Ms.Representing Reality: A Feminist Critique of Representations of Reality in Documentary Film

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In my first web-paper, I discussed my discomfort with Helene Cixous’ proclamation that “women must write women” (Cixous 877). Cixous discusses how women have been “kept in the dark” and led into self-disdain for so long that the amount of women authors is miniscule relative to men. I do not contest this statement and I believe that it is important for women to write and to let their voices be heard. However, while I realize that my discomfort with writing and speaking in class probably has a lot, if not, everything to do with the fact that I am a woman who has group up in a patriarchal society I do not think that every woman’s rebellion has to manifest itself in writing; there are many different ways for women to speak out.

In my search for an alternative to writing for myself, and in assessing the options I decided to explore the realm of documentary film. This semester I enrolled a new course at Haverford about social class in America. Instead of requiring the usual end of semester exam or research paper, our professors asked that we form three groups and that each group make a short documentary film about a class-related issue of our choice. In making the documentary, one issue that arose was the fact that understood in the term “documentary” is that the film is non-fiction; documentaries are supposed to be the antitheses of fiction film in that they portray reality. What we soon realized however, was the degree to which a documentary filmmaker is able to manipulate their footage to form a reality different from the one initially captured on film. This experience sparked my interest in feminist film theory, especially for its critique of realist documentary film that has been prevalent since the beginning of the 1970s. I set out to decide if, with so many ethical questions arising such as the misrepresentation of reality, if the realm of documentary film is really a viable alternative to writing.

As with practically every other field in academia, in its early years documentary film was characterized by an alarming lack of women producers and directors as well as very few documentaries about issues concerning women. While this is probably due in part to the same reasons Cixous gives for the relative lack of women writers, it is also due to the fact that feminist film theory largely rejected the dominant forms of documentary in the early 1970s –direct cinema and cinema verité—which professed the ability to capture an objective reality. Also, at a time when the documentary film movement was gaining momentum, feminist writing on film was typified by a critique of the depiction of women in the dominant cinema of the time. Therefore most feminist film-makers preferred alternative film methods to mainstream film and documentary. Fortunately, the arrival of cheap and lightweight 16mm film and video equipment made the arena of filmmaking infinitely more accessible than before; with these inventions came a flux of material created by, for, and about women.

It was the proclaimed “realism” that the dominant forms of direct cinema and cinema verité were so popular for that fueled the feminist critique of these forms of documentary. In 1973 Claire Johnston published her essay, “Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema” in which she offers her critique and then outlines her recommendations for the formation of an alternative feminist film movement. Johnston proclaimed that throughout history women have been largely absent in films; the so-called women we see are merely a man’s depiction of women, that are actually one-dimensional characters that bear no resemblance to any real women, “Within a sexist ideology and a male-dominated cinema, woman is presented as what she represents for man… despite the enormous emphasis placed on woman as spectacle in the cinema, woman as woman is largely absent,” (Johnston 33). It follows then, that because all film is an art-form through which the producer intentionally or unintentionally conveys their ideology that any claim of objectivity in film must be treated with suspicion. Johnston staunchly criticizes the claim that any form of film could be considered an accurate representation of reality, “The tools and techniques of cinema themselves, as part of reality, are an expression of the prevailing ideology: they are not neutral, as many ‘revolutionary’ film-makers appear to believe” (Johnston 36). Johnston therefore concludes that the idea of non-intervention is pure mystification and that the only “reality” that is captured in documentary is the reality of the dominant ideology of the film maker. Realist forms of documentary film are intended to be accurate representations of reality but as proclaimed truths are really misrepresentations.

Johnston emphasizes importance of an interrogation of “the language of the cinema/the depiction of reality” (Johnston 37) in the future of documentary and the need to do more than simply discuss the oppression of women in the text of the film. She says we need to challenge the depiction of reality and think seriously about who decides how the subject at hand is being represented. While it would seem that there exists no accurate way to represent reality through the medium of film, the closest we can get to truth is by explicitly revealing the context and situation in which our representations were formed.

In Sylvia Harvey’s introduction to “The Song of the Shirt” she offers another critique of realist film. She prefers a modernist approach to film, in other words an approach that understands that any attempt to represent part of the world is still only ever a representation and that calls attention to the “means of representation employed” (Harvey 46). The problem with realism lies, according to Harvey, in its use of sources which can never be unbiased. Furthermore, when relying on histories it is important to realize that these histories are constructed and to question who gets to write these histories.

A Foucaultian perspective would suggest that those in positions of power get to dictate knowledge systems such as histories. This is reminiscent of our class discussion and readings by Sosnoski who says that the world is full of subjectivities and that there exist many standards for correctness. The nature of our society therefore suggests that dominant histories are biased in favor of a patriarchal point of view, but it is important to realize that what is recognized as objective knowledge under this system of knowledge is not universally regarded as true. We must therefore be careful when using histories and proclaimed truths as sources because of their subjectivity and their constructedness under the dominant ideologies of the time. Sylvia Harvey does brings to our attention, however, the danger of falling into a “total relativism”; the idea that we can never know the world and that we are stuck in our eternal representations that will never truly know the world they seek to represent. She says what is to be gained from modernism though, is the realization that “certain people claim the right to produce representations of the world and to have their particular representations or accounts of the world dominant” (48 Harvey).

Our sources (the content of our documentary) consisted of a series of interviews with students, faculty and staff of Haverford College during which we asked them questions about class issues on campus. We soon realized that our informants had some control over the outcome of the interview, to the extent that they had the power to decide what they wanted to say and what information they wanted to withhold on camera. However, once the interview was recorded and the permission waver signed, the power is completely in the hands of the producer and editors. We soon realized how easy it would be to cut interview footage in such a way that would make the informants appear to have said something that they did not actually say. We had many ethical debates about the appropriate place to “cut” footage, for example whether it was ethical or not to take something an informant says out of context and use it to reinforce our argument when it may or may not refute the point they were making. Such situations brought me to believe that in the critique of documentary film, equal if not more importance lies in how the filmmaker chooses to use these sources than in the “constructed histories” or the ideology that dictates the sources. It is important to acknowledge and discuss the reality of the power imbalance that is present between the filmmaker “self” and their “other”, the subject of the film.

In class we first encountered the self/other dichotomy with Simone de Beauvoir’s introduction to The Second Sex, in which she presents a view of society in which she explains the practically universal subordination of women as a result of their “othering” by the male “self”. Men see themselves as normal and natural whereas women are the peculiarities that exist only in relation to men; it is on this ideology that our society has been built and the result has been a history-long subjugation which has led women to believe that this subjugation is natural or merited. As a result of this naturalization of the inferiority of women, men have been able to dictate and govern most institutions of power. A similar power hierarchy has typically defined the relationship between filmmaker and subject, even more so when the subject is a woman.

For example in her pioneering article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Laura Mulvey furthers the discussion about women being the “other” in the context of film, in which more often than not we see the objectification of women. She says the action of objectifying and fetishizing women is the result of an attempt to distract the male-spectator from the threat of castration that women represent. Mulvey sees the action of being a film-spectator as one of scopophilia, or “taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze” (Mulvey 60), and narcissism because he is watching an image of his like “gaining control and possession of the woman within the diegesis” (Mulvey 64).

According to Mulvey, the only way we can achieve any semblance of reality in film is by foregrounding the context in which the film takes place, in her words “freeing the look of the camera into its materiality in time and space and the look of the audience into dialectics and passionate detachment” (Mulvey 69). This destroys the satisfaction that comes with the voyeurism inherent in the scopophilic aspect of spectatorship or the othering of people on film. Though Mulvey’s article places emphasis on fiction film, her theories are certainly still applicable to documentary film which, as we have discussed, is also in many respects fictive because the spectators are viewing the subject of the film through the eyes and dominant ideologies of the producer.

In contrast, Alexandra Juhasz’s article “They Said We Were Trying to Show Reality—All I Want to Show Is My Video: The Politics of the Realist Feminist Documentary” explains how she believes that realist documentary provides the solution to the problem of the objectification of women. More specifically she says that although she does not profess that there necessarily exists some unified objective of the feminist movement, the participation of women in realist documentaries puts women in the position of the subject rather than the object for a change, she says realist documentaries “confirmed for the feminist viewer some sense of herself as a unified subject in a manner similar to how this is enacted through identification with the Hollywood film,” (Juhasz 194). It is her view that with reality comes the ability to control, to a certain extent, the identity and identification of the viewer within systems of representation so as to move towards personal and collective action (Juhasz 196). According to Juhasz, advocates of realist documentary realize that identity and reality is constructed by patriarchal culture however, unlike members of the anti-realism feminist camp, they believe that the first step is to reconstruct their identity by discussing their lived experiences on camera which can only occur via a realist technique; “feminist realist documentaries focus attention on the condition of constructing collective identity through representation” (Juhasz 214).

Similarly, in "Political Aesthetics of the Feminist Documentary Film" Julia Lesage argues against the idea that the style of the documentary is the sole determinant of its meaning, Lesage seems to believe that it is the overall message that the documentary is trying to convey that dictates the approach used by the producer, “both the exigencies and forms of organization of an ongoing political movement can affect the aesthetics of documentary film” (Lesage 22). Central to the feminist film movement is the desire to share the experience of women so people can begin to understand the individual predicaments of these women as part of a wider social subordination, Lesage argues that the best way for feminist film-makers to do this was through the method of cinema verité.

Lesage also argues that the nature of feminist cinema verité is distinct from more mainstream examples for a number of reasons, primarily because there exists no power hierarchy as is present in other forms of documentary, no self/other dichotomy. Instead, a relationship of trust and collaboration prevails between the woman film-maker and the woman subject. Because of the trust that exists between both parties, there is no danger of misrepresentation or manipulation of the content of the film to serve ulterior motives. Lesage goes further to say that the power hierarchy that exists in so many film-maker/subject situations is not present in these forms of feminist film because of this collaboration but also because of the shared goal between filmmaker and subject of letting women’s voices be heard and speaking out against the patriarchy.

Furthermore, she emphasizes how important it was for women making documentaries to use traditional, realist documentary structure for their films to gain credibility and accessibility, she says “they saw making these films as an urgent public act and wished to… bring feminist analysis to many women it might otherwise never reach” (Lesage 15). It would seem that in her opinion the importance of women and the feminist movement gaining visibility surpassed the importance in the style and method in the production the film.

Juhasz says that feminists have taken the critique of realist documentary too far and that as a feminist scholar of media in the 1980s and 1990s she was instructed to believe that realist documentary was not a legitimate or formal form of documentary. The current feminist canon of documentary film does not include any realist documentary and Juhasz finds this problematic for a variety of reasons. First, with very limited access to relatively few feminist realist documentaries it has been hard for proponent of this technique to improve upon it which has resulted in the production of feminist documentaries today that are very similar to those being produced in the early 1970s. This is a shame considering the fact that the use of the realist style of documentary is by no means obsolete; Juhasz cites it as particularly prevalent in political and activist documentaries. She therefore laments the fact that feminist critics are so overly critical of the realist technique, to the point that they evaluate the pieces in an overly simplified manner in which they reduce these films to useless fictions and fail to acknowledge what they do actually accomplish.

By being excessively critical of all documentaries that make use of the realist form, Juhasz says feminist critics are also failing to acknowledge the variety of ways that realism can function. It is not limited to the confirmation and perpetuation of “bourgeois, patriarchal reality” (Juhasz 195) but it can also reflect upon this “reality”. Juhasz says that to use a realistic film style does not necessarily imply that one buys into the ‘reality’ portrayed or believes that it is unalterable. On the other hand she believes that more often than not, by using the realist style political documentary filmmakers are creating an important commentary about the reality they are representing, Juhasz says “politically motivated realist documentaries usually take great pains to show that theirs is a politicized, opinionated vision of some reality,” (Juhasz 195).

Finally, Juhasz attests to the fact that the feminist film cannon, characterized by an anti-realist perspective, is dominated by well-educated, upper-middle class scholar filmmakers. Juhasz states that the privileged academics who dominate the field of feminist documentary film often refer to realist documentary as “naïve” and they believe that if these proponents of realist film “knew better” they would not use the realist style. She says that the “they here are most often producer of color, poor people, less educated people,” (Juhasz 199). It seems that while feminist anti-realists have succeeded in gaining credibility for their form of film they have also succeeded in snubbing many people to the margins, as advocates of direct cinema and cinema verité have previously done to them. To Johnston’s proclamation that it is pure mystification to believe that truth can be captured on camera Juhasz replies, “the mystification seems misplaced here: it is an elitist mystification to believe that nonacademics believe that ‘truth’ is the only thing captured by cameras” (216 Juhasz). What is important about realist documentaries is that they are contributing towards a better reality for the intended viewer. Women are denied a voice in the real world, and one way for them to be heard is through realist documentaries. By snubbing filmmakers that use the realist style of documentary, they are in effect contributing to the silencing of voices other than those of the well-to-do, academic feminists. Thus it would seem that yet again, feminism has fail to be an all-encompassing entity and succeeded in excluding the women (who arguably would benefit the most from what it has to offer) from its reaches.

It is perhaps useful to think of the ways in which language and film are related in terms of their representing reality. In Anne Dalke’s essay “Why Words Arise--and Wherefore” she explores the idea that language is not as unambiguous as is commonly thought and that context is of utmost importance in determining the way readers interpret an author’s writing. Such ideas, central to reader response theory, are important for us here in that they highlight the active role of the reader, or in the case of documentary film the viewer. The viewer should not be seen as a passive receiver of information, but as an active participant in interpreting and forming their own meaning from the documentary film that they are watching. We therefore can attribute agency and consciousness to the viewer and consider the idea that they are capable of discerning whether a given documentary film is an accurate representation or a misrepresentation of reality, or if reality is always constructed, that they are capable of discerning the ideology that is shaping the content of the given documentary.

While I acknowledge that there are many ethical issues inherent in the practice of making a documentary I am definitely not going to disregard it on my quest to find myself an alternative to writing. Juhasz brings light to the way in which any dominant form of film theory—whether it is was direct cinema/cinema verité that was prevalent in the 1950s or anti-realist feminist film practices of the 1970s—can completely destroy the validity and therefore threaten the existence of any form of film that does not match up with the dominant form. Juhasz explores the repercussions of feminist anti-realists disregard of feminist forms of direct cinema and cinema verité. To disregard documentary film because of issues that arise concerning representations of truth would be to ignore all the documentaries that grapple more successfully with issues of representing truth. It is a matter of separating the “silt” from the “water”.

While the use of realist modes of documentary is in many cases questionable because of the danger of proclaiming an objective truth when there is evidence that this is not possible, it cannot be denied that these forms served to give women subjectivity on camera for the first time ever. Perhaps the most important idea that I have taken away from the feminist realist debates is the idea that a feminism that professes any one type of ideology and rejects others will function to exclude people who might benefit from feminism. This brings me back to the beginning of the semester with Sosnoski’s ideas on falsifiability; in rejecting any alternate mode of documentary, feminism is engaging in a process of falsifiability that feminist should be striving to avoid. My type of feminism in any discipline should be inclusive and should serve, like realist documentary has in the past, to make previously silenced voices heard.

Works Cited

Brunsdon, Charlotte. "Introduction to Part One." Films for Women. Ed. Charlotte Brunsdon. London: British Film Institute, 1986. 9-13.

Harvey, Sylvia. "An Introduction to 'the Song of the Shirt'" Films for Women. Ed. Charlotte Brunson. London: British Film Institute, 1986. 44-48.

Johnston, Claire. "Women's Cinema as Counter-Cinema." Feminist Film Theory. Ed. Sue Thornham. New York: New York UP, 1999. 31-40.

Juhasz, Alexandra. “They Said We Were Trying to Show Reality—All I Want to Show Is My Video: The Politics of the Realist Feminist Documentary.” Collecting Visible Evidence. Ed. Jane M. Gaines. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1999. 190-215.

Lesage, Julia. "Political Aesthetics of the Feminist Documentary Film." Films for Women. Ed. Charlotte Brunsdon. London: British Film Institute, 1986. 14-23.

Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Feminist Film Theory. Ed. Sue Thornham. New York: New York UP, 1999. 58-69.

Waldman, Diane, and Janet Walker. "Introduction." Feminism and Documentary. Ed. Diane Waldman and Janet Walker. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota P, 1999. 1-27.


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