What Is Non-Fiction Cinema? On the Very Idea of Motion Picture Communication

By Trevor Ponech | Go to book overview
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2
Representation and Depiction

Whatever interests it serves and consequences its creation and distribution have a photographically made cinematic constative is necessarily a representation. It is certainly common for us to think of documentaries in this way. We say, for instance, that they are about such and such; that they (mis)represent aspects of reality; that they show us how parts of the world look and sound or how someone supposes things to be; that they convey the attitudes and views of their makers and subjects, or of the groups and social formations with which these parties are affiliated. Indeed, to scoff at the very notion of documentaries conveying The Truth about Reality is still to assume that they exhibit a multitude of informative, non-accidental relations to many different sorts of extra-cinematic items. To assert that Nanook of the North ( Robert Flaherty, 1922) gives a distorted picture of Inuit culture in the early twentieth century is to assume that the movie is systematically and objectively related to a given situation, the condition of which it nonetheless fails to indicate accurately. Moreover, if we really believed non-fictions to be unsuited to represent anything, we would have no reason to criticize their referential and epistemic failures -- to do so would be like bemoaning a door knob's inability to record its handlers' thoughts. So the question arises: How do documentaries represent, and fail to represent, anything?

My answer to this question is based on the idea that a documentary is a kind of representational system. It is an artifact designed and used to indicate to us the states of other, extra-cinematic things. This claim does not, of course, describe what exactly it is that makes a work non-fictional. Nor does it imply either that all non-fictions are veridical when understood to be about this or that state of affairs or that all representation is truth-preserving. Nor does it commit us to the idea that non-fictional representations are only about actual or real objects. But this claim does suggest the nature and source of the motion picture non-fiction's objective

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