What makes a document? – Moana

After reading the introduction on how the term documentary came into being, I researched the movie Moana, the first film that was said to have ‘documentary’ value. I read about the making of the film and realized that most of the movie was a set up and not a reflection of the life in the tribe at that moment in time. The story of the Moana was a product of the idea of ‘Man against Nature’ that documentary maker Flaherty had in mind and was assigned to when set out to make his film. Even the 2001 restoration with added sound clips (that his daughter recorded 50 years later) are aimed at showing this idea. This fabricated truth made me wonder why it was ascribed to have documentary value, especially when I read that in the time of the production of the movie the island Samoa entered a political crisis that evolved around the rights and identity of the local community, which is by no means touched upon in the movie itself. To me it seems that if Flaherty had reported those developments, it would have had documentary value.

However, after doing a bit more online researching, I found this article, ‘Documentary as a Mode of Reception‘ (1995) by Dirk Eitzen, that discusses the questions that arise when trying to define the term documentary.

Eitzen starts out with discussing Grierson’s definition of documentary, which is ‘the creative treatment of actuality‘, which gives room to the practice of Flaherty. He creatively documented his idea through actual people and places, even though the traits of the tribes that he films were outdated and certain traditions were acted by the locals in clothes they didn’t wear anymore. Grierson’s definition makes me wonder what is actuality, since ‘even our “brute” perceptions of the world are inescapably tainted by our beliefs, assumptions, goals and desires‘ (Eitzen, 1995). What do people commonly take by the term of what is actuality? The key factor that sets the actuality, documentary apart from fiction is a common, self chosen ‘mandate to represent the historical world rather than imaginary ones‘ (Nichols). With this definition, Flaherty’s Moana’s documentary value starts to become quite dubious.

What I like about these kind of articles is that they come to a conclusion from where they start to ask new questions and enlarge the way of thinking about a subject. Instead of concluding with the element of historical reality, Eitzen questions what this might be and how reality is being perceived individually in general. According to Woltersdorff ‘All representational works, including both documentaries and fiction films project a world, … it is the expression of someone’s imagination, the ‘state of affairs’ which can be projected in various stances (Woltersdorff). Depending on which stance, the fictive or assertive stance (claims of truth) one can define it, with the assertive stance being documentary. However, from a viewer’s point of view it is the ‘imaginary involvement and identification, not truth claims, that draws viewers to documentaries (Eitzen 1995)‘.

So if the definition depends on questions about the truth as well as its reading by viewers it makes sense to ask the question ‘Might it be lying?’ The applicability of this question is what distinguishes documentaries, and nonfiction in general, from fiction (Eitzen). It’s the difference between fake and a lie.

Eitzen gives a few examples of movies that show that the margins between fiction and documentary are very vague. I believe that in photography this is even more the case, since in a photograph we only see a fraction of time in a framed space that has been developed and manipulated in ways that are invisible to the common viewer. The article also introduced me to the idea of ‘viewer’s rage’, the anger that viewers feel when they discover that what they have been looking at is not real. It reminded me of the uproar when Steve Mccurry’s images turned out to be much more Photoshopped than they were thought to be. These dilemma’s shift the question from ‘what is a documentary to when‘.

Eitzen concludes his article with ‘Documentary is what people are accustomed to make of it, no more and no less’. This seems like an easy solution to defining such a term, but I think it touches the importance of leaving the viewers and producers’ side open to creative interpretations of the truth and history.

Last Monday I visited a temple in Old Delhi and took the following photography:


I was sitting in front of the god, which was placed behind a dirty window. The mirror reflected the man back of me and the woman in the front. With the help of Photoshop I was able to bring in many more details than were visible, delete my own reflection and give it an overall completely different look.

Thinking what makes a documentary photograph I realize that depending on the definition, you could fit this photograph in the genre or not. First of all, because of all the changes I had made of the actual image I thought it was loosing it’s documentary value, but now I think it is a perfect example of Grierson’s creative treatment of actuality!

Eitzen, D. (1995) ‘When is a documentary? Documentary as a mode of reception’, Cinema Journal, 35(1), p. 81. doi: 10.2307/1225809.
Narborough, E. (2013) Www.Slideshare.Net. Available at: http://www.slideshare.net/ElisaNarborough/theory-of-documentary (Accessed: 23 August 2016).
reserved, A. rights (2010) MOANA – A ROMANCE OF THE GOLDEN AGE. Available at: http://www.colonialfilm.org.uk/node/4765 (Accessed: 23 August 2016).
Grierson, John  1971 [1926] ‘Flaherty’s Poetic Moana’ in Jacobs ed. 1971: 25-6

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