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How Documentaries Bend Reality

Updated on August 1, 2011

Truth & Realty

There is only one way to witness truth and reality on the same plane, and that is by witnessing an event firsthand. In all other cases, reality must be artfully manipulated to reveal truth. Secondhand communication channels are incapable of reproducing every minute detail of which truth is comprised.

Take, for example, a field on a warm summer’s day. One could draw a schematic of this field, but would that be sufficient? How can a sterile rendering capture the warm breeze, the subtle movement of the grass, and the melodious sound of birds chirping? If a cartoonist were to recreate this environment, he might draw lines in the sky to indicate air flow, blur or multiply the blades of grass to indicate their movement, and write in musical notes to insinuate birdsong. Were all of these conventions visible to the artist as he himself sat in the field? Of course not, but he has to include them in his work in order to adequately share his perception of truth.

Much like traditional artists, the twentieth century's major documentarians depicted truth by altering reality.  Below, I'll explore how some of these famous documentarians (as discussed in the book Documentary Film - A Very Short Introduction by Patricia Aufderheide) have toyed with the concept of reality, and how this has shaped the documentary genre.

Documentaries & The Bending of Reality

In the manner of a poet, Joris Ivens created compelling messages by making his work elegant and evocative. Dziga Vertov acted as an abstract artist would to expose truth within chaos. Robert Flaherty reflected Impressionists' style by creating romantic interpretations of the truth. Meanwhile, John Gierson operated much like a photographer to create corporate-based truths by focusing in on and cropping selected pieces of information. By employing differing methods, each documentarian manipulated reality to create truth.

As “a leading activist filmmaker and mentor”(81), Joris Ivens manipulated reality using beauty to impart messages he found to be important. Ivens experimented with the early city symphonies, which “could unite the experience of different senses” (14) and create for viewers a reality that revealed the sentiments of their makers. Ivens' 1929 film Rain employed the cinematic devices of city symphonies to create a sort of “visual poem” (14). In many ways Ivens worked as a poet; his films did not need reality as they revealed truth by simply creating feelings and impressions.

Iven’s later work was significantly more (but not completely) grounded in reality. In his 1937 film The Spanish Earth, he "demonstrate[d] an artful approach to political truth telling" (80). Ivens showcased the beautiful Spanish countryside and the harsh realities faced by hard-working villagers to make viewers contemplate hard-hitting political issues without overtly posing "messy political questions about fractional conflict" (80). By focusing on daily rural activities and creating emotional bonds between the viewer and Spanish villagers, Ivens weaved an idealistic poem calling for compassion and activism. Perhaps this visual poem could not ammount to a political debate in any formal sense, its manipulation of reality created a strong affective argument.

Though he created fewer abstract pieces in his later years, Ivens continued to operate more as an artist than a reporter. To defend Spanish villagers dealing with a wartorn country, a traditional reporter might write a story about the people’s hardships, discussions, and political views. Ivens departed from reality-based debates by constructing a poem distilling these villagers hopes, dreams, and lifestyles. While poetry fails to provide the nuts and bolts that objective reporting can, it succeeds in bringing across the challenges faced by these people, which is precisely why Ivens chose a reality-altering approach to his documentary work. Ivens made his documentaries as full of aesthetic value as they were of purpose. Therefore, his work made a significant impression on wide range of people whereas objective reporting might only inform.

Patricia Aufderheide writes that "history is written for people in the present, searching out for them what historians call a "usable past"- a story that is used in the constructing of our understanding of ourselves" (90). History, though based on reality, is retold through so many filters that it would be preposterous to assume it is accurate. Though Dziga Vertov was "against the concept of fiction film" (39), he was well aware of the fact that retold truth had to be collected from countless different fragments. Instead of attempting to arrange these fragments of reality together in a traditional sense, Vertov sought to thematically organize his frames, "so that the whole is also a truth" (40). Vertov took the path of an abstract artist and created "deliberately unconventional and challenging" films (41), which may come across as odd conduits for truth, but certainly support the argument that reality must be manipulated to create truth.

As a strong advocate of communism, one would expect Vertov to only create films that he felt would make an impact. If Vertov believed that truth could be best spread through cut and dry depictions of reality, he would have steeped his documentaries in the very essence of unbiased reporting. This, however, was not the case. "For him, the magnificent science of the camera was to be merged with the revolutionary Marxist analysis in the editing, to make a scientific tool of revolution, what he called a "Communist decoding" of the material" (39). Not only did Vertov utilize artistic elements to manipulate reality- he used political ideology! No wonder Kino-Glaz was a "hard to follow whirligig of images" (41); Vertov took the manipulation of reality to a whole new level.

Perhaps Vertov's radical approach to the art of the documentary represents a case in which reality is manipulated too much. Though the refined palates of the art world received Vertov's documentaries with critical acclaim, his own native audience failed to identify with his work, finding it frankly difficult to understand. Much like an abstract artist, Vertov manipulated reality to such an extent that he actually changed the language in which his message was communicated. Just as it takes a great understanding of context to comprehend Picasso's more radical pieces, it takes a refined palate to absorb Vertov's work. For this reason, his message failed to reach a great number of people. Despite their unconventionality, Vertov's bold documentaries must have carried a great deal of truth indeed, for those who did comprehend them have immortalized Vertov as one of the form's most influential personages.

With their soft, elegant paintings, Impressionists have collected droves of fans. Similarly, Robert Flaherty’s romanticized, sentimental films have collected a sizable collection of followers. In Aufderhelde’s words, “Flaherty’s immense affection for his subjects is palpable” (30) and it is apparent in his documentaries that he cares deeply for his subjects. That said, his work has underwent a fair amount of controversy due to its liberal alteration of reality. For example, Nanook of the North depicted the Inuit people engaging in activities that they had long since given up for more modern methods and Man of Aran came under fire for declining to document contemporary elements such as fish trade with the mainland and challenges posed by absentee landlords.

Perhaps Flaherty’s work would gain even wider acceptance if it were understood exactly what type of truth he wanted to get across. Clearly his documentaries were not about sharing the various aspects of indigenous people's modern ways of life; if they were, he would have approached the works as an investigative journalist. The truth Flaherty pursued is enveloped in a nostalgic impression of the past, and to depict it, he had to manipulate several aspects of modern reality. After all, an impressionist cannot create a dreamy portrait by establishing bold, distinct shapes; lines must be blurred to create an impression that would be impossible to capture with what some refer to as “accuracy.”

By effectively blurring reality, Flaherty succeeded in distilling the spirit of several indigenous peoples. Yes, he fabricated scenes, and yes, he left out indications of modernity and development, but in so doing, he was able to reveal a valuable truth that would be otherwise unreachable. Critics can argue that Flaherty’s constructed realities amount to nothing but a meaningless farce, but can this be true when the subjects of Flaherty’s various documentaries look back to these films to remember the aspects of traditional life that they are quickly forgetting? Had Flaherty been faithful to reality and not smudged various aspects of his subject’s lives, the truth of their traditional culture and lifestyle may be utterly lost.

So far, the documentarians discussed have manipulated reality to share personal truths. John Gierson, on the other hand, manipulated reality to share the truths of others. Devoted to "manag[ing] social causes in a democratic society" (32), Grierson frequently worked as a conduit through which larger forces (such as the British government, the Empire Marketing Board, gas companies, and housing agencies) expressed themselves. More than any of the previously discussed documentarians, Gierson focused on reality, "celebrating the power of documentary to observe "life itself," using real people who cold help others interpret the world and real stories" (35).

Though Grierson valued reality, he still manipulated it. Similar to a photographer, Grierson took snapshots of "real" situations, but framed them carefully, so that the truth of his and his clients' preference would be exposed. By selecting key aspects of reality, he revealed the pleasant aspects of past times in Industrial Britain, the wondrous nature of the mail system in Night Mail, and the destitution of slum residents in Housing Problems. One could easily argue that Grierson's work, more than that of any of the other discussed documentarians, is propaganda, and that propaganda alters both reality and truth. One should remember, though, that most all propaganda is truth in someone's eyes, and that in almost all cases, even the most objective work has been labeled as propaganda by those with differing opinions. The important observation to take away from Gierson's work (at least with regard to truth and realiy) is that when seeking to express a very opinionated, selective truth, reality does not necesisarily have to be altered so much as it must simply be framed. Just as someone with a narrow view of the world might have a very narrow reality, Gierson's views crop out a great deal of information- and emphasize certain key aspects- to showcase truths that are highly selective.

The Big Picture - Truth is What You Make of It

In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Keats famously claimed that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,- that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (Quiller-Couch). In keeping with these words, the documentarians Ivens, Vertov, Flaherty, and Grierson created beautiful works of art that shared their perceptions of the truth. No doubt these perceptions of truth are subjective, but they are valid nonetheless, for in art (and documentaries certainly are art- as are poems, paintings, and photographs), objectivity is nonexistent. Therefore, reality as we know it cannot exist unadulterated in man made interpretations- it has to be manipulated, for left untouched, it is meaningless. 

Works Cited

Aufderheide, Patricia. Documentary Film A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions). New York: Oxford UP, USA, 2007.

Quiller-Couch, Arthur Thomas, Sir. The Oxford Book of English Verse. Oxford: Clarendon, 1919, [c1901];, 1999.


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    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you for stopping by, Peggy W! It's so true... sometimes I wonder what it would be like to spend a day in someone else's reality... it's a mind boggling exercise!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

      We all use filters either consciously or unconsciously and what one person perceives as being true would not be another person's reality. Interesting and thought provoking hub. Thanks!

    • profile image

      ed77burns 6 years ago

      While reading your hub one Thaught click into my mind and it is that "Beauty is simply reality , seen with the eyes of love."Perfectly match to your hub.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 7 years ago from San Francisco


    • dallas93444 profile image

      Dallas W Thompson 7 years ago from Bakersfield, CA

      As you know, our "reality" is filtered through our life experiences... Thanks for sharing.