As documentary films persist as an important aspect of the wider cinematic public sphere, definitions of documentary and its social and political role have become increasingly important. Invariably, when I mention at a cocktail party that I am interested in documentary, at least one partygoer will corner me in the kitchen and challenge me to offer a clear definition of what counts as a “documentary” (usually this accompanies a demand that I renounce Michael Moore as a documentary filmmaker, a demand that I typically resist, depending upon how contrarian I am feeling). But as this scenario of the hypothetical partygoer implies, defining documentary opens up a number of ethical and historical quandaries that are sometimes difficult to answer. It is in this context that I read Patricia Aufderheide’s breezy but informative Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction, part of the Oxford University Press “Very Short Introduction” series. And while I haven’t read other books in the series, Aufderheide’s book seems to fulfill the goal of the series, providing an accessible overview of the history of documentary and the political, social, and ethical questions that emerge from that history. It’s something that could easily be read while traveling or on mass transit, but I would add that the chapters are often substantive enough that the book could also be used in introductory-level film courses, especially if you are concerned about students’ textbook budgets. The book’s conclusion, I will argue later, is especially pertinent to documentary scholars and manages to raise some important issues about the study of documentary in a way that the casual reader will understand.
As I have suggested, one of the strengths of the book is its meshing of the historical narrative approach suggested in Erik Barnouw’s indispensable Documentary and the analytic problems raised by documentary scholars such as Bill Nichols and Michael Renov (my review: $). Quite obviously, this approach leads to both the historical and analytical approaches feeling incredibly condensed, but Aufderheide’s history of documentary’s foundational figures (Grierson, Flaherty, Vertov) and movements (cinema verite) provides a useful backdrop for contextualizing how certain practices begin to emerge, the ethical implications of those practices, and how those forms fit into larger institutional frameworks, including the subsidizing of documentary films by public television and the role of governments is producing propaganda. These sections may be especially useful in helping to differentiate between government-supported propaganda, such as Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will or the Frank Capra Why We Fight series and documentaries that advocate for a specific cause (such as the Michael Moore films). Here, Aufderheide is also careful to remind readers that media effects theorists have rightfully challenged simplistic notions of manipulation (in fact, Triumph of the Will was far from a box office success in Germany, to name one significant example).
It is in this second major section of Documentary Film, which focuses on documentary “sub-genres,” such as propaganda and advocacy films, that I became increasingly intrigued with the book’s thoughtful engagement with the contemporary politics of images. Aufderheide focuses on six subgenres (public affairs, government propaganda, advocacy, historical, ethnographic, and nature). Given the popularity of documentaries on the Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel, and even VH1 (Behind the Music) and the critical acclaim given to Ken Burns’ PBS docs, it is crucial to consider how these movies frame, shape, and often distort historical events, social relationships, or even our relationship with nature. Documentaries such as Winged Migration seem to offer us unmediated access to “nature,” but as Aufderheide points out (and as I was aware, despite my glowing review), the birds depicted in the film were trained by the filmmakers to accept the presence of the camera. Aufderheide addresses these issues while toggling back and forth between relatively mainstream documentaries and others that may be unfamiliar even for those of us who study documentary for a living, fulfilling the important goal of introducing virtually unseen films to a potentially wider audience.
There were, of course, some enticing leads that I wish had been developed further. A more explicit exploration of the lineage that followed from Vertov’s experimentalism (Marker, etc) could have been useful. And I was compelled by the idea of treating An Inconvenient Truth as a “nature documentary” and would have loved to follow out the implications of that argument in much further detail (though, obviously, that’s not the goal of a “very short introduction”). Also, the list of “great documentaries” in the appendix seems to place more emphasis on contemporary films, with nearly two-thirds of the listed films being made after 1980, although that could be attributed to the flourishing of documentary as a medium and not a presentist bias.
But what will make me return to Aufderheide’s book, no doubt, is the conclusion, where questions about the “future” of documentary are addressed. As I have often argued on this blog, internet video is radically altering the possibilities available to documentary and, quite possibly, introducing a whole host of ethical challenges that will be important to address. As Aufderheide asks,
New technologies vastly increase the volume of production under the rubric of documentary. This volume may create new subgenres or may eventually force rethinking. When political operatives, fourth graders, and product marketers all make downloadable documentaries, will we redraw parameters around what we mean by “documentary?” (127)
This will, I believe, be a crucial question for documentary filmmakers and documentary scholars to address in the years ahead, especially as websites such as YouTube continue to expand the possibilities for “documentary” production.
Finally, Aufderheide also introduces some areas where documentary scholars might engage in further research. She is correct to emphasize that cinema studies scholars are not always attentive to “the business of documentary distribution,” noting that there is too little communication between documentary scholars and practitioners, a gap I have (however modestly) sought to bridge with my blog (134). Here, however, more discussion of how the documentary business operates (including at least some mention of festivals such as Full Frame and Silverdocs) might have been helpful. In addition, Aufderheide calls for further scholarship on “sponsored” and “formulaic” documentaries, subgenres that may not be as enticing but that often represent a crucial point of access for both documentary filmmakers, who often pay their bills with sponsored docs, and media audiences, who often first encounter documentary through television broadcasts or DVD extras. In short, Documentary Film is a useful introduction to one of the most important and most difficult to define genres of contemporary film. You might even loan a copy to that annoying partygoer who corners you next to the fridge and asks you to defend Sicko.