The Wide Spectrum of Objectivity/Subjectivity in Documentary Film
Paper by Christina Miramontes. Viewed on DVD.
“I find that people have such strong positive and negative emotions […] that the Rashomon effect is often evident. But I’ve done the best I can to balance conflicting accounts fairly and be transparent about the sources I used” (Isaacson xx). This quote stated in the introduction of Steve Jobs puts into perspective the ways behind seeking the truth of a particular story and the difficulties one may experience. In documentary film, there are various facets in which the filmmaker chooses to portray its subject matter. Within the facet that the filmmaker attempts to analyze, there are two differing ways in giving this information known as objectivity and subjectivity. Although some see objectivity and subjectivity as black and white, with analysis it is evident that combinations and gradations in between can be found within these two. Because of this, it is important to recognize the extent of which is involved in filmmaking and what is meant when the viewer cognitively understand the information being received. By attempting to send meaningful messages to audiences globally, the directors of Food, Inc., The Cove, and Man on Wire inevitably make way for analysis on the usage of objectivity/subjectivity with respect to the gradations between the two.
Expository documentaries utilize verbal communication as well as argumentative logic in order to make its case strong. Filmmakers use factual evidence to “serve the film’s overall purpose […] and as raw material for multiple proposals and perspectives” (Nichols 35). In other words, filmmakers use particular evidence to present and formulate the documentary but it is ultimately up to the viewer what way they will dissect and interpret the evidence. This expository style of documentary is seen in the film Food, Inc., which entails the exposure of today’s national food industry in regards to the takeover of large corporations and the increasing carelessness of consumer health. Director Robert Kenner presents his facts and questions to the viewer as objectively as possible from both perspectives. In the third and final segment of the documentary, Kenner provides the audience with information from the side of the large corporations to show why it is they do what they do. One instance of information being divulged is that in regards to the food libel laws of major food companies. With food libel laws, food producers are now allowed to sue any critic of saying anything bad that may tarnish their reputation. Profits that companies gain from this are arbitrarily used to continue the flow of cheap, contaminated food and silence the people who disagree with their tactics. Thus, you see that Kenner uses empirical evidence to allow audiences to see from the perspective of the corporations. However, with this evidence it is nearly impossible to empathize and see this side of the argument – these facts are proved and not fictitious. The objectiveness in expository documentaries may be the closest we reach to grasping its fullest capacity than in any other style of documentary primarily due to the fact that it is purely evidential.
Another way in which Kenner objectively illustrates his points in Food, Inc. is by allowing the audience to see the perspective and thoughts of not only the directors and other participants behind the motions of the film, but also involve bystanders. These bystanders include the farmers, stores, etc. that are interviewed to prove the Kenner’s points. One particular example of using bystanders occurs in the second half of the film when interviewing a low-income family that barely survives off of eating from “dollar menus” at fast food establishments. It seems reasonable to them because “Thanks to subsidized corn, it’s cheaper to go for the double burger and soda instead of the nonsubsidized head of broccoli. But there is that hidden cost: childhood obesity and mushrooming incidences of diabetes” (Edelstein). The father in the Orozco family inevitably suffers from diabetes because they cannot afford fresh, organic food and thus turn to cheap, processed foods that are detrimental to his health. This vicious cycle is inescapable for families like this with health problems that do not have the means of receiving health assistance and better food quality. Another instance of interviewing an individual that was not apart of the filmmaking team was with a woman whose son passed away because of e. coli. This mother is “now an activist, and she carries a picture of [son] Kevin with her as she lobbies on Capitol Hill” (Edelstein). Sadly, she has been working nearly six years to pass Kevin’s Law, which is a legislation proposing that the U.S. Department of Agriculture would have power to shut down plants that produces contaminated meat and nothing yet has come of it. You see that although the opinions of these bystanders may be indicating advocacy of one side, the accumulated multitude of bystanders provides for a well-rounded, objective style of documentary. It goes hand in hand with using only factual evidence because these stories and interviewees are not fictitious – the struggles they endure are not fabricated. Thus, their endeavors should be seen as objective because their daily interactions with the government, corporations, etc. are nonbiased.
On the other end of the spectrum where subjectivity lies is where I would place the documentary Man On Wire. This is a documentary about a Frenchman named Philippe who walks across wire from high altitudes such as the Notre Dame and the World Trade Center. Man On Wire can be identified as having more of a subjective spirit. Although not in the sincerity as objectiveness/subjectiveness in politics, this subjective style used in the movie gives the impression that director James Marsh wants the viewer to see it through a certain aspect. The viewer is lead to see the perspective that Philippe was this brave, unique individual who was never discouraged and always kept reaching for his goals. The polar opposite would be the portrayal that he was very bad for enticing the law by breaking laws and doing dangerous activities on high buildings. An objective style would have given a moderate amount of both and in a certain other tone. You see this when a few police officers are finally briefly interviewed about Philippe and his actions. Their reactions are not in favor of Philippe and his actions, and then immediately after the screen pans to his associates once again exalting him for his bravery. No such evidence as previously mentioned or argumentative logic is used in this film – it is solely based on the subjective opinions and recounting of stories from the social actors.
“To believe that reality is made up first by objective facts and secondly by subjective or personal sentiment is to make you yourself blind and deaf to the prevailing power structures and ideologies of this world” (Juel). This quote represents the changes and complexity to this spectrum of objectivity and subjectivity. A particular film that indefinitely represents a hybrid of the two is The Cove, directed by Louie Psihoyos. This film is trying to educate the viewers on massive killings of dolphins occurring in Japan. The players in the movie are advocating ways to stop this nonsense and ultimately aim for a more functional way for them to fish, if at all. Essentially, it’s all about exposing the truth to the viewers and public. Because of this, this particular documentary falls into a more nebulous area on the spectrum between objectivity and subjectivity. One might even say that although the filmmakers are trying to expose factual information to the public, there is the possibility of biasness behind the premises. Psihoyos is exposing this massacre in Japan as horrific and violating innocent creatures. However, if this slaughtering is compared to America, it is evident that we undertake essentially the same methods on our pigs, cows, and chickens. So the question is raised of whether there truly is a difference between Japan and the United States and if the filmmaker is giving all perspectives of the facets on the situation. If it were truly objective, “this film would try to address [this issue] out of the respect for the Japanese, but it didn’t” (Dyske). Throughout the film, the social actors divulge in endeavors that put their lives at risk by installing hidden cameras in the cove to have authentic footage of the dolphin killings. But they are insufficient in touching on the subject that Food, Inc. is exposing – the very questionable nature in which our own country’s meat is being produced. However, since the evidence shown in The Cove is factual and not just a mere slant of their undertaking, the film indeterminately falls between the two sides of objectivity and subjectivity.
Another way in which The Cove presents a question to the debate of objectivity and subjectivity is through its showing of ethical problems. The ethical issues brought up in The Cove include the Japanese fishermen being portrayed as these evil, apathetic slaughterers. When showing footage of the cove’s water turning deep red and full of carcasses, the filmmakers are trying to convey the idea that the emotional reactions from this are universal and not cultural. “For those who have never grasped the huge cultural divide between the East and the West, it is inconceivable that such ground-shaking emotions are cultural” (Dyske). However, it is clearly cultural based on the fact mentioned previously that we undertake similar methods of producing meat in our cows and pigs. This brings forth discussions of whether ethical issues can be looked at objectively, especially when everyone has their own personal beliefs and values. The Japanese fishermen may feel like they are being cast in a bad light and aren’t represented correctly. As Wilson states in her review of The Cove:
The documentary is highly political, and this certainly deflects questions of objectivity; but considering the filmmaker denies the idea of cultural basis for dolphin and whale hunting, it would have been useful to have had a Japanese person explain their understanding of the cultural significance/entitlement.
There is clearly a distinction between The Cove and Food, Inc. in the sense that although both are trying to enlighten the audience on some current issue, the means in which they go about depicting the issue are very different. Thus we see how The Cove may be a little less objective because Psihoyos is a strong and determined advocate of saving the dolphins and wants the audience to share his sentiments.
In the realm of documentary filmmaking, there are various methods that can be utilized in proving the director’s message whether the film is biographical, informative, or persuasive. We see through the analysis of Food, Inc., Man On Wire, and The Cove that the notion entailing objectivity and subjectivity to be black and white is falsifying. There is clearly a range in which a filmmaker chooses to portray his film and the meanings behind it. While some directors may choose to give all information as objectively as possible through the various dimensions of the issue at hand, there are others who may try to prove their point as strongly as possible by emphasizing a certain aspect of it. Then you see the film in which being objective/subjective is not a question taken out when putting it together, as in biographical documentary Man On Wire, and ultimately turns out rather subjective. Thus one draws to the conclusion that there is a definite gradational scale between objectivity and subjectivity where documentary films can be found along this wide spectrum.
Dyske. “The Cove Debate – From the Japanese Perspective.” All Look Same. 01 Nov. 2006. Web. 13 Apr. 2012.
Edelstein, David. “For Health Or Profit, But Not Necessarily For Both.” NPR. NPR, 18 June 2009. Web. 10 Apr. 2012.
Isaacson, Walter. “Introduction: How This Book Came to Be.” Introduction. Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. Xx. Print.
Juel, Henrik. “Defining Documentary Film.” P.O.V. Web. 14 Apr. 2012.
Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2001. 35. Print.
Wilson, Beth. “Film Review: The Cove.” Trespass Magazine. 06 Aug. 2009. Web. 15 Apr. 2012.