The Gap: Documentary Truth between Reality and Perception

The notion of documentary truth

by Randolph Jordan Volume 7, Issue 1 / January 2003 27 minutes (6690 words)

The notion of documentary truth might be best understood as that truth which is found in the way that we mentally organize our perceptions. Increasingly the theoretical understanding of documentary film is moving away from the notion of an inherent reality found within a film text and more towards an understanding of how texts are read. However, I believe that the idea of defining documentary as a receptive strategy should not negate a consideration of the filmic text as primary focus of consideration. At the heart of the matter lies the concept of truth. As we move away from believing that truth in imagery is a function of the image’s indexical relationship with its subject, there seems to be a thrust towards understanding truth as being that which defines our world for us: perception. What I will explore here is a wide array of discussions that surround the definition of documentary truth in film and the place of the text within that definition. Through a look at the parallels between the filmmaking process and the mind’s processing of external stimuli, the collision of documentary and fictional space within single texts, the changing relationship we have with the photographic image resulting from new digital technologies, and the time honoured debate surrounding the notions of author, text, and reader as encapsulated by Umberto Eco, I will suggest an alternate understanding of how film can contain truth for our extraction. Through an extension of the principles behind persistence of vision, truth might be understood as that which lies in the gaps between the perceivables that we fill in with the stuff of thought.

What will emerge in all these discussions is the notion of the middle ground, the idea of navigating between the elements we are presented with to arrive at the truth that documentary often seeks to put forth. Umberto Eco will be called upon to supply the concept of text as occupying a middle ground between the often contradictory realms of author intention and reader interpretation. Based on his assertions, I will suggest that all the arguments for an understanding of truth as lying between the contradictions that present themselves in texts can be seen to find a home in the notion that documentary truth does, in fact, lie within the text itself. It is the concept of truth that must be refined in order to understand how such truth can exist within a given film text. To that extent, I will flesh out the arguments surrounding the notion of text as it relates to documentary truth, ultimately seeking to develop an alternate meaning for documentary film and its role in the increasingly technologically mediated society we live in.

Current thinking points to the increasing lack of distinction between documentary and fiction film. Brian McIlroy has noted that “it is now common to read that, theoretically speaking, documentary and narrative fiction film ‘proper’ are indistinguishable as constructed realities” 1 . Similarly, Dai Vaughan, a documentary film editor for over thirty years, suggests that there are many who, “in blind deference to semiological axiom, have made a point of denying that there is any distinction to be found between documentary and fiction. A sign is a sign, and that is that.” 2 What is at stake in the thought that there is no difference between documentary and fiction film is the integrity of the photograph as being linked to our understanding of reality. Vaughan refers to the term ‘actuality’ to describe our belief in the reality of the photographic image, stating that “this actuality…is the subjective conviction on the part of the viewer of that prior and independent existence of the represented world which is specific to the photograph” 3 . In a discussion of what it is about documentary film that makes it more “real” than fiction, Bill Nichols suggests that in documentary footage “some quality of the moment persists outside the grip of textual organization” 4 . Therefore the understanding we have of documentary has in some way depended on the ability of the photographic image to impart to us a belief in the existence of the represented beyond its filmic representation. To that extent, Vaughan suggests that “documentary may best be defined as the attempt at a materialist reading of film” 5 , a way of examining a filmic text to decide on its position with respect to documentary.

In recent years, along with the growing difficulty in distinguishing between documentary and fiction film, has come an increase in the popularity of films that celebrate the collapse of the borders between the two. Linda Williams has suggested that, in the postmodern era, documentary films are increasingly foregrounding the processes of manipulation of the film medium, a strategy which calls into question the very documentary nature of the subjects they purport to present 6 . Williams notes that the current popularity of the postmodern documentary illustrates one of postmodernism’s many contradictions: an increasing distrust of the photographic image in conjunction with an ever increasing thirst for the truth of documentary footage, a thirst evidenced by the popularity of shows such as Cops 7 .

Bill Nichols has also noted documentary’s recent tendencies towards the questioning of documentary truth: “Documentary has come to suggest incompleteness and uncertainty, recollection and impression, images of personal worlds and their subjective construction” 8 . What can be seen in the trends of recent documentaries is a move away from an understanding of truth as being a function of the traditional notion of the photograph’s indexical relationship with reality, and a growing acceptance of truth as being the subjective construction of our perceptions. Thus Williams calls for a definition of documentary “not as an essence of truth but as a set of strategies designed to choose from among a horizon of relative and contingent truths” 9 . Here we come closer to the idea that documentary truth lies in an understanding of film as being similar in its processes to the way that humans organize the world through perception. Williams is suggesting that in our daily lives we choose to extract from our experience of the world an understanding of it based on the constant perceiving and organization of that experience. We choose what we believe about what we see, and construct elaborate narratives to which we refer in order to make our way through life. Films which illustrate this process of the construction of our understanding of reality are concerned with truth. Documentary truth can thus be seen as the truth of meaning making processes, not simply as the ‘actuality’ of an image.

Here the breakdown between fiction and documentary is acute, as both forms of filmmaking can foreground the subjective construction of experience. If truth in film is separated from the image’s indexical relationship with the pro-filmic event, then it would seem that there can be no distinguishing between fiction and documentary. However, Williams suggests that “an overly simplified dichotomy between truth and fiction is at the root of our difficulty in thinking about the truth in documentary” 10 . In order to help rise above such over-simplification, I would like to examine the notion that the truth we seek in documentary lies somewhere in between the concrete categorizations we have set out for ourselves – in the way the mind constructs meaning from the world.

Dai Vaughan suggests that “realism has nothing to do with totality but involves, on the part of the recipient, a sparking of understanding across gaps in the text; such creative response, such active construction of meaning by the recipient, lying at the heart of aesthetic pleasure” 11 . Here Vaughan opens up an interesting area of discussion, that being the role of aesthetics in our understanding of truth. The idea of realism, for Vaughan, is perfectly compatible with the extracting of aesthetic pleasure from the mind’s search for meaning. As has been suggested, the organization that the mind brings to our experience can be seen as the truth which much documentary seeks to express. Thus aesthetic organization might also be seen as the extraction of truth from the flood of stimuli that enters our realm of perception.

In speaking of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, Brian McIlroy states:

The Vidor policeman recalls, fondly, David Harris’ care in looking after the murder weapon. Morris inserts a blue water shot to convey the aesthetic appreciation that the Vidor policeman had for this crime’s details. By doing so, Morris shows us how the striving for aesthetics has helped to condemn a man, or to confuse the policeman’s main task to get to the “truth”… 12 .

Here we see that the search for meaning in the world is related to the search for aesthetic pleasure. The police officer in Morris’ film found aesthetic pleasure in the details of the case he was trying to extract the truth from; his mind, in the process of searching for truth, was searching for aesthetic understanding. The implication of this for documentary film is that aesthetic constructions need not be contradictory to documentary’s interest in exploring the truth. In fact, the mind’s search for truth, if we understand it as a part of the selection and creation of meaning through perception, would seem to be fundamentally linked to the search for aesthetic pleasure.

If aesthetic understanding is a part of the way humanity understands truth in the world, then there is undoubtedly a relationship between the very nature of film construction and the way the mind makes sense of experience. Dai Vaughan suggests that people perceive the world “as open to scrutiny and evaluation, as being malleable in the way that film is malleable” 13 . Thus the postmodern documentary, that Williams has identified as being open to interpretation in the same fashion as general experience, would seem to offer the same truth of malleability that exists in the world outside of film.

Interestingly, Bill Nichols doesn’t see aesthetic engagement as being part of the truth we find in documentary. Nichols insists that truth in documentary depends on “a tension between the representation and the represented as experienced by the viewer. Remove this tension, enter a realm of aesthetic engagement, and the specific qualities and tensions no longer apply” 14 . However, Nichols’ understanding of documentary truth still hinges on the foregrounding of the processes of meaning construction, similar in the making of film as it is in the human mind. He calls on the term “vivification – rendering felt what representations only allude to” which creates “a glimpse across the gulf between representation and experience” 15 . Nichols argues:

What should be vivified is the experiential awareness of difference that, in the social construction of reality, has been knotted into contradiction. A text may vivify these tensions and thereby heighten our own awareness and experience of contradiction or paradox as a step in the process of disentangling, recasting, or transforming them 16 .

Nichols is not speaking here of aesthetic understanding in terms of the mind’s search for truth. However, he is speaking of the mind’s process of constructing and reconstructing the material we see in film, here focusing on the differences between representation and reality instead of aesthetics.

Vivification is a central concept in documentary, the goal of much truth-seeking lying in a film’s attempt to make the audience feel the experience presented on screen. What Nichols is advocating, however, is that what the audience should feel is not the experience of what it would be like to be on location at the site of the filming, but rather the rendering felt of the mind’s very process of making sense of the world. Nichols suggests that the viewer’s awareness of the inherent contradictions that arise in understanding documentary film provides a similar experience to how the mind sorts through the myriad contradictions of everyday life. The mind, when presented with the tensions between representation and experience, must find the gaps between them and create a link there, thus forming coherence from contradiction. Thus, through a documentary filmmaker’s attempts at vivifying the mental processes of constructing meaning from contradiction, an attempt is made at presenting the documentary truth of human experience.

Taking the extreme example of death on screen, Jay Cantor notes that “if death were truly in the image, one would feel, as the narrator of Alain Resnais’ documentary Night and Fog reminds us, endless, uninterrupted fear” 17 . Like Nichols, Cantor argues for a different sort of interaction between documentary and audience. Due to the inability of film to create the vivification we traditionally associate with the intent of documentarians to make us feel their subject matter, Cantor suggests that imparting the power of death through imagery lies in the way the audience makes sense out of what it sees. With respect to holocaust films, Cantor states:

Death is most felt not in the voices of survivors, not in still photos or documentary footage from the camps, not in the silence of nature, but in all these things only when the artist has found a way to make himself and us participate in the building of the image 18 .

Here again is the idea of documentary truth being found in the way the perceivers of a film construct the film within their own minds, searching between what is overtly presented on screen to find the links between them that facilitate coherence and organization.

Truth in documentary film, then, might be approached as a way of creating meaning from a filmic text. Thus the search for documentary truth, a search for an understanding of what we are presented with, can be seen as a phenomenological undertaking. Explaining phenomenology’s main interest as “attempting to describe what is in front of us” 19 , Brian McIlroy suggests that a phenomenological approach to understanding documentary film allows for a guide through the spaces between the textual elements that must be navigated in order to construct meaning. He notes that “documentaries via phenomenology guide us…to the real world. We, as viewers, accept the contract, implicit or otherwise, that what we see is about the real, not the real” 20 . Thus the impossibility of documentary to present us with reality is dealt with through film’s ability to allow us to understand the real within it.

McIlroy sees this phenomenological approach to documentary as being a middle road between two extreme theoretical positions. On the one hand, he describes Bazin and Kracauer’s “focus on the transparency potential of film,” and on the other he posits contemporary poststructuralist theorists who regard the film screening as referring only to itself and/or created by the viewer’s reception of it 21 . McIlroy’s interest in taking the middle road between extreme positions in order to arrive at the truth of documentary is another example of truth being found in the mind’s navigation through what it is presented with in order to find coherence. McIlroy’s approach could also be used to highlight the difficulties that exist between the notions of author, text, and receiver if one thinks of the text as a middle ground between auteur and reception theories. So it would seem that truth in documentary exists in the heart of competing arenas that need to be collated and assessed in the same fashion as the mind deals with the realm of the quotidian.

The picture I have been attempting to paint here is that of the importance of the spaces between the worldly phenomena with which we are presented. The construction of meaning from the world lies in the joining together of contradictory elements through a bridging of the gaps between those elements. The various theories explored here so far all posit a middle ground between extremities, be they documentary/fiction, realist/post-structuralist, etc. It is my wish to suggest that the truth that documentary film seeks to put forth is precisely that construction of meaning that takes place when confronted with contradictions. Linda Williams’ statement on Claude Lanzman’s holocaust film Shoah might best sum up the idea of truth as existing between the concrete pieces of the world that we encounter:

The truth of the Holocaust thus does not exist in any totalizing narrative but only…as a collection of fragments….The events of the past – in this case the totality of the Holocaust – register not in any fixed moment of past or present but rather, as in Freud’s description of the palimpsest, as the sum total of its rewritings through time, not in a single event but in the reverberations between” 22 .

What role, however, does the text play in an understanding of truth as being the process of human perceptual organization? I would like now to move to a discussion more specifically oriented towards the processes of film as a medium in order to assess this medium’s relation to the middle ground and the uncovering of documentary truth.

We are used to understanding documentary as placing a special interest on a belief in the indexicality of the photographic image: the integrity of the shot as it relates to the world outside itself. What has been suggested thus far, however, is that the reality contained within a film is dependent upon the reading of that film. An examination of the appearance of animals on film might help illuminate the relationship between text and perceiver on a number of levels. In the distinction between fiction and documentary film, the animal on screen often presents us with a bridge across the gap between these two categories. Occupying a sort of limbo space, I would like to suggest that the animal on film is an embodiment of the contradictions that force the human mind to search for coherence and meaning in film. Because of what many of us inherently know about animal behaviour, combined with our knowledge of the ethical boundaries of our own cultures, when we see animals on film we understand that they do not occupy the same space as humans. Although animals can be trained, we understand that there is far less of a consent on their part when performing for the camera, and often times we understand that mistreatment of them is considered more socially acceptable than the mistreatment of human beings. For these reasons, I believe that there is a far greater sense of “actuality” on screen when we witness the performance of animals, even when they are situated within the context of fiction films.

In particular, the question of violence on film involving animals presents an interesting port of entry into the liminal world of animal presence in the cinema. Linda Williams has suggested that “violence has become the very emblem of the real” 7 . When violence involves animals, the emblem of the real takes on an even greater sense of actuality. In “Inscribing Ethical Space,” Vivian Sobchack lays out a phenomenological framework for the understanding of how violence is represented on film. Speaking of Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game, she points to a scene in which a rabbit is killed. She observes that “the rabbit’s death exceeds the narrative code which communicates it. It ruptures and interrogates the boundaries of narrative representation. The rabbit’s death violently, abruptly, punctuates narrative space with documentary space” 24 . Such intrusion of what we understand as documentary space upon our understanding of fictional space presents just the type of contradiction that I have suggested allows for the experience of truth through the perceiver’s attempts at searching for coherence.

Here the contradictory elements of the film are provided by our understanding of how a particular animal was treated. Had we seen a human appear to die on screen in a film read as a fiction, we would most likely assume that the death was faked. This poses an interesting question with respect to how we come to believe in what we see on screen. Technology is currently advancing to the point where very convincing illusions can be presented. As a result, as Williams noted, there is an increasing distrust of the photographic image. In Sobchack’s example, the punctuation of fictional space with that of documentary is dependent upon our belief in the actual death of the rabbit as it occurred on screen. How much of this belief lies within the text itself, and how much within our reading of it? Here it will be useful to examine some of the implications that new digital technology is having on our understanding of the role of the text in the construction of meaning from film.

As I have discussed thus far, the idea of documentary truth arrived at through film now extends beyond our understanding of the indexical relationship between photograph and photographed. With new technologies in digital imaging becoming increasingly the norm, it seems appropriate that our more traditional approaches to reality on film be replaced by something more applicable to the current situation. As Williams noted, our increasing distrust of the photographic image has been concurrent with an increased desire for material (such as “reality tv”) which seeks to exploit what trust in these images remains. This says to me that we are not ready to give up on finding truth in images altogether. If this is true, then it makes sense that current documentary theory and practice would seek to define truth in the documentary as being a process of the search for meaning in the contradictions of film instead of relying on the representational nature of the medium. Here the idea of the integrity of the shot, the reliability of the photograph that was the cornerstone of the cinema vérité approach, is not destroyed. Instead, the truth found within film transcends indexicality as the basis for its integrity. I suggest that new digital imaging technologies need not threaten documentary truth if we look at this truth as being the human experience of meaning construction.

In a seminal essay on emerging digital film technologies, Stephen Prince argues for an understanding of film realism in terms of “perceptual realism” 25 . He suggests that digital imagery in film does not necessarily demand our understanding of such imagery as illusionist, but that such imagery can be used to create a realism which is much like the documentary truth I have been outlining: a reality based on our understanding of human experience, not on the indexicality of the photographic image. In order to develop his notion of perceptual realism Prince suggests the use of a “correspondence-based approach to cinematic representation” in order to understand reality on film in the age of digital filmmaking 26 . Prince describes this approach as the film perceiver’s building of “correspondences between selected features of the cinematic display and a viewer’s real-world visual and social experience.” 27 He continues: “A perceptually realistic image is one which structurally corresponds to the viewer’s audiovisual experience of three-dimensional space. Perceptually realistic images correspond to this experience because the filmmakers build them to do so.” 28 Prince is arguing that we approach digitally created images that resemble our experience of the real world as being representative of how we make sense of the world. We understand such realistic digital images as being realistic because of the correspondences we make between them and our own experience. Here the contradiction between something that we understand as being non-existent and its apparent existence on film provides us with the necessary tensions for our minds to balance in order to make meaning.

As a result of this making of meaning from contradiction through Prince’s correspondence model, I believe digital imagery can be seen as having an integrity of its own, not unlike the integrity of the indexicality of the photographic image. Bill Nichols observes that:

Images can indeed provide a form of authentication regarding something anterior to themselves (excluding the ‘evil demons’ of digital sampling and computer generated images) but the surrounding frames, contexts, narrative structures, televisual forms, viewer assumptions and expectations vie with one another [resulting in] interpretative struggle 29 .

Nichols speaks here of the tensions through which the perceiver of a film must sort in order to create meaning, describing how the various forms of film presentation vie against one another as well as against our understanding of the indexicality of the photograph. However, he suggests that digital technology eliminates this indexicality from the interpretative struggle. Through Prince’s correspondence-based understanding of film perception, I suggest that digital imagery need not eliminate the kind of truth that indexicality offers us.

For example, Dai Vaughan speaks about digital imagery’s negation of “the value of the photograph’s codings which derive from the technology of the original registration.” 30 To illustrate his point he offers us a story of how he saw an ad that featured the apparent metamorphosis of Laurie Anderson into a baboon. Vaughan had assumed that this effect was arrived at through “a bit of electronic jiggery-pokery” until he read that “Anderson had had to spend fourteen hours in makeup.” 31 He suggests that:

There was a time – not so long ago – when the implications of this [special effect], in terms of discomfort and endurance, would have remained present for us in the sequence; now they did not. A sense of the effort and impediment of the represented world is one thing lost when we cease to see that world as necessary to its representation. This is the price we pay for Terminator 2 31 .

It is precisely this seeing of the world as necessary to its representation that I believe Prince’s correspondence model seeks to define in terms other than the traditional notion of indexicality in photographs, an indexicality that Vaughan and Nichols depend upon for their arguments about the loss of some kind of truth in the digital image.

Vaughan’s reference to Terminator 2 provides a good example of how the effortlessness he describes as being the result of digital image manipulation is still dependent upon the real world for its existence. Just as Laurie Anderson had to spend fourteen hours in make-up to morph into a baboon, so too actor Robert Patrick had to spend many hours nearly naked with a grid painted over his body so that his physical attributes could be mapped into the computer for Terminator 2 33 . In order for the famous liquid metal effect to be able to take the shape of Patrick’s body, the digital imagery needed to be grounded in the reality of the actor’s physical form. In this way a correspondence is set up between our understanding of the effect as digital construction and the connection to reality that obviously exists in the effect’s resemblance to Patrick’s body.

Vaughan’s point about the typical viewer not recognizing the physical effort involved in creating the effect is well taken. However, I suggest that his notion that we no longer see the world as necessary to its representation is not what is going on when we are confronted with digital imagery. In such digital image creation as described here there is still a kind of indexicality at play, albeit one that is a couple of steps removed from the indexicality of the standard photograph. The digital images of Patrick’s form are created through a physical relationship between the computer and his body. In this example I suggest that all reality is not lost through digital manipulation, and that a kind of indexicality still exists in the manipulation process.

However, using Prince’s concept of the correspondences between representation and reality, it would seem that even in digital images which do not have a physical relationship with what they represent, realism can be understood in a new way that is right at home with current technological film manipulation. It is the relationship we have with the images and what they represent that allows for an element of truth to shine through, our very beings as humans creating the physical connection between represented and reality that could be thought of as the indexicality of the digital age. I suggest that it is the construction of meaning through making the correspondences between what is presented on screen and our own experiences of the world that creates a reality based on our existence as physical beings of perception.

It is interesting to observe that much of the technology we create is based on our understanding of our own physical processes; we recreate ourselves through the constructions of progress 34 . Such a correspondence model as Prince has suggested is much like some of the processes employed by current digital imaging technology. For example, Vaughan speaks of the Snell+Wilcox device used to smooth out slow-motion replays of sports footage by digitally creating frames between the existing recorded frames. The device accomplishes this by positing the difference between two consecutive frames and then interpolating what would most likely exist in an intermediary frame 35 . What is going on here is the creation of a digital image based on the correspondence between two analog images related indexically to their subject. A similar procedure takes place in video processors (such as line quadruples) that create new lines of resolution between the source’s existing lines in order to boost overall image detail. Here the intermediary scan-lines are created based on the information contained within the lines between which they fall 36 . I believe that this type of correspondence model for the creation of digital images based on indexical images is similar to the correspondence model that Prince suggests for use in the reception of such digital images. An understanding of what lies between two images is created by extrapolating the correspondences that exist between those images. The digital image that is created is dependent upon the real world that provided it with the necessary information for its existence. This can be seen as akin to Prince’s idea that we make meaning from digital imagery based on our understanding of the real world that provided the information necessary for the existence of those images. Thus it would seem to be no coincidence that the way in which we seek out truth in imagery is changing at the same time that the technology emerges that both creates and responds to this change in reception.

I see another interesting change in our understanding of indexicality as it relates to reception occurring in the realm of home video, particularly with respect to DVD technology. There is a tendency to view what was once film material at home as though it were still film. Disbelief is suspended towards the changes that the film has undergone in order to emanate from our television screens, perhaps the result of having become increasingly used to the distortions that arise from such a transition. We are now, however, in the midst of acclimatizing ourselves to a new format: the DVD. As this is the first digital video medium upon which films have been commercially released, a new set of distortions have appeared in replacement of those analog anomalies that we have been exposed to on videotape and laserdisc. Most notably are motion artifacts created by the compression algorithm used to cram up to four and a half hours of audiovisual information onto one side of a CD sized disc. One example of such artifacts can be observed as a slight jerkiness to the movement of objects on screen. It is especially noticeable in the movements of human beings. Another is an often pronounced disjunction between foreground and background as a result of MPEG encoding’s redundancy elimination strategy (which does not repeat any elements of one frame that do not change with respect to the next). I suggest that these new types of distortion have rejuvenated comparisons between home video and the films it represents, thus calling attention to the relationship between the video and film versions of the material. The DVD thus becomes a documentary representation of the original film which is itself a representation of something else. So a layer is added to the tensions through which the perceiver must wade in order to arrive at some construction of meaning from the material. There seems to be an indexical relationship between the DVD recording and the original film, since the film is necessary for the existence of the digital representation thereof, even if our standard notion of the physicality of indexical relationships is here somewhat altered. Instead of there being a physical process of light from the world being imprinted on a piece of film, the film is scanned and converted into digital information. There is, though, a necessary physical relationship between the film and its digitization since the latter could not exist without the former.

With home video, then, the actual filmstrip to which we refer when we speak of film becomes the middle ground between what it represents and its ultimate home video representation. The truth we seek when watching a video is as much based on the original film material as on what that material originally sought to present. When watching film on video the film itself becomes the mediating element not only between us and the profilmic, but between us and the very film. Thus the film itself can become the reality we seek to arrive at through the video reconstruction of it, just as the non-film world is the reality we seek to get at through the original film. A rich set of tensions is thus created when we watch film on video when one is aware of the distortions of the video medium and those of the film medium which we ultimately relate to our perceptions of the rest of the world. One can see the motion artifacts of the DVD combined with some distortions of the original film (such as scratches) which both are set against our understanding of the world that the film seeks to represent.

Having thus looked a little more closely at some specific processes of the film medium in relation to the understanding of truth in documentary I am exploring here, I would like to reiterate the central issue that has been running throughout my discussion up to this point: that of the reconfiguration of our understanding of truth on film. Truth, as has been suggested here, might best be found through the concept of bridging the gaps between that with which we are presented in order to construct meaning from it. Be they the gaps between the digitization of film material and the original film, the digital manipulation of images and indexical images, contradictions in documentary modes of representation, or the tensions between documentary and fictional space as exemplified by the use of animals on screen, our minds search for truth by reconciling these tensions through a process of meaning construction. At the heart of such reconciliation is the concept of the middle ground, that stable centrifuge around which all perception is built, the space that lies between the disjointed elements of filmic representation that we must piece together to find truth.

The concept of the middle ground is also at the heart of Umberto Eco’s theories of interpretation as put forth in his essay “Between Author and Text.” Eco argues that “between the unattainable intention of the author and the arguable intention of the reader there is the transparent intention of the text” 37 . His point is that beyond the tensions created by the mind of a text’s empirical author and the variable reader interpretations there lies the truth of the text itself, that which exists between the gaps of intention and interpretation. With the text as a focus of analysis one can have a stable ground with which to negotiate the various constructions of meaning that have gone into both its creation and reception.

I believe that film as a text operates in much the same fashion as any other experience that humans try to come to terms with. That is to say that a kind of anthropomorphism takes place when we try to bring a filmic text into the realm of our own experience. We act on the film in the same way that we act on our general perceptions. The whole world is a mass of contradictions, truths contingent upon our mental processes, which must be negotiated into a coherent object with which we can work. The world is, however, something which does not depend on our perception for its existence. Certain epistemological questions notwithstanding, I believe that the world is a text in so far as it is read by the humans that occupy it. The truth we make of it depends on our reading of it, which makes truth a function of text. In the same fashion, film is a text whose truth exists in our perception of it. However, the text of the film is the site at which we begin the process of meaning construction. Thus, the documentary truth I have been describing here as being the reality of human experience is dependent upon the tensions within the text that is perceived.

It has been my intention here to try to come to grips with an understanding of truth in documentary film that is compatible with our experience as human beings in a world full of contradictions. At the heart of the issues presented here has been the concept of navigating through contradiction by adhering to the middle ground, that path which flows between the tensions that force our minds to reconcile them. I have suggested that while truth might best be understood as a mental process, I have also argued that without the texts that must be read there would be nothing for the mind to process. To that extent it would seem that the text should not be abandoned as the site of the truth that the documentary film seeks to expose. Rather it is our understanding of documentary truth as being dependent upon notions of the photograph’s indexicality that needs to be altered. Having provided some examples of how the concept of indexicality might be updated in the age of digital image manipulation, it has been shown that the idea of the correspondences that exist between representation, reality, and our perception of both might serve best as the bearer of documentary truth. As a text, a film can play the intermediary role that anchors the search for correspondences within it. Thus I suggest that truth can lie within a given text based on the tensions put forth by that text. The various tensions created by filmic texts in relation to considerations of technology, aesthetics, and the dichotomies between fiction/documentary and reality/representation have formed the framework of this discussion. Hopefully my navigation through this framework has resulted in an understanding of how an alternate definition of documentary truth is necessary in today’s world. As Umberto Eco might suggest, however, my text here may well have an agenda all its own, well outside of my control…


  1. McIlroy, Brian. “Observing and Walking the Thinnest of Lines: Phenomenology, Documentary Film and Errol Morris.” Recherches Semiotique/Semiotic Inquiry. Vol. 13, Nos. 1-2, 1993: 288.
  2. Vaughan, Dai. For Documentary. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999: 184.
  3. Ibid:182
  4. Nichols, Bill. “Representing the Body.” Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991: 231.
  5. Vaughan 1999:198.
  6. Williams, Linda. “Mirrors Without Memories: Truth, History and the New Documentary.” Film Quarterly. Vol. 46, No. 3, Spring 1993: 12.
  7. Ibid:10.
  8. Nichols, Bill. “Getting to Know You…Knowledge, Power, and the Body.” Theorizing Documentary. M. Renov, ed. New York: Routledge, 1993: 174.
  9. Williams 1993:14.
  10. Ibid:20.
  11. Vaughan 1999:202.
  12. McIlroy 1993:296.
  13. Vaughan 1999:192.
  14. Nichols 1991:232.
  15. Ibid:231,234.
  16. Ibid:235.
  17. Cantor, Jay. “Death and the Image.” TVI Quarterly. No. 79, Fall 1990: 174.
  18. Ibid:177.
  19. McIlroy 1993:291.
  20. Ibid:291.
  21. Ibid:290.
  22. Williams 1993:18.
  23. Ibid:10.
  24. Sobchack, Vivian. “Inscribing Ethical Space: Ten Propositions on Death, Representation and Documentary.” Quarterly Review of Film Studies. Vol. 9, No. 4, Fall 1984:293.
  25. Prince, Stephen. “True Lies”. Film Quarterly: Forty Years – A Selection. Brian Henderson + Ann Martin, eds. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999:394.
  26. Ibid:406.
  27. Ibid:399.
  28. Ibid:400.
  29. Nichols 1993:190
  30. Vaughan 1999:186.
  31. Ibid:190.
  32. Ibid:190.
  33. Ohanian, Thomas A. + Phillips, Michael E. Digital Filmmaking: The Changing Art and Craft of Making Motion Pictures. Boston: Focal Press, 1996:130.
  34. Ford, Kenneth M. + Hayes, Patrick J. “On Computational Wings”. Scientific American Presents. Vol. 9, No. 4 (Winter 1998):79.
  35. Vaughan 1999:186
  36. Johnson, Lawrence B. “Yves Faroudja: Only the Best is Success.” Stereophile Guide to Home Theater. Vol. 6, No. 2, February 2000:54.
  37. Eco, Umberto. “Between Author and Text”. Interpretation and Overinterpretation. Stefan Collini, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992:78.

The Gap: Documentary Truth between Reality and Perception

Randolph Jordan is a Montreal-based film scholar, educator, and multimedia practitioner. His research lives at the intersection of acoustic ecology, film studies, and critical geography. He teaches in the Humanities department at Champlain College, and has previously taught film, media literacy, and environmental philosophy at Concordia University, Ryerson University, Dawson College and LaSalle College. He is co-editor of the Sound, Media, Ecology collection (Palgrave 2019), and his monograph Acoustic Profiles: A Sound Ecology of the Cinema has just been published by Oxford University Press (2023). He has been covering Montreal film, music and new media festivals for Offscreen since 2001.

Volume 7, Issue 1 / January 2003 Essays   documentary   film theory   genre_documentary