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The Impact of Baudrillard and Barthes’ Theories on Documentary Films

May 25, 2023 | 0 comments

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May 25, 2023 | Essays | 0 comments

Theories of Jean Baudrillard and Roland Barthes in Documentary films The Plow that Broke the Plains and Nanook of the North.

A documentary film is defined by Amato, Castelli & Pisani (2000) as a nonfictional motion picture that presents some aspects of reality and records events that happen in the real world, including science, politics, and culture. Documentary films aim at documenting events in society that are disappearing or on the verge of disappearance to keep history alive. Therefore, documentary films are perceived to be accurate and represent reality. However, this notion has been disputed by some theorists such as Jean Baudrillard and Roland Barthes. This paper discusses the theories of these two theorists concerning documentary films’ capability to represent reality and their impact on society concerning documentary films, The Plow that Broke the Plains and Nanook of the North.


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Hegarty (2004) says that Baudrillard criticized the idea that documentary films represent 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 documentaries, could not represent the actual society since, according to him, they artificially recreate the society by deluding the truth, meaning, and origin to suit their intentions. For instance, in the film, The Plow that Broke the Plains, the producer shows an exaggerated model picture of dust being blown away by the 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 and hence cannot be termed real since the process of simulation simulates and alter the real world. They tend to present the world in their image. They push things to their limit to fulfill their 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 shown 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)

According to Eagleton (2003), Baudrillard used his theory of symbolism to argue that meaning and signification are just understood by how a specific word or sign interconnects. Thus, no symbol can effectively represent the actual society. He believed human society is centered on self- referential. To him, society is always searching for a full comprehension of the world by producing films like documentaries that portray reality but are not real and trying to deduce the meaning of life from them. This search for complete knowledge leads to a mirage since it does not normally result in the expected outcome. He argues that it is difficult to comprehend human life. Thus, individuals are pulled towards a simulated version of reality which he refers to as hyper-reality, which documentary films do. He believes that reality disappears as people try to comprehend it, implying that documentary films become fiction as people try to understand them as their interpretations are 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 result is their imaginary explanations making the film seem like fiction as explained by Matheson (2011).

Similarly, according to Hegarty (2004), Roland Barthes believes documentary film is subjective since they are exposed to human interference and 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 society is misguided since they use illusions. They want to blind society by their own experiences. By nature, we are different, and in the same way, we have different life experiences. Therefore, taking one man’s or a few’s experiences to represent a whole community is not different from judging people by stereotyping. Thus, viewing documentary films as a representation of reality is unjustified and ignorant. The ideas and issues discussed in the films by the authors are their ideas. Their inspiration may have been their own experience or observation of a few individuals, but that does not confirm every individual’s experience. For instance, in the film Nanook of the North, the producer documents the experience of a family in their attempt to survive in a harsh environment which has no connection to what people go through during hardship, as illustrated by Matheson (2011).

Furthermore, Barthes claims that nothing can act as an arbitrator of reality, not even a documentary film (Eagleton, 2003). Eagleton (2003) further explains Barthes’s theory of the death of authors that views authors/producers as in existence. He argues that they get it right but do not control how the readers interpret their ideas. Thus, Barthes strongly recommends 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 on their own by making them believe that documentary films represent 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 documentaries, cannot be considered 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 an 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 its valuable natural resources. In contrast, 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 inform the readers of other things that happen in people’s lives elsewhere and bring into attention the fact that people are unique. Each one has 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 society in a way. In addition, they can as well be inspirational depending on the subject matter, just like the film Nanook of the North 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 inspiration to those who are adventurers as described by Matheson (2011).

Amato et al. (2000) say that documentary films are if perceived incorrectly, harmful to society. Some are insightful and lead to an overly pessimistic uprising, killing people’s hopes 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 in the film, The Plow that Broke the Plains, which tends to blame the government for unproductive land hence may generate the negative feeling that may lead to the uprising as explained by Lorentz et al. (2007). Thus, the authors and film analysts need to let the viewers be judges of their work, as Barthes and Baudrillard imply, according to Eagleton (2003).

According to Eagleton (2003), the two theorists seem to imply similar notions since Baudrillard was inspired by Barthes’s work and tends to expound and clarify Barthes’s ideas. For instance, Baudrillard tries to explain Barthes’s theory of the death of the author by emphasizing that the consumption does matter more 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 addition, Baudrillard seconds Barthes’s idea that documentary films do not represent reality as they both suggest that humans are exposed to manipulation, 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 as generalizing all their ideas, blinding themselves to nature, and undermining the efforts of artists to communicate with society. Their claims seem driven by ignorance and are unjustified as they fail to describe vital terms such as codes. In addition, their writing, majorly Baudrillard’s, is perceived to be hyperbolic and declarative, as explained by Eagleton (2003). However, some theorists have come to their defense by arguing that Baudrillard does not deny reason but wonders whether that reasoning is enough to conclude that documentary films represent reality since even historical events result from human response to developed situations, 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 suggest that reality is lost during the production of these films as they use models instead of the real scene deluding from the original meaning and facts. In addition, they suppose that the films are subject to human interference to suit their interest and are interpreted differently, of which all deductions are true and hence are subjective. They also use fiction to make the film more captivating, and the impact of documentary films on society depends on their interpretation by the public. However, their ideas have stirred mixed feelings among other philosophers, with some supporting their ideas while others are disputing refereeing them as people who are avoiding reality by undermining rationalism and accusing them of failing to qualify their theories.

Reference List

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

Lorentz, P., Stoney, G.C, Thomson, V., King, F., Gil-Ordonez, A., … Naxos Rights International Ltd. (2007). The plow that broke the plains: The river. United States: Naxos.

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

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