“Documentaries Are About the Truth. 
If They Tell the Truth They Are Documentaries and If Not They Are Fiction.”

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“I don't know what truth is. Truth is something unattainable. We can't think we're creating truth with a camera. But what we can do, is reveal something to viewers that allows them to discover their own truth.”

—Michel Brault

Current thinking points to the increasing lack of distinction between documentary and fiction film. Brian McIlroy has noted that “it is now common to read that, theoretically speaking, documentary and narrative fiction film ‘proper’ are indistinguishable as constructed realities” (McIlroy 1993, 288). Similarly, Dai Vaughan, a documentary film editor for over thirty years, suggests that there are many who, “in blind deference to semiological axiom, have made a point of denying that there is any distinction to be found between documentary and fiction. A sign is a sign, and that is that.” (1999, 184) The only difference between documentary and fiction film is the integrity of the film as being linked to our understanding of reality. Vaughan refers to the term ‘actuality’ to describe our belief in the reality of the film, stating that “this actuality…is the subjective conviction on the part of the viewer of that prior and independent existence of the represented world which is specific to the photograph” (1999, 182). In a discussion of what it is about documentary film that makes it more “real” than fiction, Bill Nichols suggests that in documentary footage “some quality of the moment persists outside the grip of textual organization” (1999, 231). Therefore the understanding we have of documentary has in some way depended on the ability of the photographic image to impart to us a belief in the existence of the represented beyond its filmic representation. To that extent, Vaughan suggests that “documentary may best be defined as the attempt at a materialist reading of film” (1999, 198), a way of examining a filmic text to decide on its position with respect to documentary.

Observational films seemed more truthful in large part because they were not constrained by earlier technological limitations that often required more overt manipulation. "Dramatic reconstruction" was conventional in documentaries concerning people and events before the invention of the camera. Early documentaries, like Biograph's Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius (1905), often used scale-model replicas in place of actuality footage in films. The March of Time , which began in 1935, freely combined actuality footage with dramatized sequences in a style that Henry Luce, head of Time, called "fakery in allegiance to the truth" (Barnouw 1974, 121). The ideology of observational documentary has become so standard that its stylistic conventions, such as the jerky movements of the handheld camera, noticeable changes in focus, and the graininess of fast film stock, have become the common techniques for representing a "reality effect" in fiction film and on commercial television in both dramatic shows and commercials.

Nevertheless, questions concerning the camera's physical presence, along with the issue of whether and to what extent the camera exploits or documents its social actors, have been hotly debated issues concerning both Griersonian-style and observational documentary.

Although the immediacy of observational cinema made the stylistic conventions associated with the Griersonian tradition seem outmoded and ideologically suspect, manipulation in documentary inevitably is a matter of degree (Hardy 1979). For although documentaries are factual, they are never objective or ideologically neutral. Aesthetic choices such as the selection of camera position, angles, and movement; lighting; and editing make the expression of point of view or perspective unavoidable, even if unintentional. Just as the "fly on the wall" aesthetic of the Drew filmmakers was compromised to some extent by the commercial imperatives of television, so the nature of the film medium ensures that the hand of the maker must always work over the raw material on the...
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