Critical Questions for Viewing Documentaries

In every film class I teach, I show at least one documentary. Titles I have shown include Roger & Me, The Thin Blue Line, and Hearts and Minds.

Each semester I ask students what they think or know in general about documentaries. There are two running themes to the responses. One is that documentaries are “educational.” The other is that they are “not entertaining,” or worse, “boring.”

As a fan of documentaries, I cringe a bit when I hear that. There is so much more to them than education or entertainment, but let me start with these concepts anyway.

The educational tendencies of documentary have been there since the early experiments of Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge was tasked with the question of whether or not a horse’s four hooves left the ground at the same time during a trot, and the camera became his form of inquiry into answering that question. Later films, such as the Why We Fight series, educated soldiers and the public in the United States about why the country was going to war and how soldiers were to conduct themselves. In his book Mental Hygiene: Better Living Through Classroom Films 1945-1970, Ken Smith discusses the numerous educational films produced to be shown in schools. These films “educated” students about dating, parental relations, personal hygiene, and, of course, sex.

On a more general level documentaries teach about worlds we are unfamiliar with and show us new things about worlds we already know. For those living in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the film Johnstown Flood might provide insight into history and present character of the town. Watchers of Murderball get a new take on rugby, while audiences for The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition learn about an explorer’s struggle to survive in the weather and ice of the cold continent.

But can a documentary be entertaining? Yes, indeed. Education and entertainment traditionally remain separate, but they are not mutually exclusive. A documentary has just as much potential to entertain as it does inform.

What makes for “entertaining,” though, is highly personal and idiosyncratic. What entertains me may bore ten other people, and what entertains you may bore me and ten other people. What qualifies as “entertainment”? Does “entertainment” mean funny? (Check out The Aristocrats.) Does that mean moving? (Watch Who Killed the Electric Car?) Does it mean dramatic? (Watch Hoops Dreams.)

Critical viewing of documentaries requires moving beyond ideas of education and entertainment. It also means moving beyond ideas of “truth” and “bias.” This is a third running theme in the responses: A documentary must tell the “truth” and if it doesn’t then it is “biased.” It must be “objective” and not be slanted in a particular way. This is a slightly more sophisticated response than “boring,” and it is a difficult line of thinking to undo. It must be challenged, though, as it shuts down any opportunities for critical viewing and response.

But how?

Truth
The first step is to recognize that multiple truths exist in documentary. Truths are constructs built of carefully arranged information.

  • What truths are presented in the documentary?
  • How are these truths presented?
  • What information does it put forward?
  • What information is left out?

Point of View
The second step is to recognize that all documentaries are biased. The word “bias” is equated with prejudice and information that is slanted in a particular direction. The connotation here is that the information is tainted in a negative way, much the same way the word “propaganda” has taken on connotations of having evil intentions behind it. Another term that might be more useful here is “point of view.”

  • From what point of view is the documentary speaking? What perspective is it offering on events and arguments?
  • Can you relate to this viewpoint or at least understand where it’s coming from?
  • Are there multiple viewpoints? Do they agree or contradict each other? Does one come across as more “right” while the other seem more “wrong?”
  • Can you think of some other perspectives that might be out there but not addressed in the documentary?
  • What is the tone of or emotion behind the(se) viewpoint(s)?

After truths and point of view, other parts of the documentary can be questioned as well. Here are just a few:

Conventions

  • What conventions does the documentary incorporate? Does it use voiceover, reenactments, archival footage, interviews?
  • Does it rely on one convention more than another?
  • Why does it use the conventions it does?

Voices

  • Who are the dominant voices in the documentary? Are they official sources such as government representatives, or are they experts of another kind? Or are they people from the street?
  • Are most of the voices men or women? Are they of a particular ethnic group?
  • What is their connection to the documentary’s subject? What kinds of truths are they putting forward?
  • Do the voices agree with or contradict each other?

Structure

  • How is the documentary structured? Does it follow chronological order? Does it use a different order?
  • What impact does the structure have on the unraveling of its truth(s)?

Subject

  • What is the subject of the documentary? In other words, what is it about?
  • How does this documentary compare with others about the same or similar subject?
  • How is the subject of social relevance?

Maker

  • Is the documentary maker present within the piece either in person or in voice? Or is the maker absent?
  • If present, does the maker call attention to him or herself? Or, does the maker’s presence seem incidental?
  • What purpose does the maker’s presence serve? Does the maker drive events, serve as another observer, or fulfill another function?
  • What is the maker’s reputation outside this documentary? How does that reputation affect your viewing of it?

Exhibition

  • Where was the documentary first exhibited? On television, in a movie theater, at a film festival?
  • How might where the documentary is viewed affect its reception?
  • In what context did you see it? How might seeing it elsewhere change your perceptions?

Origins

  • Where was the documentary made?
  • In what time period was it made?
  • What were the technologies used at the time? What were their possibilities and what were their limitations?
  • How do the technologies, origins, and time period contribute to the documentary overall?

Frameworks