In the spectrum of cinematic entertainment, documentaries have taken a backseat to the dramatic, comedic, and terrifying darlings of the screen. Like the homely cousin sitting alone at the family reunion, they have been given little consideration by the public and have been widely dismissed as a mechanism of popular culture. In recent years, however, the documentary has gone beyond its reputation of lackluster educational tool, emerging as an entertaining, informative, yet, often times, deceptive piece of media. Its role, both outside and as part of popular culture, and the trust we place (or potentially misplace) in it make it especially relevant to our study of contemporary popular culture.
Documentaries can function as a positive tool to enrich the lives of the public. They can bring to light certain lifestyles and ideologies that may be unknown to a large percentage of the population, such as the depiction of the evangelical Christian youth community in the film Jesus Camp. They can also highlight and retell a specific moment in history in such a way that makes it seem new and enthralling to the viewer; for example, the film Man On Wire relives the story of Philippe Petit’s breathtaking high wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. Documentaries can even, often more so than news media depictions, allow the audience a firsthand, objective look at current events and their participants. The war documentary, Restrepo, shows an unflinching view of not only US soldiers battling at a military outpost in Afghanistan, but their day to day lives and later reflections and reactions to these events shown in the film.
Though documentaries can allow us access to these unfamiliar real life territories, they are often mistakenly accepted as reality; like the moving version of a still life, there is much more than the artist’s strict representation of reality. Throughout its existence, documentary film making has often affected or altered its subjects through either outright staging (many instances in the 1922 silent documentary, Nanook of the North, about the Inuit people in northern Canada) or more subtle and contemporary means, such as the cinematography, editing, and marketing for the film. This is not necessarily considered controversial, as documentaries, especially in recent years, have received praise and increased popularity due to the combination of observation and narrative structuring. However, when these films are presented in a context that suggests factual and objective presentations of information, like in a classroom setting, the audience may accept as fact what is really one filmmaker or production company’s viewpoint. This may have significant ramifications because, as Sturken and Cartwright state, “debates about representation have considered whether representations reflect the world as it is….or whether we construct the world and its meaning through representation” (12). These representations may, for better or worse, directly influence how we interpret the world around us.
Not only can documentaries influence the audience, but they may influence the actual subject they’re documenting as well. The mere presence of overt observation of any human behavior is certain to alter that behavior. Additionally, much like the “cool hunting” discussed previously in class, documentaries bring their subjects to the masses and as such, documentaries on counterculture subjects that resist popular culture are all the more likely to hasten incorporation and complete the cycle of hegemony. Street art was beginning to gain acceptance as popular culture, but this process was aided enormously by the release and subsequent critical attention and Academy Award recognition of Exit Through the Gift Shop. This begs the questions: do these instances document emerging popular culture or do they cause popular culture to emerge?
Regardless of their role, documentaries hold a unique place as not only records of popular culture, but as elements of popular culture themselves. They are objective, yet influential; detached from the subject, yet sometimes inherently central to its journey. No longer the ugly duckling, they are the emerging swan and their popular culture relevance can only increase from here on out.
Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. USA: Oxford University Press, 2009.