Excerpt: Film & Social Change

[This is taken from my Master’s thesis: “Film and Social Change: Comparing Documentaries to Narratives”]

The differences among proper documentaries and its numerous “docufiction” hybrid cousins, such as ‘docu-soup’ or ‘docudrama’, which adopt certain documentary forms, are however indistinct and increasingly difficult to tease apart (Mast, 2009, p.233). For instance, another trend in the television industry sees the employing and integrating of various aspects of documentary filmmaking and practices into fictional entertainment, or its converse. Examples of the former include Arrested Development, The Office, and Modern Family, which are television shows that employ elements of documentary filmmaking to humorous effect, and are categorized as ‘mock-documentaries’ (Mast, 2009, p.231). Often this is done through stylistic devices that include character acknowledgement of the camera, character interviews, and cutaways to supplemental images or footage – all of which help add to the illusion of reality. An example of such illusory realism can be seen in popular MTV series The Hills, which was in actuality a heavily scripted reality series throughout much of its duration on air.

Where the effects of these television shows may be seen has much to do with perceptions of reality. Gaines (1999, p.92) postulates that the point of a social documentary may be seen as rooted in creating a world on film that resonates with and reflects the world outside of film. Its audiences may then be emotionally prompted by the messages in the documentary to make changes in the real world (Gaines, 1999). However, in altering the concept of how audiences perceive on-screen reality in relation to our real-world reality, television shows and mock-documentaries may actually serve to undercut documentary messages and the potential for social change. This trend is encouraged by the fact that reality television shows are less expensive to produce, yet nonetheless have the ability to generate good audience ratings; it is therefore a fiscally attractive option to broadcast networks, especially in light of the increasing popularity of competing cable programs (Jenkins, 2006).

Evolving online formats add another element to the changes in the entertainment industry that may contribute to the threat towards the documentary format. Technological trends have helped cement public appreciation for reality entertainment, as well as set off changes in the film and television industries that have ramifications in production, and distribution and exhibition channels (Lotz, 2007). The democratization of entertainment production through the popularity of user-generated content avenues such as Youtube and Vimeo has contributed to the changing landscape of independent, non-fiction filmmaking. By effect, audiences can also engage as content producers. Furthermore, the internet itself provides new ways in which viewers can consume reality entertainment or documentaries through Netflix and iTunes, for instance, or other methods through which viewers access these films (Lotz, 2007). Viewers are in essence actively seeking entertainment content and information, thus also participating in the creation and consumption of reality as opposed to passively experiencing them – and potentially further diluting the concept of reality.

It is important to consider the future of documentaries in light of these trends: in spite of the heightened popularity of documentaries, problems remain that threaten the continued success of the format. Scripted reality television shows and mock documentaries blur the lines between notions of fact and fiction (Michelle, 2009); indeed, the emerging styles of subjectivity and dramatic or comedic portrayal of real events in documentary making do as well. Filmmaker Michael Moore, for instance, draws in audiences with humor at the possible expense of credibility – he is accused of doctoring footage to achieve the narrative he sought for his films (Sharrett and Luhr, 2005). Whereas other countries have continued to appreciate and honor the serious documentary, American documentaries have seen an increase in the informal nature of content presentation and filmmaking (Corner and Rosenthal, 2005). In other words, with American documentaries becoming more casual in nature, the messages put forth on film may be received in kind, and hence may reduce the potential for affecting audience action, and by extension, the potential for social change. 

Select References

Corner, J., & Rosenthal, A. (2005). Introduction. In A. Rosenthal & J. Corner (Eds.), New challenges for documentary (2nd ed., pp. 1-13). Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Gaines, J.M. (1999). Political mimesis. In J. Gaines & M. Renov (Eds.), Collecting visible evidence (v.6) [Google books version]. Retrieved from http://books.google.com

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Lotz, A. (2007). The television will be revolutionized. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Mast, J. (2009). New directions in hybrid popular television: A reassessment of television mock-documentary. Media, Culture & Society, 31(2), 231-250.

Michelle, C. (2009). Recontextualising audience receptions of reality TV. Journal of Audience & Reception Studies, 6(1), 137-170.

Sharrett, C., & Luhr, W. (2005). Bowling for Columbine: A review. In A. Rosenthal & J. Corner (Eds.), New challenges for documentary (2nd ed., pp. 253-259). Manchester: Manchester University Press.


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Adrienne is an expert on storytelling for branding and impact through video and digital content. She is a video producer and writer.