A documentary film is defined by Amato, Castelli & Pisani (2000) as nonfictional motion pictures that present some aspects of reality records events that happen in the real world including science, politics and culture. Documentaries aim at documenting events in the society that are disappearing or in the verge of disappearance to keep the history alive. Therefore, documentary films are perceived to be true and a representation of reality. However, this notion has been disputed by some theorist such as Jean Baudrillard and Roland Barthes. This paper discusses the theories of these two theorists concerning documentary film’s capability to represent reality and their impact in the society with reference to documentary films, The Plow that Broke the Plains and Nanook of the North.
Hegarty (2004) says that Baudrillard criticized the idea of documentary films being a representation of reality. Documentary films have been believed to represent reality since they capture events the way they happen in reality but Baudrillard disagrees. He believed that all films including documentary cannot represent the actual society since according to him, they artificially recreate the society by deluding the truth, meaning and origin to suit their personal intentions. For instance in the film, The Plow that Broke the Plains, the producer shows an exaggerated model picture dust being blow away by wind to try to persuade the audience to agree with him that the land has been indeed destroyed by commercial plowing as demonstrated by Lorentz, Stoney, Thomson, King & Gil-Ordonez (2007).
In addition, Hegarty (2004) says that Baudrillard viewed the process of film production as simulacra. He argues that film producers do reverse the actual reference by simulation hence cannot be termed real since the process of simulation simulates and alter the real world. They tend to present the world in their own image. They push things to their limit to fulfill their own interest thus deluding reality. Film deteriorates the actual, making reality disappear. Moreover, Baudrillard believed that opposing deductions of a particular film are all true in the image of the models from which they regenerate. The producers show things and events in a manner they did not appear in real life indicating subjectivity and ambiguity. For instance in the film, The Plow that Broke the Plains, the events showed in the film are not the actual events instead are modeled to suit his indentations of informing the government of the suffering of the people with the help of the inhabitants of the plain as explained by Lorentz et al (2007)
Baudrillard, according to Eagleton (2003), used his theory of symbolism to argue that meaning and signification are just understood in relation to how a specific word or sign interconnect. Thus, no symbol can effectively represent the actual society. He believed human society is centered on self- referential. To him, the society is always searching for a full comprehension of the world by producing films like documentary that portray reality but are not real and trying to deduce meaning of life from them. This search of complete knowledge leads to a mirage since it does not normally results to expected outcome. He argues that it is difficult to totally comprehend human life thus, individuals are pulled towards a simulated version of reality which he refers to as hyper- reality which documentary films does. He believes that reality disappears as people try to comprehend it implying that as documentary films become fictions as people try to understand them as their interpretations is imaginary. In the film, Nanook of the North, for instance the audience tries to understand how the human body can digest raw meat as the Inuk and his family consumes raw meat in their attempt to survive, and the end result is their imaginary explanations making the film seem like a fiction as explained by Matheson (2011).
Similarly, Roland Barthes, according to Hegarty (2004), believes a documentary film is subjective since they are exposed to human interference hence cannot represent reality. The idea of a documentary film just like any other is to entertain and the notion that it does represent daily events and activities in the society is misguided since they use illusions. They want to blind the society by their own experiences. By nature we are different and the same way we do have varied experiences in life that differ. Therefore, taking the experience of one man or a few to represent a whole community is not different from judging people by stereotyping. Thus, viewing documentary films a representation of the reality is unjustified and ignorant. The ideas and issues discussed in the films by the authors are their own ideas and their inspiration may have been their own experience or observation of a few individuals but that does not confirm that every individual’s experience. For instant in the film, Nanook of the North, the producer documents experience of a family in their attempt to survive in a harsh environment which has no connection at all to what people go through during hardship as explicated by Matheson (2011).
Furthermore, Barthes claims that nothing can act as an arbitrator of reality, not even a documentary film (Eagleton, 2003). Eagleton (2003) goes further to explain Barthes theory of death of authors that views authors/producers as inexistence. He argues that they get to right but they do not control how the readers interpreted their ideas. Thus, Barthes strongly recommend that readers should be left to judge the films not be coaxed into believing the ideas of authors that have been manipulated are a real representation of reality. He reasons, just like Baudrillard, that in an attempt to make the film more interesting and captivating by producers, they employ propaganda to recreate the original thus cannot be termed real due to that modification. Barthes is against the conservative culture that is not open to critics and denies readers the opportunity to look at situations in their own way by making them believe that documentary films are a representation of reality. For instance, the film The Plow that Broke the Plains used interesting music and showed pictures of inhabitants fleeing their homes to intensify the situation as explained by Lorentz et al (2007).
Barthes claims that similar deductions cannot be inferred from one film hence, films including documentary cannot be referred as objective (Eagleton (2003). People interpreting the same film will come up with different maybe contradicting deductions and ideas which will be right because they have been justified by the models used. Barthes believed the audience has the final say in the film and attempt by producers to persuade them to agree with their point of view is a manipulative act and undermining of readers will power as explained by Eagleton (2003). For instance, in the film The Plow that Broke the Plains, others agree with the producer that America is misusing their valuable natural resources while others think the land in question was just unproductive which cannot be blamed on anyone as explained by Lorentz et al (2007).
The aims of documentary films vary from film to film according to Amato et al (2000). Documentary films are informative as they do inform the readers of other things that happen in people’s lives elsewhere and bring into attention the fact that people are unique and each one have their own experience of the same situation. They also form means by which people can share and learn about their experiences. Another role of documentary films is to entertain the readers and viewers. They use language that is captivating and interesting. Some attempt to adjust or advance the society in a way. In addition they can as well be inspirational depending of the subject matter just like the film, Nanook of the North that reveals the experiences of Inuk and his family on their journey, entertains and informs members of viewers of the hardship some people go through to survive and serves as an inspirational to those who are adventurers as described by Matheson (2011).
Amato et al (2000) says that documentary films are, if perceived in the wrong way, harmful to the society. Some are insightful and lead to uprising, too pessimistic killing the hopes of people and denying them the opportunity of experiences of their own. They use propaganda and illusion to make people believe that the world revolves around their ideas making people shy away from exploiting their capabilities and abilities fully just as the film, The Plow that Broke the Plains, that tend to blame the government for unproductive land hence may generate negative feeling that may lead to uprising as explained by Lorentz et al (2007). Thus, the authors and film analyst need to let the viewers be judges of their work as Barthes and Baudrillard imply according to Eagleton (2003).
The two theorists, according to Eagleton (2003), seem to imply similar notions since Baudrillard was inspired by Barthes work and tends to expound and clarify Barthes ideas. For instance Baudrillard tries to explain Barthes theory of death of author by emphasizing that the consumptions do matter than the production and needs arise as a result of consumption asserting that the viewers do matter in interpretation and not the producers making documentary films subjective rather than objective. In additions Baudrillard seconds Barthes idea that documentary films do not represent reality as they both suggests that they are exposed to manipulation by humans as explained by Eagleton (2003).
Conversely, the two theorists have been perceived to be irrational by film analysts and other philosophers as they seem to be denying reality. They have been accused of failing to qualify and define their claims. They are seen to be generalizing all their ideas and blinding themselves to nature and undermining the efforts of artists to communicate with the society. Their claims seem to be driven by ignorance and are unjustified as they fail to describe vital terms such as codes. In addition, their writing majorly, Baudrillard’s, are perceived to be hyperbolic and declarative as explained Eagleton (2003). However, some theorists have come to their defense by arguing that Baudrillard does not deny reason but wonders whether that sort of reasoning is enough to conclude that documentary films represents reality since even in historical events are as a result of human response to situations they developed as implied by Hegarty (2004).
In summary, both theorists Baudrillard and Barthes believed that a documentary film should not be viewed as a representation of reality as suggested by some film analysts and philosophers since they are a modification of reality. They do suggest that reality is lost during production of these films as they use models instead of the real scene deluding the original meaning and facts. In addition they suppose that the films are subject to human interference to suit their own interest and are interpreted differently of which all deductions are true hence are subjective. They also use fiction to make the film more captivating and the impact of documentary films in the society depend on their interpretation by the public. However, their ideas have stirred mixed feeling among other philosophers with some supporting their ideas while others disputing refereeing to them as people who are avoiding reality by undermining rationalism and accusing them of failing to qualify their theories.
Amato, G., Castelli, D., & Pisani, S. (2000). A Metadata Model for Historical Documentary Films. doi: 10.1007/3-540-45268-0-32
Eagleton, T. (2003). After theory. New York: Basic Books.
Hegarty, P. (2004). Jean Baudrillard: Live theory. London: Continuum
Matheson, S. (2011). The “True Spirit” of Eating Raw Meat: London Nietzsche, and Rousseau in Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922). Journal of Popular Film and Television: doi 10.1080/01956051.2010.490074