Documentary theorists have often been troubled by the convention of a documentary being a mimic or representation of reality. It is a difficult concept to analyse or make sense of and it denotes a sense of un-trustworthiness and fabrication. Despite this, it is exactly what a documentary is and should be – an interpretation of a point in time that relays a certain perspective of an event that is, hopefully, unbiased and based on facts.
A notable theorist on documentaries, Bill Nichols wrote in one of his studies “when documentary films are at their best, a sense of urgency brushes aside our efforts to contemplate form or analyze rhetoric” which fits the aim of this article perfectly. What about this sense of urgency makes a documentary sweep its audience into a false sense of factual security and stops them from questioning what they are watching (Nichols, 1991).
An extraordinary example of a film that was able to create a powerful story which made the audience think about the topic without questioning the facts laid in front of them was Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing The Friedmans (2003). This film takes a look at the case of Arnold Friedman and his son Jesse where they were accused and charged with multiple accounts of child molestation.
The film examines the case and questions whether the two men were actually guilty of the crimes they were charged with. At first watch, the film creates a compelling case and although it doesn’t present its two subjects as innocent, it clearly sets out to make the audience question whether they could be. In this specific documentary, the power to do this has mainly manifested from clever construction in style and form.
The style and structure of a film not only helps create an interesting and engaging film for the audience but also plays a large part in influencing people to believe the constructed reality on screen. Capturing The Friedmans is made up of a variety of interviews and is ultimately told by family members, police officials, journalists victims and others who were involved in the case at the time. As well as this, a large part of the footage used is home videos and pictures from the Friedman’s family collection. The film starts just with two family members explaining how they had a happy past and childhood, the case isn’t even introduced until five minutes in.
Just from this opening, the angle of the film is clear and as it goes on Jarecki manages to create an almost ‘us vs them’ narrative between the family and anyone who suspected the pair to be guilty. This narrative is created through the careful construction of interviews juxtaposed with wholesome home videos and the family declaring innocence, and ignorance, against what was happening in their family home.
The Friedman family do much of the storytelling through their interviews, which can appear to create a biased view but the film manages to disguise this through balancing it with interviews from authority figures. However, anyone who sides with the family being guilty are highlighted in a negative light and almost ridiculed. Only one victim is interviewed throughout the film and he is portrayed as unprofessional and untrustworthy – his interview has him lying across a sofa speaking informally and his interviewer picks apart his answers.
This is immediately followed by another supposed victim who denied anything happened who was dressed in a suit, well spoken and was much more authoritative on the matter. All the footage has been carefully compiled to make the police case appear weaker than it was in reality and it uses its structure to cleverly convince the audience that maybe they should be questioning the evidence without actually denying the two men were guilty.
Since the film’s release, there have been many articles and even short videos made that question the film’s motive and even highlights important evidence that Jarecki chose the leave out of his own film. It’s obvious from this example that style can be a powerful tool in documentary making and with the right construction it has the ability to create a reality that convinces audiences to change their opinions and to think the way the maker wants them to think. Although Capturing The Friedmans is an interesting and somewhat extreme example it is not the only film to do this; every documentary is guilty to some extent of manufacturing a story simply because it is their nature to only represent reality not be reality.