Defining Documentaries and CitizenFour


As this will be my last post on documentary films, I wanted to discuss the meaning of the word “documentary.” When the term “documentary” comes to mind, most of us describe it as something truthful. As Henrik Juel discusses in his article “Defining Documentary Film,” the genre is usually explained as “a type of film that is based on the real world and real people, depicting things they are or telling about historical events in a supposedly truthful or objective manner.”

However, this definition can be disputed on all points. As Juel explains, a security camera records reality, yet we wouldn’t consider that to be a documentary. A surveillance camera would show real people in their real lives, yet without cutting or editing the video it lacks the substance to be considered a film.

Trying to decipher my own example, the film The Imitation Game came to mind. This film depicts the life of the mathematician, Alan Turing, known for his contribution to winning World War II and developing the computer. The Imitation Game was classified as a drama, yet it still told the story of historical events in a truthful manner. While yes, actors were cast to portray the real people, other films use reenactments all the time, and are categorized under the documentaries genre.

And reality tv has real people, yet most of what we see are previously structured plot lines and not portraying reality.

So what is the perfectly defined definition of a “documentary”? I DON’T KNOW. And it’s really starting to frustrate me.

But anyway… keeping the guidelines of what I do know about documentaries in mind, I watched my last film, Citizenfour.

Citizenfour chronicled the events of Edward Snowden’s exposure of the National Security Agency’s massive covert-surveillance programs. The film was created by Laura Poitras, a filmmaker of whom Snowden first reached out to with the classified information he wished to bring to light about the NSA. The film was like watching history unfold by the minute as Poitras and Journalist Glenn Greenwald strategically released the information to the public via the media.

Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden

Citizenfour was created using real footage of conversations between Snowden and Greenwald in a hotel room, along with video clips from broadcast news stations. The film simply relays facts, nothing more. Therefore, you cannot dispute that anything occurring in the film is false. Yet, the way that the film is constructed, there is a clear bias against the NSA and American Government. But does that hinder the film’s ability to be considered truthful? So now I asked myself, can “truth” and bias live in the same place?

Edward Snowden featured on broadcast station

I think a documentary has to be more than telling the truth. To me, a documentary not only exposes true life, but it has to convey something else as well. It shows the audience a “back-stage view” of a current situation with the purpose of making a point, teaching the world, or provoking a conversation.

Contemplating a similar debate about truth in a documentary, Juel references the founder of British documentary movement, John Grierson. Grierson coined the phrase “creative treatment of actuality” when trying to interpret what a documentary really is. I don’t know if we will ever nail down an exact definition of the genre, but I have to say, I kinda like that one! Nice work John, I salute you.

John Grierson


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