How to Watch a Documentary

Take it from a pro: What you don’t see matters

| March-April 2010

  • Watch a documentary

    image by Brian Hubble /

  • Watch a documentary

During my first year as a documentary producer, my brother went to Africa as an aid worker, packing a video camera to cover the civil war in Sudan. I volunteered to construct a documentary from his footage, partly out of love for my brother and partly to assuage my guilt for engaging in a consumer-driven industry often at odds with the values we learned from our Christian hippie parents. My brother sent tapes and I spent many late-night hours trying to condense a complicated civil war into 30 minutes.

The color correction process was directed by a colleague who loved hard rock. I checked on his progress one night and found him jamming out to Led Zeppelin while images of people in crisis flashed across the screen. “Take a look,” he said, pointing to an aerial image of Sudan’s dusty savanna. Adjusting the color saturation to green, he asked, “Would you like it to look lush and fertile, or,” changing it to harsh brown, “dry and desiccated?”

That moment was a turning point for me. I realized that humanitarian subject matter didn’t make a film immune to manipulation. Every image was persuasive text. Every creative decision was an ethical judgment. Every opportunity to move viewers was also a chance to manipulate them. With a powerful medium in my hands, I was playing with portrayal and perception—the portrayal of war victims whose complicated story ended up in my hands, and the perception of the viewers who had no idea what went on behind the wizard’s curtain of documentary production.

I committed then to studying the medium. I read media studies literature, continued work on the Sudan documentary, and wrestled with the ethics of filmmaking. Two basic categories of analysis emerged.

First, juxtaposition and decontextualization. Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein defined the idea of “dialectical montage” in film editing. He composed his theory in part using the Kuleshov Experiment in which the same image—an actor’s face with unchanged expression—was shown in juxtaposition with other images. When the face appeared next to an image of food, the test audience said that it was expressing hunger. When the same face was shown next to the image of a woman in a coffin, the audience interpreted the facial expression as grief. Eisenstein concluded that two unrelated images put together in collision create a new, third “idea.” Placing shots in a new context is part of what makes editing a creative process, and a potentially misleading one.

In the Sudan piece, I cut together an image of a girl hiding behind a tree, crying, with an image of gun-carrying soldiers. When they are combined, these images give an impression of human vulnerability in the face of war.

Dan Blake_2
4/14/2010 1:08:45 AM

I went to the Geez mag website, but I couldn't find the original article that generated this excerpt. Can you help?

C. Schneider_1
2/23/2010 4:45:40 PM

An interesting article. However, it is disheartening to read such. Do I send it to to verify what is truth and what is not?

Eric Solstein
2/23/2010 12:34:26 PM

Interesting article, and Ms. Dilley is heading in the right direction, hopefully soon to transcend her inexperience and pursue these issues without the burden of a project to complete. Yes, it is hard to decide between completing a film - that is, finishing a project for which one has no practical way to gather new material - and making the film "ethical." Yes, one can put two disparate shots together to synthesize an idea when one is making a propaganda film. If one wants to create a documentary, this is generally a no-no. If the edit is skillfully done, and the settings not too different, the viewer will never learn how to pick out such falsities. The editing room floor is typically swept up after a long hard edit; the trims spliced together, cataloged and archived, rarely to be seen again, nor usually even inferred.

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