Is “Fahrenheit 9/11” a Documentary Film, or What is a Documentary Film?
by Eugene Hernandez
Discussions about Michael Moore‘s “Fahrenheit 9/11” have raised questions about what exactly a documentary film is. Does Moore’s use of selected images and incidents concerning President George W. Bush, the war on terror, and the invasion of Iraq constitute something other than what we understand to a documentary film to be? What exactly is a documentary film and how has that definition changed over the years? Can a doc have a point of view and still be a doc?
During a panel discussion about telling political stories, at the Nantucket Film Festival just days before the release of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” panelists debated some of these very issues. The debate has intensified in the mainstream media since the release of Moore’s film. indieWIRE asked a number of leading members of the independent film community for their views on the matter. Participants offered their opinions via email and their answers have been grouped below.
Encyclopedia Britannica defines a documentary as a “motion picture that shapes and interprets factual material for purposes of education or entertainment.” It continues, “Documentaries have been made in one form or another in nearly every country and have contributed significantly to the development of realism in films.”
How do you define the term “documentary film”?
“The current obsession to define the word ‘documentary’ reminds me of the near-Talmudic discussions in recent years on the term ‘independent film,’ and of course the legendary Supreme Court discussion on ‘pornography,’ — and in all three cases, it truly does come down to ‘we know it when we see It,'” explained Liz Manne, partner in the NYC-based production and consulting company Duopoly. “Clearly the definition evolves as our culture evolves, and morphs over the course of time — whether you call it ‘documentary,’ ‘non-fiction,’ ‘reality,’ or simply ‘unscripted,’ all these terms are partly accurate and partly inaccurate.”
Morgan Spurlock, who directed the current hit “Super Size Me,” cited Webster’s dictionary, defining a doc as, “A work, such as a film or television program, presenting political, social, or historical subject matter in a factual and informative manner and often consisting of actual news films or interviews accompanied by narration.”
Filmmaker Shola Lynch (“Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed”) offered a dictionary definition as well, and said, “The only problem is that documentaries are films. Good ones are based on facts that are interpreted to tell stories. So then, how are documentaries supposed to be objective?,” Lynch asked, “I think a good documentary is thought provoking. The question to ask is: Does it tell a good story and does it give the audience the information necessary for a full understanding of the subject?”
Matt Dentler, from the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, noted, “A documentary was once best described as ‘academia on film’ but now is best defined as ‘journalism on film.’ It may be world news, it may be arts & leisure. It may be serious and disturbing, it may be hilarious and irreverent. It may be Walter Cronkite, it may be Hunter S. Thompson. Whatever the case, it’s journalism.” Dentler continued, “After the verite movement, the academic aspects of documentary took a backseat to the journalistic elements thriving today.”
Patricia Finneran, director of the SilverDocs documentary film festival, noted, “A documentary film is a form of cinematic expression that is a ‘creative treatment of actuality’ (John Grierson, 1926, describing Robert Flaherty‘s ‘Moana’); it is drama derived from the depiction of real life.”
Ira Deutchman of Emerging Pictures said, “I subscribe to the theory that docs are merely a style of filmmaking that uses a combination of found footage and people playing themselves to imply something approaching reality. In other words, the central characters are not actors playing other people. The reason I say it is a style of filmmaking is that all docs are created in the editing room and are defined as much by what they leave on the cutting room floor as by what actually remains on screen. There really is no connection to reality. All docs have a point of view — they can’t help it. Even in so-called cinema verite docs, the subjects are affected by awareness of the camera.”
Josh Braun of Submarine, who has repped a number of docs for sale, explained, “While we assume the term documentary film presently conjurs up thoughts of box office success stories such as ‘Super Size Me’ and ‘Spellbound,’ these films are really non-fiction narratives that start from a reference point of documentary film but have structural roots in fictional narrative and reality television. Therefore the term as it applies (or doesn’t) to the new crop of non-fiction narrative films is outmoded and requires an overhaul.”
Is “Fahrenheit 9/11” a Documentary?
“Of course it’s a documentary, it’s a non-fiction film, it’s a documentary,” emphasized Michael Moore, during a conference call with a group of journalists earlier this week. “Documentaries by their very nature are supposed to have a point of view. The word has also been used over the years — from ‘NBC White Paper’ to any of a number of forms of documentary. My form of doc is an op-ed piece. It presents my opinion that’s based on fact. I am trying to present a view of the last three-and-a-half years that I don’t feel has been presented to the American public.”
“Yes, ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ is a doc,” noted Ira Deutchman, an indie veteran who was a founder of Fine Line Features, “Michael Moore is just pushing the envelope further away from the pretense of reality that people usually associate with documentaries.”
Morgan Spurlock agreed, saying, “Many people have seemed to jump on the bandwagon that once a documentary becomes subjective or presents an obvious point of view from the director then it is no longer a documentary. I do not agree, for I believe that the very act of filmmaking, whether fictional or non-fictional, is filled with subjective decisions made on the part of the director for the betterment of his/her piece. Just because you are presenting facts and crafting an honest storyline does not completely remove the involvement of one’s viewpoint from a project… we knowingly make decisions in the edit room that can effect the audience’s reaction.”
“Chisholm” director Lynch said, “It is a documentary that is a well structured and thought provoking story. Rather than being contextual in approach, it is dialoguing with Americans that have a context for understanding 9/11, the Iraq War, and the Bush administration. I think Michael Moore’s motivation is that he believes Americans are not being given the whole story. The documentary is meant to fill in the gaps. In other words, the audience is bringing a lot to the table in terms of the broader context for a fuller understanding.”
SXSW’s Dentler had this to say: “It’s also borderline propaganda, just like a newspaper’s endorsement for a politician during an election. No matter how important I feel the message is, and no matter how much I agree with it, it’s hard to look at the film as objective.” Dentler added that he liked the film and agreed that it is a documentary. “Historical documentaries or ‘talking head’ pieces should tell both sides of the story, both sides of the history. And, in a sense, ‘Fahrenheit’ tries to portray itself as a historical doc, but it’s really closer to propaganda. I think a very key point of this is how the film credits Michael Moore as the writer, a credit (that) documentaries rarely feature.”
Braun said, “‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ is a documentary like ‘Super Size Me’ and ‘Jackass’ are documentaries. They are non-fiction narrative films that skillfully manipulate reality for the sake of truth, entertainment, and a satisfying narrative structure, not always in that order.”
How has the definition of documentary changed in recent years, if at all?
“I don’t think this definition has changed over the years at all,” said Deutchman.
Liz Manne chimed in: “They have moved positively in the direction of full disclosure, i.e., the point of view is increasingly visible or personalized, making the films richer and more emotionally textured.”
Ray Price of the leading indie arthouse chain Landmark offered his thoughts: “There is law that documentaries have to be objective, although the British school of documentarians holds that belief. Robert Flaherty favored a far more subjective approach to filmmaking. Also objectivity is an illusion and a problem for understanding the truth. When television news presents an official point of view in an objective tone it can be argued that it creates a great misrepresentation through omission. On the other hand, news presented with a predetermined slant comes with the knowledge that other perspectives might disagree. If fact can never be empirical then bias lies closer to at least one truth among the many.”
Braun said, “Obviously with the advent of low-cost camera equipment and the onslaught of reality TV, the parameters for documentary filmmaking have metamorphosed and changed to the extent that we’ll require new sub categories on an ongoing basis to define the hybrids that will emerge. However, eventually we’ll get tired of defining the sub-categories because most of what is produced will be unwatchable.”
Spurlock offered, “I think that people love to put labels on things. It makes them feel safe and it makes things easier to understand. I believe this is what is now happening in documentary films with the tagging of gonzo, first person or experiential docs… many believe these docs to be of less than favorable charm, ones that will rarely find their way into the old world home of a ‘purist.'”
Can or should documentaries have a point of view and if so, are they still called documentaries?
“Every documentary has a point of view,” explained Micah Green of Cinetic Media, a company that has sold many recent docs for U.S. distribution, (including “Super Size Me,” “Control Room,” and “Capturing the Friedmans”). “Everyone from the DP to the editor to the sound mixer makes decisions about what to reveal and what to omit in order to tell a coherent story.”
Liz Manne explained, “Documentaries are an increasingly fluid form, blending fact, observation, archival material, re-creations, new technologies, and POV. Don’t let anyone tell you that traditional, ‘voice of God’ docs don’t have POV, or that they somehow have a monopoly on ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ (both highly subjective concepts!), or that they aren’t propaganda in their own right.”
Landmark’s Price added, “All forms of exposition have a point of view. All points of view are limited. Aristotle said that truth is the daughter of time (context) I tell my children to call everything stories (History, Herstory, Theirstory).”
Braun said, “I think documentaries have always had a point of view but the old-school approach was for that point of view to be as subtle as possible as not to intrude upon the unfolding story. We’ve gone to the other end of the spectrum where certain films are nothing but point of view and the filmmakers are the focus of the film. It’s exciting and there’s obviously room for both.”
And in Conclusion…
“The real question is: does the documentary filmmaker have a responsibility to tell the truth? Perhaps yes. But whose truth? Documentary as propaganda is far from new: think of Leni Riefenstahl‘s 1934 ‘Triumph of the Will,’ said Patricia Finneran from SilverDocs. “At this moment, the politics of documentary filmmakers are being called into question because the preponderance of social issue documentaries meeting with box-office success are from a liberal perspective. This is not a requirement of the form, rather a reflection of what a certain group of individuals choose as their form of creative self-expression. Rush Limbaugh chooses talk radio. Michael Moore chooses documentary. Notably, Moore has subjected his latest film to independent fact-checkers who have confirmed that his interpretation of reality has journalistic integrity.”
SXSW’s Dentler added, “Michael Moore makes no mistake to say before, during, and after the film’s creation that he is making this film to help unseat George W. Bush. For every fact about Bush and the war that he places in the film, there is another perspective that deserves to at least be heard. Documentaries are a form of a journalism, and Moore tends to be more of an Op-Ed columnist than a news reporter. This is fine, but even many Op-Ed writers at least give the other side’s opinions for the sake of a complete picture. This is how you win over your opponents on an argument, instead of further alienating [people with opposing viewpoints].”
Continuing with her comments, Finneran said, “The role of the artist is often to challenge the status quo and force us to question our understanding of reality. The best result that can come out of the controversy surrounding ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ is for all of us to question the intentions and manipulations of not just documentary filmmakers, but all media makers. (Contributing to the defeat of George W. Bush is an equally favorable result for this particular viewer.) Does FOX News tell the truth? What about Al Jazeera? CNN? The big three networks? Acknowledging that Moore has skillfully and artfully manipulated news imagery to create an impression, shouldn’t we question the media manipulation that is far more subtle but nevertheless powerful?”
With some final thoughts on the topic, Bingham Ray, who acquired and distributed “Bowling for Columbine” while head of United Artists, offered, “There’s more ‘fiction’ in the policies of the Bush administration, especially concerning the Iraq war, than in any ‘fiction’ film ever produced.” Continuing, Ray said, “Mike’s film is certainly a ‘non-fiction’ film. A phrase I prefer to documentary. But, if you’re hung-up on the ‘d word,’ it’s that too. Cinematic op-ed piece, think-piece, whatever. In the history of every non-fiction film, going back to ‘Nanook of the North,’ each and everyone has had, and will always have a specific and personal (to the filmmaker) editorial bent, or leaning. There is no such thing as an ‘objective’ non-fiction film. Even in the loosy-goosy style of cinema verite, there are choices made by the filmmaker on what to include or exclude, subjective choices.”