Documentaries and The Truth

Truth is a relevant topic in any time and place. Exploring truth is how humans can dictate, decipher and adopt certain morals, behaviours, beliefs and attitudes.


In film, documentaries are one of the more popular approaches to portraying truth due to their associated connection with objectivity and honesty. Different sub-genres of documentary exist to depict individual truths, among others, Bill Nichols has identified 4 to be explored – these include poetic, expository, observational and participatory documentaries. Each mode has it’s own special relationship to truth – which is the light that all the modes will be held up against in their breakdown.


Poetic documentaries don’t have a linear story, as most others might, but instead the editing arranged the various shots, clips and sounds in a particular way as to evoke an emotional story with rhythm. Generally a soundtrack will be used to evoke even more emotion if possible. Much of it can be up to interpretation, but generally the theme is conveyed. If not, whatever resonates with the viewer is still making an impact and is considered a success. These documentaries are dramatic and can move hearts in the sense that certain emotions can be evoked from the viewer and that is the truth of the documentary. The truth is seeing a montage and feeling something towards it that you weren’t told to believe, the truth is more innately felt. The working tool here is the emotional story felt, rather than than facts communicated.

Here in this poetic documentary titled Time, the viewer may get the distinct feeling that time is passing and the lasting impression, may be to value your time here before it’s up. This is the interpretation I got from the rhythm, pace of shots and sounds within the film. 

Another example of poetic documentary is my own version I did earlier this year. It is based around the concept of truth. Please watch and interpret for yourself how this amateur film helps you to interpret truth!



Contrary to the poetic expository, is more like an argumentative essay in the way that a point is procured and impressed upon the audience, it exposes a person or topic. The filmmaker has a truth to express and this mode is used to walk (or push) the viewer through it. To help guide the viewer, narration is often employed which addresses the viewer directly creating a very personal experience. Drama is typically created in this mode by identifying obstacles which the viewer needs to watch in order to see if a solution is provided. Expository mode is edited with strong continuity and interviews can also be used to backup factual information introduced to the audience by the filmmaker and participants within the film. Together, truth is conveyed through a story-line that is enjoyable for the audience as they become more invested. 


Above is a trailer for the Netflix series, Making a Murderer. In this series the audience are lead through the storyline, which is the life of the suspect, and paints a picture that he could be innocent. This encourages the audience to question what the truth really is and to question the honesty of law and government.



The observational mode of documentary possibly comes across as the most “truth-seeking”. I put this in quotation marks because anything, even observational footage can be manipulated. Put simply, the camera acts as a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ and allows the subjects  (humans, animals, plants or objects) to continue uninterrupted. Another name for this style is cinema verite. This mode of documentary was created out of reaction to the expository mode which is much more argumentative . It aims to capture life as it is, without any influence whatsoever so the audience can reach their own conclusions of the documentary. Even the editing of this mode is very natural and attempts to be portrayed in real time. The shot types support the real time appearance with longer takes and can exhibit hand-held shots, giving into the realism of the moment being filmed. The sound is purely taken from the scene and environement (diegetic) to also reinforce this objective real time theme. However, because this mode stresses on current events that can be captured in its raw forms, it is hard to give historical context to what we’re being shown. 

See an example below, Armadillo (2010).

This trailer along gives the distinct feeling that us, as the audience, are spying on this slice of life currently happening. We feel what we are seeing is gospel truth and are comfortable trusting the honesty of the footage. 


This mode of documentary can be extremely interactive in a sense that it engages more openly with people and allows them to play a significant part in the documentary. This is generally used to get interviews and stories more directly from a reliable sources such as eye-witnesses, victims or other-related persons. With this style, historical events can be explored through archival footage and witness accounts without breaking the participatory documentary conventions. Also more often than not, the filmmaker themselves becomes involved in the film, an example is Loui Therox. The filmmaker seeks to understand and experience the topic of investigation, and physically lead the audience through some possibly extraordinary circumstances that may have been previously unknown to us as the audience as we identify and empathise with the engaged filmmaker.
In this mode, we can be blindsided to any factors outside the filmmakers truth, yet even then we can learn and explore different realities through the passion of these filmmakers. 

Below is an example of a participatory documentary.
Supersize Me (2004) 


In this trailer we can see the filmmaker pressing his truth onto the viewer that America’s top retail food chain, McDonalds, encourages unhealthy eating behaviours and he is there to take it to the extreme and show us how bad it can get.


 In saying this, I personally do not believe this questions different types of ‘relative’ truths, but moreso different ways of looking at relative realities. Like a pyramid with different dimensions of the one triangle, there is always more than the 2D shape offered to us to swallow.  





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