Objective Reality

March 13, 2009 § Leave a comment

More than a decade ago, as I was starting work on my first film, I took a cinematography course for directors at UCLA Extension. It wasn’t particularly helpful, mainly because it was misnamed. Instead of providing the technical advice I craved, it turned out to be a film criticism course which–because I was a voracious film watcher and former college movie critic–was just what I didn’t need.

My strongest memory of the course was hearing the instructor say, “There is no more objective reality in documentaries than there is in feature films.” Her point was not that features presented as realistic a portrayal of life as documentaries, but rather that documentaries were as contrived as fiction. I disagreed then and–three films later–I disagree now.

Real documentaries upend the sequence of feature films by having their scripts written after, rather than before, principal photography. Rather than functioning as blueprints for the story, documentary scripts are the summation of the story that has been filmed–a story that has unspooled naturally. When explaining this, I’ve often been asked, “But what about Michael Moore?” To which I answer, “Michael Moore’s films aren’t documentaries.” As much as they deal in real life, Moore’s films are based on ideas that he conceives before anything is filmed. The result is not reality as most people would define it but a matter of making things happen to fit his plan. They’re like Op-Ed pieces–provocative and entertaining and very real. But that doesn’t make them documentaries.

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