Part I: Cinéma Vérité
Cinéma Vérité. Noun: a style of filmmaking characterized by realistic, typically documentary motion pictures that avoid artificiality and artistic effect and are generally made with simple equipment.
As a scholar and practitioner who studies media effects and teaches at a state university, my interest in documentary film/video is closely aligned with my personal faith and my belief in the transcendent and transformative nature of truth. As one who subscribes to the Judeo-Christian worldview I accept the notion of objective truth that is accessible to those who seek it. More precisely, I believe in a God who is Truth. And I believe that by seeking and knowing Him believers can experience truth revealed. Modernism and the advent of science continued this notion of a knowable universe, albeit the means of knowledge was based on a rigorous process that valued observation over revelation. Prior to postmodernism these were widely held beliefs of people from most every corner of the world.
Truth matters, and in today’s world when everything appears to be negotiable, it matters more than ever. I understand that fictional accounts, stories, and parables can, and do, make truth claims. Often they do so in ways that non-fiction cannot, and with great effect. But for this series of blog posts I want to focus on a media program format based on a presupposition that truth can be experienced as a response to factual evidence that is presented in the form of motion pictures and sound. More often than not this format utilizes digital audio and video clips that have been captured, curated, and composed by a communicator who has an agenda.
In more than 30 years working and teaching media production and studying media effects I’ve had the good fortune to work on various documentary projects for local, regional, and national audiences. I’ve grown to love the format for its ability to move an audience with a unique blend of entertainment and information. Documentaries are different than most other forms of media programming. More than other long-form genres intended to inform and entertain, documentaries make truth claims about reality.
Unlike the facetiously-named reality television format, documentaries depend on public perception that they are telling the truth, or at least the truth as perceived by the film’s producer/director. Reality TV shows boldly alter reality in the name of entertainment, and viewers seldom appear to mind. But that is not the case with something that wears the documentary label.
Perhaps a better term to explain what the audience expects is authenticity. We’re willing to accept the notion that the filmmaker’s understanding of the truth is incomplete, but we are unwilling to accept an inauthentic presentation of the facts whether due to carelessness, incompetence, or, heaven forbid, an intent to deceive. Recent criticism of TV journalist Katie Couric and her Under the Gun documentary about gun rights is a good example. In case you haven’t followed this story, Couric is under fire from critics for deceptive editing deployed in the making of the film for which she served as executive producer.
The infraction involved editing a series of shots to create the impression that a question posed to members of a gun rights group went unanswered for approximately eight seconds. The close-up shots of interviewees showed them shifting their eyeline and looking down, as if they were unable to come up with an answer to the fairly straightforward question.
According to the gun rights group’s leader, the filmmaker owes the interviewees an apology for making them look foolish, and incapable of answering a simple question. An audio recording made by one of the interviewees was released to show that the :08 pause was inauthentic. . . . It was manufactured to create something that didn’t exist in reality. Does that editorial indiscretion undermine the truth claims made by the documentarian? Hold that thought.
This criticism of Couric is not unusual. Documentary filmmakers are routinely accused of manipulating the facts in support of their version of the truth. While much of it is justified, other claims are simply an attempt to advance an alternative narrative. Honest disagreements about interpretations of the “facts” of the case are standard fare in a wide range of nonfiction media genres from hard news to photojournalism to political commentary. What is different here is that no interpretation of the facts justified the insertion of a lengthy pause to suggest that one party in the debate was unwilling or unable to come up with a suitable answer to a question posted by the documentary producer.
Journalistic organizations such as the Society for Professional Journalists and the AP have codes of conduct designed to minimize bias and inaccuracy when attempting to report the facts, and these guidelines provide a useful starting point for novices as well as seasoned professionals. But these are only a starting point as each of the rules is open to interpretation. We’re left with the conundrum that has dogged philosophical arguments from the beginning of time: Who ultimately is qualified to be the final arbiter of truth?
Part II: Evidence that demands a verdict
In Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, author Virginia Heffernan argues that images are the lingua franca of this global network. Digital photographs and moving pictures (digital video) are the raw materials used to build the social media empires we know as Instagram, Flickr, Vine, Snapchat, and YouTube. If a picture truly is worth a thousand words, the invention and perfection of film and video technology in the last century has unleashed a torrent of verbosity. At 24 to 240 frames per second, digital video cameras capture truth as it happens, slicing and preserving each moment as an artifact of reality. The Camera Never Blinks, as Dan Rather noted in his 1977 memoir. Even though we may turn away when the truth becomes too much to bear, the cold and mechanical devices we’ve created continue to see and record.
Actuality is the stock-in-trade for modern documentarians. Film or video footage of an event is the evidence that is used to construct an argument for what really happened. The power of video evidence was front and center in 1991 when George Holliday stood on his balcony with a VHS camcorder documenting the beating of Rodney King. Other notable historical events include the video of “Tank Man” as he stood in the way of military oppression in Tiananmen Square and, more recently, the image of a small refugee lying still on the water’s edge after a failed attempt at crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The power of these motion and still images, and the truth that they tell, is undeniable. The Maysles brothers’ film Gimme Shelter, about the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont speedway a few months after Woodstock, is noteworthy on several accounts, but none more so than the murder of a concert-goer at the hands of a member of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang. The fact that the murder was caught on film made it the defining moment of the documentary.
Documentary filmmakers have long known that not only do cameras document reality, the very presence of a visible camera alters reality. This is, of course, the motivation behind the campaign to put cameras on the chest of every police officer, in every patrol car, and on every street corner. My local newspaper today contained an editorial praising the downtown association’s efforts to increase the number of security cameras in city center. The local police force has given the plan two-thumbs-up, and most see the move as a way to increase safety and security. In a litigious and combative culture, documentary evidence in the form of recorded video and audio is seen as a solution to a host of problems. And if everyone else is going to have the power to record and broadcast, it is imperative that you have it as well. The arms race for supporting evidence is on, and you most certainly don’t want to be outgunned.
Documentary evidence presented as fact rarely escapes controversy, as demonstrated by the undercover video recordings by Center for Medical Progress purporting to show Planned Parenthood employees negotiating the sale of body parts from aborted babies. What is contested is the way that the video clips were edited. According to Planned Parenthood and their advocates, deceptive editing is enough to discredit the video and the video makers. Clearly context matters and reckless editing can introduce a false narrative, but the question remains: should the truth of the claim against Planned Parenthood stand or fall on a questionable editing decision?
Even when editing is not contested, video evidence has been challenged based on the availability of technology that allows for video manipulation. Just as Photoshop editing software has made every photograph a possible fiction, advanced digital video software can bend and break the inherent truth claim. Quite a few years ago I was invited to provide expert testimony in a criminal trial to testify to the very possibility that security camera video of the accused might have been compromised to frame the defendant. The raw and grainy video captured by the ATM’s surveillance camera caught the suspect red-handed. Or did it? That was the question the defense attorney hoped to raise. If digital video technology can be used to create lifelike replicas of humans and beasts in Hollywood blockbusters, perhaps it can be used to frame an innocent man who desperately needed a fool-proof alibi.
Recent live streaming and video uploads of the shooting deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling at the hands of police officers have rekindled an old controversy. Live streaming, because it is unedited, would appear to be reliable evidence. But even here there is a decision of editorial consequence; when to start and stop recording/streaming. The fact that viewers cannot agree on the deeper truths behind these controversial videos is part of the problem that prevents understanding the evidence presented.
No documentary does a better job of addressing the limitations of documentary evidence than Errol Morris’s 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line. Morris’s film explores the murder of Dallas police officer Robert Wood. Randall Adams, the man convicted of the crime, was already serving a life sentence when Morris began his cross-examination of what happened that night. Multiple interviews and dramatic reenactments presented by Morris introduce reasonable doubt about Adams’ guilt as one testimony after another is called into question. The film concludes with a provocative audio interview with David Ray Harris, the other man at the scene of the crime, who suggests that Adams is innocent. The documentary film ultimately led to the release of Adams when his conviction was overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The power of Morris’s film is in the way that it involves the viewer in the on-going quest for truth as a life hangs in the balance.
The power of The Thin Blue Line is the way that Morris presents documentary evidence, intercut with dramatic recreations, in such a way as to allow the viewer to experience the limitations of sensory perception. We see and hear the interviews that seem to contradict each other, while viewing Morris’s multiple fabricated versions of how the scene might have played out for the non-existent security cameras. The effect is sobering as we face our limitations. In the final segment in this series I’ll consider the role of relational context as it pertains to my understanding of documentary evidence when it comes to matters of faith.
Part III: Blessed are those who have not seen…
At its best, and in the hands of an honest communicator, documentary evidence can facilitate several worthy goals: exposing secrets, challenging lies, and preserving truth.
- Documentary evidence is used to expose secrets that don’t deserve to exist.
- Documentary evidence is presented as counter evidence when lies are presented as fact.
- Documentary evidence is used to extend memory of times and events that deserve preservation.
The gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, as embodied in the life of Jesus Christ and revealed in scripture, is the evidence that believers cite when making claims intended to expose secrets, challenge lies, and preserve truth. Which raises the question: why did God choose to reveal Himself in the written word and in the Word made flesh? Authors, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote down the revealed truth of God, capturing in time and space the very essence of truth for all of history. Writing from first-hand and, sometimes, second-hand accounts, authors documented the life and times of Abraham, Jeremiah, David, Rahab, and Jesus Christ himself. Ancient historians, such as Josephus, authored non-Biblical texts which lend credibility to the facts as recorded. But why just words?
One could argue that the state of technology allowed no other options. But wouldn’t relics, e.g., the Shroud of Turin, if authentic, be an example of documentary evidence for the existence of God and the life and death of His Son Jesus Christ?
Which leads to another interesting question. If the technology had existed, would Christ have commissioned, or even cooperated with, a documentary film of his life? Is there something inherently different in the process of transcribing a quote versus recording a soundbite? Does the image overwhelm, or somehow diminish, the act in the process of documenting it?
British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge wrestled with a similar question in his book, Christ and the Media. In the book Muggeridge considered the possibility of a fourth temptation following on the heels of the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. In this case the temptation imagined is whether Christ would have accepted an offer of prime-time network television appearances to proclaim his gospel. Muggeridge concludes that He would not and builds a convincing case for his belief based largely on the notion that TV trivializes everything that it touches.
Ultimately it comes back to the issue of trust and faith built on a foundation of relational integrity. New information, in whatever form, must be evaluated taking into account the source, the context, and the relationship you share. When Thomas the doubter asked for documentary evidence, Jesus responded in a way that reveals an important truth about documentary evidence as a basis for faith. Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
So how are we to respond to documentary programs that play fast and loose with the facts, and to documentary directors who demonstrate a lack of respect for adherence to objective reality. Much has been written about the nature of truth in nonfiction formats and whether either approach (fiction or nonfiction) holds an advantage when it comes to portrayal of truth. Rather than revisit that here I’d like to consider this relationship between the message and the messenger. The founder of cinéma-vérité, Jean Rouch, is quoted as saying:
It would be better to call it cinema-sincerity. . . .That is, that you ask the audience to have confidence in the evidence, to say to the audience, This is what I saw. I didn’t fake it, this is what happened. . . . I look at what happened with my subjective eye and this is what I believe took place. . . . It’s a question of honesty.
What strikes me about this quote is the centrality of the storyteller, the reference to I, and the request that the audience member trust the messenger. The honesty of the messenger is the foundation on which everything is built. Without integrity, honesty, and sincerity, the foundation crumbles and the story becomes a lie and a sham. Certainly we see this in our personal and professional relationships. Established relationships that have earned our trust have credibility over messages from unknown, or unreliable, sources. Word-of-mouth, giving testimony, bearing witness—these describe credibility born of context.
Jesus’ instruction to Thomas, and to us, is to believe . . . whether we see the evidence or not. This flies in the face of everything that materialism and science have taught us. According to that tradition, only after seeing the evidence should we come to a conclusion, and then only for as long as the evidence continues to support the hypothesis. But the only evidence we have of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is the assurance of Christ himself as mediated by the words of those entrusted to be writers of the Gospels. We have not seen his hands and his side, but we can still be confident of the truth that was presented to Thomas in the form of evidence.
 One positive contribution of postmodernism is the warning to avoid the arrogance too often associated with devout adherence to either scientific method or divine revelation.
 When I teach documentary video production we spend time with some of the classics: Nanook of the North, Man with a Movie Camera, and Triumph of the Will. Each of these provides numerous examples of willful manipulation of reality for the sake of a greater agenda. In the case of Robert J. Flaherty it was his desire to capture the image of the “noble savage” that had already begun to unravel. For Dziga Vertov it was an attempt to promote an approach to filmmaking that he considered superior to the fiction filmmaking that he so deplored. And for Leni Riefenstahl it was propaganda in service of the rising star of the National Socialist Party.
 According to former US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
 According to French film director Jean-Luc Godard, “The cinema is truth twenty-four times per second.” New media guru and Virtual Reality pioneer Howard Rheingold later updated Godard by saying, “Reality is 80 million polygons per second” (1991).
 Some have called it the first viral video, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/man-filmed-rodney-king-beating-proud-film-article-1.2551126
 One could make the case that these goals are accomplished in various places by various professionals: e.g. the newsroom/journalist, the courtroom/attorney, and the museum or library/archivist.
 Neil Postman struck the same chord in Amusing Ourselves to Death.
 John 20:29 (NIV).
 For a start, see Michael Renov, ed., Theorizing Documentary (1993).
 Quoted in “The Totalizing Quest of Meaning,” by Trihn T. Minh-ha, chapter 5 in Renov’s Theorizing Documentary.