Are Documentaries Cheating?

May 16, 2012 — 10 Comments

Watching Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film I was left to think about the power and importance of film as a medium as well as art as a means of expression. The “film” is a documentary following a day in the life of Jafar Panahi while under house arrest for propaganda against the state of Iran. While the film certainly has political undertones it mostly explores the stress Panahi faces in not being able to make films and express himself through his art. But those political undertones are extremely important. They set the tone. The idea that even the making of this “film” could be an extreme risk for Panahi pervades every scene. In the background we can hear a steady stream of helicopters, gunfire and explosions, and most ominously those sounds intermingle with fireworks going off. There’s a persistent feeling that the good can lead to the bad and vice versa. It’s unsettling, but also intriguing.

In considering This Is Not a Film, which I had hoped to see for quite some time, I realized that the title is only half-joking. Sure, technically it’s a film. Even beyond the technical it’s a film; it features a structure, an interior context and a narrative of sorts. But really, it’s more of a document than anything else, which makes sense since it’s a documentary. It resembles something like memoir mixed with an article. I can certainly call This Is Not a Film great, and everyone with even a passing interest in the world around them should watch it. That being said, I have difficulty calling This Is Not a Film a “great film.” An odd distinction, I know, but I can’t help making it, and I think it stems from the inherent contradictions of the documentary format.

When I think about the greatest films of all time I almost never think about documentaries. If I’m constructing a Top 20 of any given year I often force myself to include a documentary or two. If I didn’t force myself to consider them I’d very likely forget. This is true even of the most narratively compelling documentaries. Last year I raved about Senna and put it in my Top 20, and that still seems correct to me, but I can’t help the feeling that it got on the list by cheating.

Cheating is a strong accusation, but hear me out. Senna is constructed to present a narrative like other biopics. It’s edited to induce tension and drama. It might use documentary footage and it might be presented in a documentary format, but as with all documentaries it still presents a defined point of view much as any fictional or based-on-a-true-story film would. So it has all the hallmarks of a film, and it’s also great. But in the jump to greatness I cannot deny the context of the film itself. It is presented as document. It may be insightful and compelling, but a lot of the goodwill it gets comes from my own approach to it as representative not just of truth, but of fact.

David Fincher’s The Social Network is a great film and one based on a true story. For some people, that might be a similar context to a documentary. But by being a fictionalized presentation the film sets out that it isn’t so interested in facts as it is in a narrative and a thematic truth. The Social Network is quite liberal with the facts, but that hardly matters. The story can be taken on its own terms quite easily, with the Mark Zuckerberg of the film taken as a character separate from the real Mark Zuckerberg.

This isn’t true of documentaries. In discussing them, critics often refer to the people in documentaries as characters. This is a way of defining the approach to a documentary as ignoring the factual context and thinking purely in terms of craft. A worthy ideal, but I don’t think it fits with how documentaries sell themselves. Those “characters” are actual, live people being presented with a sheen of factuality meant to lend an aura of literal truth that in turn lends the thematic truths more weight.

Now, there’s nothing at all wrong with this. Even in This Is Not a Film Panahi deals with this head on. He begins by staging the set-ups himself, but then decides that there’s something too literally false about this, and that he needs an outside subject to film him instead in order to create a more natural environment. The scenarios in the film need to be more naturally occurring so that they will be more literally true and thus more honest.

Still, I can’t help feeling there’s a cheat here. If I’m watching a documentary that “literal truth” becomes something of a shortcut. Why develop a character and create a story when I can just film a person who will be automatically developed because they are real? Why attempt to discover thematic truth through fictionalization when I can just document an actual event that happens to touch on those themes? And doesn’t this sort of trick the audience into assuming more weight than might actually be there in the craft?

I often think back to my reactions to The King of Kong, the documentary about Steve Wiebe’s attempts to unseat Billy Mitchell as the Donkey Kong record-holder. When I first saw it, I loved it. The film had great “characters”, tons of drama, a view on a world I had never glimpsed before, and it was entertaining and somewhat profound. And then I looked into the real events shown in the documentary. What I learned was that director Seth Gordon had so misrepresented the factual events that he might as well have called it a fictional film. Sometimes it’s good to condense facts, or change around chronology in a documentary in the effort to provide a wider, more digestible view of events. In the case of The King of Kong, Gordon altered the facts in such a way as to completely change not only the dramatic nature of the events, but also the themes and messages to be gleaned from it. Most disappointingly, I’m sure an equally entertaining and more factually insightful documentary could have been made from the same footage without all that misrepresentation.

In retrospect, The King of Kong is a well crafted documentary in cinematic terms, but it kind of fails as a document. I would have totally respected Gordon had he just been inspired by the true story of Steve Wiebe and written a fictionalized screenplay that upped the drama by changing facts. Instead, he changed the facts and relied on the audience believing those facts as shorthand for truth and import.

Though that is an egregious example, I think it highlights the problem. If This Is Not a Film turned out to have fabricated facts, would anybody still call it an important film? If Panahi was in fact allowed to leave his house any time and make films would people call it a good film? I’m not so sure. In this case the film is factual, but the question can still be asked. Without the outside context, the understanding between film and audience that what is being presented adheres to at least some level or factual accuracy, would This Is Not a Film be as powerful? Maybe, it’s hard to say for sure, but the subsequently more informed perspectives on films like The King of Kong or the works of Michael Moore indicate that the power of a documentary is undercut by falsities. And so, if we look at it in reverse, aren’t documentaries cheating, even just a little, when held up against other kinds of films?


10 responses to Are Documentaries Cheating?


    Hm. I don’t quite follow you here. Could it be that you’re overthinking this a bit? Or maybe it’s just me being slow. Probably the latter. Anyway: I’m glad that you FINALLY got the chance to watch it and that you liked it.


    On your larger question of documentaries cheating, I don’t think you want to overly generalize…I like Werner Herzog’s approach with his own docs in which he seeks the “ecstatic truth”. In other words, he may recreate scenes, imply things or even all out lie in spots (I’m still not convinced he actually has that audio tape of Timothy Treadwell’s last moments in “Grizzly Man”), but he’s getting at a larger truth which can be fascinating.

    Granted, I’m tired of Michael Moore’s propaganda films. Don’t get me wrong, my politics line up pretty well with his, but while “Bowling For Columbine” asked questions (and its half-truths weren’t overly an issue to my mind), his recent stuff has either been all about ad hominem attacks or pushing anecdotal personal stories to the forefront to get more of an emotional reaction as opposed to looking at the whole issue. It’s tiring and no better than the far right side of the spectrum.

    But what about a film like “Nanook Of The North”? Robert Flaherty’s 1922 documentary (not even sure if they would have called it that at the time) has the central character recreate many of the things he used to do with a family that isn’t actually his – and yet, it’s one of the best documents of how people lived in the far North for many years. Or what about the magnificent “Tchoupitoulas” which screened at the recent Hot Docs (I know, few people would have seen it at this point – I hope that changes). It comes across as a single evening in the lives of three boys wandering the streets of New Orleans after they have missed the last ferry home. In reality, a lot of the footage inside clubs and around the city was filmed in the 8 months before the filmmakers even met the boys. As well, they made several trips into the city with the boys and only one time did they actually miss the ferry. But does that detract from the beautiful dream-like quality of what they show New Orleans at night to be? Or how it brings you back to being a child/teenager exploring and discovering things for the first time? The filmmakers are out to create an experience and impart the feelings of that time and place.

    I suppose you aren’t necessarily targeting those type of films, but that’s why I would caution any over-generalizations. I hadn’t heard anything about the deceptions in “King Of Kong” (do you have a link to any article about it?), so I’m a bit disappointed in that…Haven’t seen “This Is Not A Film” yet either (I meant to see it at TIFF, but the timing was all wrong for each screening), but I’m going to give that one a LOT of leeway. Panahi deserves it.

    Interesting post though – lots of offshoot conversations possible from it…


      Panahi’s film doesn’t quite fall into the trap I’m talking about, primarily because Panahi himself addresses the issue in a very meta way. He tells us up front, within the film, that he’s trying to make something that will be true even though by design it can never be 100% natural. It’s like he’s hedging his bets.

      There’s the other issue, of course, which isn’t raised by the film, and that’s the context of the film’s making and smuggling out of Iran. I do think that these events outside of the film have given the film a greater air of importance that may be in some ways unearned by the film as a film, but this could be said of plenty of films, including fictional ones. Remember District 9? A film nominated for Best Picture, but now somewhat forgotten in discussion. I think when it came out people were so in awe of the accomplishment of it. This really low-budget film with impressive (for its budget) effects and a unique approach to story in the first half. It made a lot of money and it seemed special. In retrospect, the film hasn’t stood the test of time all that well because it was very good but not much more than that. I doubt the context of This Is Not a Film would wear off so quickly, and in fact the legend will likely grow over time. It’s hard to separate a piece of art from the context of its creation, especially as a connoisseur.

      As for Nanook of the North. I wonder, nowadays we watch it with the knowledge of its being largely re-staged for the camera. We view it through that lens and appreciate it on that level. But what if you saw it back when it came out, thought it was all “fact” and then discovered that it was all re-staged? Would you maybe feel lied to? Like maybe the film got a reaction out of you that was unearned in a way?


    Have not seen this documentary yet, but it sounds fascinating. Recently I watched this documentary about documentaries and a lot of directors participated in it. Some think it’s ok to make it interesting, other think you should just be a fly on the wall. As long as it captivates me that’s fine with me. A documentary really could be anything.

    Btw, hope you respond to comments as the previous ones were posted a week ago…


      There are different ways to approach making a documentary, that’s clear. What I wonder is how documentaries trade on the audience perceiving them as factual, and whether it’s even okay to trade on that.


    But, uh, This is Not a Film pretty much sets up the context and the problem that Panahi is facing in his life pretty clearly?

    Anyway, my mother saw the film with very little attachment to the Panahi and left breathless and teary-eyed. The film is a document about Panahi’s life, a document that is urgent because we may never seen a film created by him again (and the film sets this fact up, quite clearly, in the beginning). I don’t understand this problem with lack of context. It stands alone.


      I didn’t really mean for this piece to sound like an attack on This Is Not a Film. I think it’s a great film. I was just sort of wondering how much the knowledge, because it’s a documentary, that it’s “real” plays into our estimation of it as a great or important work.


    I also don’t believe documentaries can truly capture the “reality” of the situation as clear as we hope to, but it shreds a few filters of artistic control (really, there are only a few films out there that can truly be claimed that they weren’t completely figured out in pre-pro and the magic came during filming) and the story becomes more personal, more up close. Honestly, the validity if This is Not a Film being a documentary doesn’t matter; it shouldn’t be considered a documentary, but it also shouldn’t be considered a narrative feature either. It quite clearly says in its title that isn’t a film. It is something we have to think about, okay? I see it almost as a vlog.

    Then again, when you really think about it, couldn’t everything (including narrative film) be considered a documentary? It doesn’t matter.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Everybody’s Talkin’ 5 – 17 (Chatter from Other Bloggers) | The Matinee | Cinematic Passion & Perspective - May 18, 2012

    […] Mr. Atad poses an interesting question: He wonders if documentaries are cheating. I think the answer to the question is “no”, but it’s a very well posed question […]

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