paying off! As an aspiring documentary filmmaker, I confront the objectivity issue on a near-daily basis as I try to decide how I will tackle my first film. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on the matter publicly. I’ve come to realize that no documentary film can be truly objective. One exception (perhaps) would be that the film maker sets up a camera, lets it record, and then publishes the results with no editing. Even then, we have to deal with POV issues. Not only that, but the film would probably be boring. So what we’re left with is degrees of objectivity. Given that some bias should be expected in any film, does the filmmaker at least appear to have been striving for objectivity? If so, how successful was she or he in doing so? If not, why not? Once we look at a documentary film from this perspective, we can usually place the film on an objectivity continuum fairly easily (unless they intentionally sought to hide their biases). I would argue that any documentary film that is closer to 0% than 100% on the objectivity scale can (must) either be considered a failure, or cannot be considered a documentary at all, but rather a propaganda piece. I’d be interested in your thoughts on this matter. Thanks for your blog!

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