Rough Cuts: Documentary Film
This complicated story has attracted considerable attention from journalists and documentary filmmakers over the years. There have been several films made on or relating to this subject, including Juarez, The City of Dead Women (1998); Maquila: A Tale of Two Mexicos (2000); City of Dreams (2001); and Senorita Extraviada: Missing Young Woman (2001).5 In keeping with my discussion of re/presentation (see below) and my stated intention to straddle film, feminist, and philosophical theory, I concern myself less with an analysis of the content of these examples and more with an examination of their functioning—their operation as documentary films. In the examples used to illustrate the points that follow, I draw primarily from the film with which I am most familiar, Norelli’s (2001) City of Dreams.6
If the growing number of venues for their viewing is any indication, documentaries are enjoying a new popularity. In Canada the publicly held Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (cbc) has traditionally scheduled a number of television programs showcasing Canadian and international documentaries (which are, however, increasingly compromised by dwindling financial support and air time). Among these programs are The Passionate Eye, Rough Cuts, and Witness. It was Witness that first broadcast City of Dreams to Canadians (and sparked my own interest in this topic) in the fall of 2001. Film festivals that screen documentaries are flourishing around the world, including here in Canada: Doxa, the Vancouver-based documentary film and video festival, is held biannually, while each May Toronto hosts Hot Docs, a major international documentary film festival. As well, Canada’s National Film Board has contributed a great deal to the production of Canadian-made documentary films. On the small screen, television companies are now offering the Documentary Channel as part of their cable packages. Then there is the ever – increasing list of so-called reality tv programs (e. g., Survivor, Extreme Makeover). When, for many of us, life has taken on a routinized, mundane quality, perhaps documentaries serve as a non-threatening means with which to connect with people whose lives are different from our own, conveniently delivered via media that do not require that we depart from the security of our customs and communities. Given their value as an accessible form for the dissemination of information, it is all the more important to critically consider how documentary films operate.
Documentaries are a unique media form. They combine the visual quality of film, the accessibility of television, and the opportunity for research and reflection found in (magazine or newspaper) investigative and feature articles, all in a compact package that serves both to inform and to entertain. Documentaries are also subject to many of the same limitations faced by other media forms. Producers and directors may be pressured to alter their films’ content and approach to satisfy outside investors. Concern with the saleability of a film means that some stories are picked up while others are not, and some details are emphasized while others are ignored.
Within the field of film theory there is a substantial literature on the relationship between cinematic representation and reality. In Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Bill Nichols (1991) includes documentary among what he terms the discourses of sobriety. Although Nichols associates documentary with other “sober” discourses like science and education, he points out that documentary, because of its close relationship to fictional film, is viewed with suspicion from the perspective of the other discourses of sobriety. He explains that the “discourses of sobriety are sobering because they regard their relation to the real as direct, immediate, transparent. Through them power exerts itself” (4). This is an important point to which I return in the section on Marks. Nichols also advances the concept of epistephilia in this text, described as “a pleasure in knowing” (178). Epistephilia, which Nichols associates with documentary realism, further complicates those other pleasures—voyeurism (see below), identification, and fetishism (the subject of a later section)—also associated with fictional film. This pleasure in knowing can have positive consequences as the viewing audience may be moved to progressive action based on the information relayed in a documentary. This was certainly my own response to viewing Norelli’s City of Dreams (2001). Still, as Nichols (1991,179) points out, this orientation presupposes and perpetuates a certain distance between audience members (as Self) and the Other, whom documentary film represents. This distance is obscured in documentary by the claim to transparency that defines its realist style.
Film theory also alerts us to the operation of the gaze in documentary. Laura Mulvey (1989) is an important contributor to theorizing the male gaze as the masculinist voyeurism of female film characters. The colonialist gaze serves a similar function in documentary, where the Other is represented as an exotic object for voyeuristic consumption by privileged “First World” spectators. As a discourse of sobriety documentary may disguise the extent to which it is affected by the male, colonialist gaze in its emphasis on educational and scientific goals. In her critique of the documentary Paris Is Burning, bell hooks (1992) isolates and critiques the role of the director in the operation of the gaze. A lesson to be taken from this example is that a filmmaker who carries a certain (economic, social) privilege relative to his/her cinematic subjects must actively ensure that this privilege is not reflected in how power is negotiated between them, both on and off-screen.
Speaking generally about the risks involved in media production, artist Lani Maestro (Globe and Mail, 20 April 2002) has warned that
“the media” is itself a kind of violence, as well as the fact that photographic representations are always violent in their mode of operation (framing: cutting and fixing)… .If one wants to do something on a topic such as violence or war, then it requires simultaneously a subversion of basic media principles and representation in general—otherwise one is simply perpetuating the problem one wants to address.
While we may not want to privilege technology’s role in representation to the extent Maestro does in this statement, I think she rightfully alerts us to the influence of the “how” in representation—that is, how we go about representing individuals and societies. We might ask, to what extent do documentaries sensationalize their subject matter by the manner in which these stories are presented (think, for example, of the title to Juarez, The City of Dead Women )? Where is the line that separates education from exploitation, and observation from voyeurism? This point leads to another: the relation between the truth (presence) of a thing and its representation in (cinematic) production. This idea is especially marked in documentaries, which many writers, including Marks (1999, 228), define as “a cinema whose indexical relation to the real is of central importance.” It is this relationship that I discuss next.