‘Nanook of the North seems poised between documentary and fiction…it marks a moment before the distinction between

fiction and documentary is set.’ (William Rothman)

This is an interesting, though rather problematic statement. The issue of how we attribute ‘fiction’ and ‘documentary’, and whether there ‘truly’ exists a polemic between the two. And this is even before we attempt to explore the boundaries of our understanding of the ‘reality’ that they both spring from. It is necessary here to give a reference point where ‘fiction’ can at first be situated. According to The Chambers Dictionary, ‘fiction’ can be understood as ‘an invented story; a falsehood; romance; the novel or story-telling as a branch of literature; a supposition, for the sake of argument, that however unlikely, is a fact (law).’ This last connotation is interesting as it seems to suggest that fiction can, in fact, be interpreted as fact. At least by the letter of the law. Here we come across our first problem: “…fictional and non-fictional forms are enmeshed in one another – particularly regarding semiotics, narrativity, and questions of performance.” (Renov 1993: 2) ‘Documentary’ (or non-fiction film) is defined as ‘relating to or found in documents; (of films, TV programmes, etc.) aiming at presenting reality, presenting facts not fiction. – n a film or radio or TV programme about real people or events, without fictional colouring or professional actors’ (The Chambers Dictionary 1998). Another problem arises almost instantaneously as we probe the distinction of ‘documentary:’ all of the above (affirmations and negations) can be found in both ‘fiction’ and ‘documentary’ films. “…in the wake of countless TV ads which trade on their documentary “look” (shaky camera, grainy black-and-white) – the technically flawed depiction of a purported reality no longer suffices as visual guarantee of authenticity. It is simply understood as yet another artifice. I would thus argue that while the instinct for cultural self-preservation remains constant, the markers of documentary authenticity are historically variable.” (Renov 1993: 23) And interchangeable with ‘fiction’ film. We are no closer to the supposed distinction William Rothman stated. It seems that as we attempt to find a distinction, we are only met with ambiguity in the blurring of the two terms.

needs to be in order to accept. So to ‘narrativize the real’ would neither qualify itself as ‘fiction. Though it is the use of more poetic and sophisticated techniques of narration that may have bore the first definitive signs of the categorisation of ‘documentary. Perhaps this is the point of distinction that William Rothman was talking about. The very nature of what makes ‘documentary’ accessible and digestible is its use of narration. proximity. thus. what use are they other than another form of entertainment? Then the question of what we choose to consume as an audience arises. so an absolute documentation of reality is an illusion within itself.” (Renov 1993: 7) This ‘detour from the real’ isn’t only isolated to the technicality of film production.” (Renov 1993: 6) But here the distinction is again warped when examples in ‘fiction’ film such as The Blair Witch Project or Miami Vice arise. lens. In which case. rather pertinently. it still can be said that there exists a relating of events. But narration in film can even be interpreted even in the Lumiére brothers depiction of life. The itinerary of a truth’s passage (with “truth” understood as propositional and provisional) for the documentary is. interesting. whose ‘confidence’ in it allows truth to take shape. through the defiles of the audio-visual signifier (via choices of language. to what degree do we really grasp what is ‘real?’ If ‘documentary’ only deals in interpretations. qualitatively akin to that of fiction. But neither can be categorised as ‘documentary. regardless of how pedestrian or lacking in narrative technique employed. how much of it is ‘truth?’ Can it be considered ‘truth’ if we have been persuaded into believing it is ‘truth?’ . Do we really want the ‘truth?’ Only if it is processed for consumption.’ The very act of ‘interpreting’ an object of interest immediately subjectifies it. it has to be ‘dramatized’ if it is to convince the audience of the evidence.’ Or would it? “Truth has to be made vivid. to narrativize the real. explicit use of narration.” (Minh-ha 1991: 76) Here. albeit persuasive ones. the question arises.’ “Documentary filmmakers since the days of Flaherty’s Nanook have frequently chosen to build stories around the heroics of larger-than-life figures plucked from their ‘real’ environs – in short. and sound environment). It can be said that both use elements of a ‘documentary’ aesthetic and more obviously. does ‘truth’ truly matter in the context of ‘documentary?’ If ‘truth’ can be shaped and in many cases.“Every documentary representation depends upon its own detour from the real.

for what is one to do with films which set out to determine truth from falsity while the visibility of this truth lies precisely in the fact that it is false?” (Minh-ha 1991: 72) Does this mean that all we truly have for an ‘honest’ document of ‘reality’ is the integrity and ability of the filmmakers to define what ‘truth’ is? Is it of any value to us even though it is ‘truth’ for them? “What differs is the extent to which the referent of the documentary sign may be considered as a piece of the world plucked from its everyday context rather than fabricated for the screen…the very act of plucking and recontextualizing profilmic elements is a kind of violence. a break without which meaning would be fixed and truth congealed. what use is ‘truth?’ We might as well take ‘fiction..’ “It is idealistic mystification to believe that ‘truth’ can be captured by the camera or that the conditions of a film’s production…can of itself reflect the conditions of its production.” (Johnston 1976: 214) If one accepts that in order for ‘facts’ to have any relevance then it must first be constructed in such a form that it must either coerce our rationale into a number of predetermined avenues or explicitly persuade us into believing whatever it is trying to convey. 8) Or curiously.“…what is put forth as truth is often nothing more than a meaning.” (Renov 1993: 7. “The documentary can thus easily become a ‘style’: it no longer constitutes a mode of production or an attitude towards life. either overtly or covertly. There the question of the adequacy of a representational system as a stand-in for lived experience arises most forcefully….. what distinguishable reference point do we orientate ourselves from? If so. This is mere utopianism: new meaning has to be manufactured within the text of the film…What the Camera in fact grasps is the ‘natural’ world of the dominant ideology. it . but proves to be only an element of aesthetics (or anti-aesthetics) – which at best and without acknowledging it. producers or ‘others’ to define our ‘truth’ for us? If not. do we allow filmmakers. And what persists between the meaning of something and its truth is the interval. then what does the model of ‘documentary’ represent? A creative interpretation of reality? In which case. again the question of how this in essence is different from ‘fiction’ continues to resound.These reservations grow out of an awareness of the exploitation of the ‘real’ as currency in an all-devouring image culture. particularly when the cultural specificity is at issue as it is with ethnographic texts.

’ It would seem that there has never been a clear distinction between ‘nonfiction’ (‘documentary’) and ‘fiction. at the very least. perhaps we probably wouldn’t even notice our arms were open in the first place. to persuade us into believing. the result of what might be called the referential illusion. I honestly admit that this document is merely an exercise of rhetoric. It has simply become a category and a strategy of use for an infinite number of intentions. or have we already succumbed to this filmic hypnosis? Do we even care anymore that we might have become susceptible. meanings and well researched ‘truths’.” (Minh-ha 1991: 79) What are we being persuaded into? Are we even aware that we are being persuaded. So long as intent exists within ‘documentary’ it is open to manipulation. . it reduces itself to a mere category. scattering specifically chosen excerpts from a variety of thinkers.tends to be in any case when.’ not at least with regards to film. “At the level of discourse. or a set of persuasive techniques. The question of ‘truth. ‘Documentary’ is simply a phrase. in which case nullifies and reduces the integrity of whatever is being documented. objectivity. in the days of realism. at the very least. It may be said that many do not necessarily agree with what I am proposing. Are we not individuals with the ability to define our environment. Individually they have their own beliefs. earnestly. within its own factual limits. which is impotent of the very truth that it tries. And that is the point. or the absence of any clues to the narrator. considered themselves “objective” because they had suppressed all traces of the I in their text. taken from the specific angle of my choice. But I have constructed them to form a new meaning. or do we accept this process with open arms? If it is done well enough. manipulated to discuss my point. a subjective one. an intent. it asserts at every moment: this happened. a multitude of failures may be attributed to this essay. to create my narrative. but it is clear to say that there is. This is not to say that they all mean what I intend them to mean. This illusion is not confined to historical discourse: novelists galore. The similarities between ‘documentary’ and ‘fiction’ are far closer than those of ‘documentary’ and ‘ reality. in which case. but the meaning conveyed is only that someone is making that assertion. where the historian tries to give the impression that the referent is speaking for itself. turns out to be a particular form of fiction. 154) At this point.’ ‘reality’ and whatever is in between. Nowadays linguistics and psychoanalysis unite to make us much more lucid towards such ascetic modes of utterance: we know that the absence of a sign can be significant too…Historical discourse does not follow reality. Though it does lead one to wonder how much of this distinction is due to subjective relativity. the ambiguity does not cease to continue on a more theoretical and metaphysical exploration. here.” (Barthes 1970: 149. it only signifies it.

distorted. not within an observable absolute framework. At least. a kind of decal or transfer. if we can be entertained along the way. Claire. What we ‘choose’ to believe is our own responsibility by which we live and die. Gender. 1998 . The photographic image is the object itself. for better or for worse.” (Bazin 1967: 14) References Bazin.). 1976 Minh-ha. Michael (Ed. or discoloured. and the Cultural Politics. Ed. Because truth does not contain a definitive totality as scientifically quantifiable. 1967 Barthes. that is. 1991 Renov. it shares. New York: Routledge Inc. the being of the model of which it is the reproduction.. Inc.with our own senses and the logical faculties of analysis and reason? In which case. “Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema” Movies and Methods Vol. 1970 Johnston. truth ought to be within the eye of the beholder. by virtue of the very process of its becoming. Nichols.’ The terrain of belief has been fought upon since the beginning of human civilization. their prerogative. Berkeley: University of California Press. Edinburgh: Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd... trans. the object freed from the conditions of time and space that governs it. no matter how manipulated. Theorizing Documentary.. it is the model. Trinh T. What is Cinema?. Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1. If one believes something. “Only a photographic lens can give us the kind of image of the object that is capable of satisfying the deep need man has to substitute for it something more than a mere approximation. Hugh Gray. B. Roland. no matter how seemingly ridiculous. Michael Lane. all the more desirable. “Historical Discourse” Introduction to Structuralism. that is their ‘truth. Andre. shaped and moulded into the infinite multitude that chaos allows. coerced or strongly influenced they are from others. No matter how fuzzy.. does not mean that truth does not exist. 1993 The Chambers Dictionary. New York: Routledge Inc. New York: Basic books. no matter how lacking in documentary value the image may be. When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation. Ed. But.