Documentary, Narrative and the Suspension of Disbelief
“Artists use lies to tell the truth”, as Alan Moore wrote in V for Vendetta. Documentary is a medium that freely offers what many narrative filmmakers tire endlessly to achieve, namely the ability to convince the audience of the film’s “reality”, aka the Suspension of Disbelief. The more Joe Moviegoer is convinced of the reality the filmmaker has crafted, the more likely he is to emotionally invest himself in it. Documentary doesn’t have to worry about this; it implies that from frame 1, what Joe is seeing is real, and exists in the same world he does.
Of course, documentarians (not to mention reality TV producers, journalists, and others) know that “real” is a spectrum; every time one juxtaposes a scene with another scene, or reduces a 2-hour interview down to 2 minutes, there is a bit of deception going on. But Joe is rarely aware of this (and if he is, he’s unlikely to be so aware of it that the message of the documentary doesn’t still get through). With narrative, it is much more difficult, if not impossible, to reach this level. Joe walks into the theater knowing exactly what he’s getting: an experience that will exercise his emotions, but ultimately be of no consequence when the credits roll. Narrative film is often described as escapism, a term that rarely applies to documentary.
But narrative has it’s own paths to realism; certain techniques and production styles that narrative filmmaking allows, such as thin depth of field, particularly dramatic music, and heavy stylization in the photography and color grading. These techniques are often looked down upon in documentary as distortions of reality– I once read a review of a documentary shot in Africa (on RED, if I’m not mistaken) that, while taking a generally positive stance on the film, lamented the beauty of it’s cinematography as a detractor to the realism. But what I believe (and I think many narrative filmmakers would agree with me), is that these are not distortions; rather, they accentuate and bring the film’s reality closer to how we perceive our own. When one remembers a particularly emotional or traumatic event, one doesn’t remember how it “actually” happened, but rather recalls certain elements that the mind chooses to isolate. The freedom that narrative gives us, both in production and post, to “accentuate” in this manner can be used to bring Mr. Moviegoer into that headspace we yearn for. I’m not arguing that these techniques be applied wholesale to documentary– indeed, one of the arguments for direct cinema is the ability to let the subject matter speak for itself. But to see them as unequivocally deceptive or detracting from the realism is short-sighted. Good film works on an un/subconscious level just as much (if not more) than on a conscious one.