Thursday, January 28, 2016

What is a documentary?

The other day my professor asked our class to define the word "documentary." The whole class sat there stumbling over words and trying to find the correct answer. As a documentary studies major, I came into Ithaca College thinking that I knew the answer. As my time at IC has passed however, I am now more unsure than ever; is there a firm definition that explains documentary?

I typed "documentary definition" into a Google search and the response was,"a movie or a television or radio program that provides a factual record or report." Thinking back, that probably would have been my definition when I first started college, but I now realize there is one major flaw in that definition... the word "factual."

After taking several different documentary courses, attempting to understand what makes something factual sends me into a mild existential crisis. Due to human nature, everyone sees facts and truths differently. As humans, we are inherently subjective rather than objective, therefore can a documentary ever be completely objective and factual? What may be the truth for the producer, may not be the truth for other people. 

Let's say, for example, I produce an entire documentary about the positive impacts of refugee communities in the United States. Then, after the film is finished, someone (Donald Trump?) states that my portrayal is completely inaccurate and refugee communities actually have a negative impact on U.S. society. Since someone disagrees with what I have portrayed, does that mean my film is not factual and therefore not a documentary? I would argue no, but other people may disagree. 

The word "documentary" may seem pretty straightforward at first glance, but it is really quite complex when people take the time to think about it. 

How would you define documentary?

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