Presenting Reality In Documentaries

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25th May 2017 Film Studies Reference this

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The term 'documentary' stems from the verb 'to document' - to convey information on the basis of proof and evidence to support it, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. In the realm of films and cinema, a documentary is a film that is an attempt, in one fashion or another, to show reality as it really is. In this essay, we shall be concentrating on the documentary by American filmmaker Morgan Spurlock. By the end of this essay we should hopefully reach to a conclusion whether Morgan Spurlock used the medium of documentary film effectively in order to represent the truth. The latter will need an in depth analysis n observation of the style of documentary 'Super Size me' is and how it has been treated and presented by the filmmaker.

'The ultimate aim of documentary is to find the perfect way of representing the real' is what Stella Bruzzi believes is the function of a documentary. As she states it herself, the 'aim' is to 'find' the perfect way of 'representing' reality. The three underlined words are themselves hypothetical terms that are not certain, hence this is the first indication that documentary might not necessarily achieve its aim. Documentary style of films are still under debate as to how 'real' can they be, this probably why Stella Bruzzi uses the word 'find' instead of a more commanding and certain word. Therefore, what is really a documentary according to different theorists?

John Grierson, the first writer to use documentary as a term in his review of Robert Flaherty's Moana, came up with his famous dictum that documentary is 'the creative interpretation of actuality'. Grierson's essay First Principles of Documentary argued that documentary was cinema's potential for observing life could be exploited in a new art form; that the "original" actor and "original" scene are better guides than their fiction counterparts to interpreting the modern world; and that materials "thus taken from the raw" can be more real than the acted article. Contrary to Bruzzi's idea of 'representing' reality, Grierson believes in 'interpreting' it. Interpretation can be in form of re-enactment. So the question that arises is - how realistic is a documentary that has actors and scenes "guiding" the flow of the film? Any re-enactment or borrowed situations can be manipulated to reflect the director's idea, which leaves hardly any space for 100% reality.

In addition to John Grierson's explanation about documentary, Bill Nichols (2001:165) suggests that documentaries have a sense of realism which other genre of films lack as the realism in documentaries represent what the eyes and ears experience in everyday life. Morgan Spurlock achieves the degree of realism and transparency explained by Bill Nichols in 'realism in documentary film'. Morgan Spurlock presents his point against fast food by living, observing and literally eating it. He documents his 30 days "Mc Diet" effectively that the audience has little or no hesitation to question the transparency and authenticity (Bill Nichols:165).

Morgan Sprulock's objectives for making 'Super Size Me' were to investigate the reasons and claims about USA having an epidemic of obesity. As he sarcastically says in the beginning of his documentary; '... The biggest people, America has now become the fattest nation in the world, CONGRATULATIONS!' This statement by the filmmaker suggests that in teh documentary, the audience will be seeing and hearing the reality that Morgan Spurlock chooses to show them and he has already taken the liberty to express his personal emotions towards the theme of the documentary.

Another driving force that led Spurlock to make this documentary was the lawsuit brought against McDonald's on behalf of two overweight girls, who, it was alleged, became obese as a result of eating McDonald's food (Pelman v. McDonald's Corp) in 2003. Spurlock argues that this case against fast food joints is as significant as the criticism faced by tobacco companies.

A brief summary of the documentary is that Morgan Spurlock makes himself a test subject of this documentary about the commercial food industry. Rigorously eating a diet of McDonald's fast food, three times a day for a month straight and restricts himself to only 5000 steps a day. Therefore, he lives the life of most American who eat fast food regularly and also hard burn it out in terms of physical exercise. Spurlock is out to prove the physical and mental effects of consuming fast food. While doing this, Spurlock also provides a look at the food culture in America through its schools, corporations, and politics as seen through the eyes of regular people and health advocates. "Super Size Me" is a movie that sheds a new light on what has become one of our nation's biggest health problems: obesity.

Critics of the film, including McDonald's, argue that the author intentionally consumed an average of 5,000 calories per day and did not exercise, and that the results would have been the same regardless of the source of overeating. He was eating solely McDonald's food in keeping with the terms of a potential judgment against McDonald's in court documents highlighted at the beginning of the film.

The film addresses such objections by highlighting that a part of the reason for Spurlock's deteriorating health was not just the high calorie intake but also the high quantity of fat relative to vitamins and minerals in the McDonald's menu, which is similar in that regard to the nutritional content of the menus of most other U.S. fast-food chains.

About 1/3 of Spurlock's calories came from sugar. His nutritionist, Bridget Bennett RD, cited him about his excess intake of sugar from "milkshakes and cokes". It is revealed toward the end of the movie that over the course of the diet, he consumed "over 30 pounds of sugar, and over 12 lbs. of fat from their food". The nutritional side of the diet was not fully explored in the film because of the closure of the clinic which monitored this aspect during the filming of the movie.

Spurlock claimed he was trying to imitate what an average diet for a regular eater at McDonald's-a person who would get little to no exercise-would do to them. Spurlock's intake of 5,000 calories per day was well over twice the recommended daily intake for a sedentary adult male, which would amount to only about 2,300 calories. A typical man consuming as many calories as Spurlock did would gain nearly a pound a day (which is roughly how much Spurlock gained), a rate of weight gain that could not be sustained for long periods. Additionally, Spurlock did not demonstrate or claim that anyone, let alone a substantial number of people, eats at McDonald's three times per day. In fact McDonald's is mentioned during the movie to have two classes of users of their restaurants: There are the "Heavy Users," (about 72% of the customers, who eat at their restaurants once or twice a week), and the "SUPER Heavy Users" (about 22% of the customers, who eat McDonald's 3 or more times a week). But no one was found who ate at McDonald's three times a day. This brings out the fact that maybe Morgan was exactly as objective as he should have been. There is a clear exaggeration of his "Mc Diet" as no one was found to be eating as much fast food as he did. However, the counter argue this claim one can say that maybe not every day but like a few participants in the documentary said the eat fast food up to 3 times a week. So if one spreads those continuous 30 days over couple of months the result might be the same. The only difference left will be that Morgan's body and health showed accelerated reaction to the fast food intake because he did it at an extreme level. According to Bill Nichols in 'Introduction to Documentary' (2001:163): Social issue documentaries are usually in expository mode. However, Morgan Spurlock contradicts this statement by making a social issue documentary in a participatory mode making it more a 'personal portraiture' documentary. If 'super Size Me' was to be categorised in the basic six mode of documentary according to Bill Nichols, it would be a participatory documentary. In the latter, investigation takes a step back to make way for a more responsive and reflective relationship in unfolding the events by the filmmaker (Bill Nichols 2001:119). 'Super size Me' is a personal testimonial where Morgan Spurlock's voice is prominent throughout the overall structure of the film and this is what hold the audience's attention.

It will be appropriate at this point to go deeper into the documentary 'Super Size Me' and analyse it in order to understand the objectives and mode of the documentary.

Firstly, Super size Me is the idea of an ordinary American filmmaker Morgan Spurlock. This is an important fact to be taken into consideration because eventually the ideology and aim intended by Morgan Spurlock is what will 'direct' the ideas reflected in the documentary, hence, objectivity can be compromised. For reality to be completely present in order to have a real documentary there should be ideally, no draw backs on objectivity in the portrayal of ideas.

Secondly, Super size Me is more to do with creating awareness amongst people. Creating awareness is the state or ability to perceive, to feel, or to be conscious of events. In this level of consciousness, sense data can be confirmed by an observer without necessarily implying understanding. This suggests that Spurlock was not aiming at influencing people to completely revolt against fast food but at least beware and conscious of the harmful effects of it. He leaves it upon the audience to make their choice without brainwashing them.

Thirdly, Super Size me is what Grierson would categorize under participatory mode, in which filmmakers move from behind the camera and appear as subjects in their own work like Spurlock carries out his experiment himself and becomes the main subject of the documentary. He is the director, producer and writer of the documentary. So much control over a project does make it a very passionate and well organised piece of work; however, with so much power and control over a project, the audience might be getting the side of story which the director has in mind. Hence, can the audience be completely dependent on what is being shown to them and believe that Spurlock was being completely objective?

The audience plays a great role in what and how the director delivers the documentary. 'Super Size Me' was released in 2004, mainly for the American audience as he directs his attention to Americans by repeatedly saying 'WE are...' The taste of what the audience want now is different from what was expected in earlier years when illiteracy levels were at their highest. The audience want something more intellectually stimulating and not propaganda. Moreover, reality and truth in the form of controversy is what really gets people's attention. This probably the deciding factor when it comes to Spurlock putting together eye catching facts and shocking moments like his depression, or his girlfriend admitting to him being not as good as before during sexual intercourse. Such facts can be hidden or edited out, but the director keeps it, to show his transparency but also to add the elements that sell in today's world.

In addition, editing plays a big role in representing reality. The camera can capture all the truth there is to be captured, but the audience eventually see what is presented to them after much chopping done in the editing room. Director's choice of scenes, images and music is what is eventually reflected in the documentary. In other words, only one or a few people's choice or ideology is selected and presented to the audience. The director's selection does not necessarily have to reflect the reality. Therefore, how is reality ever represented in documentaries?

Triumph of The Will (1935) "is not only a masterpiece entirely on its own, divorced from political or propagandist considerations, but in its emotional manipulation of the audience represents the very heart of what propaganda is all about". (Barsam, 1992, 130) Riefenstahl is able to create a glorified representation of the NSDAP, or Nazi party, with the use of a music score that invents Hitler as heroic. Her ability to represent a political party so triumphantly is noted in the moving and chilling pieces of cinematography when Hitler gives his final speech and compares his party to a holy order. She captures an essence far purer than the NSDAP, and in a way does more than justice to the party's attempts of propaganda. On the other hand, her achievements in portraying the NSDAP as glamorous can be seen as misrepresenting and a line can be drawn between fact and fiction as to, whether her glorifications are unjust and morally wrong.

For the Nazis, the euphoria of a perfect Germany according to them can be portrayed with proper film aesthetics but without directly referring to the contemporary society of the 1930s. The 'what it would be like if Nazis ruled' agenda can be portrayed with the use of abstract visuals and other techniques as long as the 'real' is not referred to, as societies in Germany were not of pure race. The idea of creating a pure race and portraying this in a film is almost mythical, yet alone absurd. In order to portray an Aryan world blatant lies and imaginative discourse would be called for. The ethical implications behind this, is that the people themselves must change in order to create this ideal society.

The overly repeated Flag Bearer image depicts symbolism connected to Nazism; the inclusion of a flag bearing the Nazi Swastika symbol represents the militarized power of the party. As a trend in Nazi propaganda, there is enormous emphasis on military symbols in Triumph of the will, triggered deeply felt emotions associated with Germany's former military might.

Leni Riefenstahl's editing provides an insight into the status of Triumph of the Will as Nazi propaganda. For example, one sequence during Hitler's arrival in Nuremburg is composed of four shots; the first two shots show the old buildings of the city and then a German flag therefore representing the old, traditional Germany. The following two shots depict Hitler and then a Swastika. This sequence typifies how Riefenstahl has represented the Nazi ideology of a return to a mythical epoch by linking the ideals of the traditional dogma with a visionary future. Similarly, before the scene of the city awakening Riefenstahl links a shot of an old church to represent Volakis thought, with the rally camp site to signify the new Germany. Incidentally Hinton suggests that as result of these sequences, Triumph of the Will is more than a document of the 1934 Nazi Party Rally; it is a document of the city of Nuremburg' where the viewer gains a sense of the beauty and history of the medieval centre. Furthermore, the use of German and Nazi flags ties in with the use of military symbols inherent in the propaganda of the Third Reich. She also states that; 'In my cutting room, it was the most difficult work of my life' describing the task that took at least five months to fulfil. She explained that she did not care much about chronological accuracy on the screen and that she intuitively tried to find a unifying way to edit the film in a way which would progressively take the viewer from act to act and from impression to impression.

With political pressure, adoration for Adolf Hitler, and clearly a propaganda film, Triumph of the will does portray reality in terms of the images used; they are all live and not re-enacted by Riefenstahl. However, it is a biased documentation of the reality. I believe it would have been a real documentary if only there was not so much of glamour shown about the Nazi rallies, and the darker side such as the Holocaust and ghettos were also covered. The latter would have made it a more objective piece of work, making it more of a documentary instead of a propaganda tool.

From the information given above about the documentaries in question the first thing that is important to note is the fact that Triumph of the Will was an idea suggested by Adolf Hitler whereas, Super size Me was the idea of an ordinary American filmmaker Morgan Spurlock. This is an important fact to be taken into consideration because eventually the ideology and aim intended by Adolf Hitler and Morgan Spurlock is what will 'direct' the ideas reflected in the documentary, hence, objectivity can be compromised. For reality to be completely present in order to have a real documentary there should be ideally, no draw backs on objectivity in the portrayal of ideas.

Adolf Hitler was a Nazi dictator ruling over a powerful country like Germany, his influence and power to pressurise Leni Riefenstahl was unquestionable. On the contrary, Morgan Spurlock was just an independent director. What kind of objectivity and impartiality (two very important subjects to reflect reality) can one expect from a director working under a dictator who controlled the population through fear?

The purposes of both documentaries are extreme opposites. Triumph of the Will was intended to be a propaganda political film. Propaganda is after all; a form of communication aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position. As opposed to impartially providing information, propaganda in its most basic sense, presents information primarily to influence an audience. Propaganda often presents facts selectively (thus possibly lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or uses loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than rational response to the information presented. The desired result is a change of the attitude toward the subject in the target audience to further a political agenda. In comparison to this, Super size Me was more to do with creating awareness amongst people. Creating awareness is the state or ability to perceive, to feel, or to be conscious of events. In this level of consciousness, sense data can be confirmed by an observer without necessarily implying understanding. This suggests that Spurlock was not aiming at influencing people to completely revolt against fast food but at least beware and conscious of the harmful effects of it. He leaves it upon the audience to make their choice without brainwashing them.

The presentation of Triumph of the Will is what documentary forefather, John Grierson would categorise under Poetic mode. Such documentary thrive on a filmmaker's aesthetic and subjective visual interpretation of a subject, in addition to it different music is selected for different scenes, just like in the Triumph of Will. By contrast, Super Size me is what Grierson would categorize under participatory mode, in which filmmakers move from behind the camera and appear as subjects in their own work like Spurlock carries out his experiment himself and becomes the main subject of the documentary.

The time period in which both documentaries are set in are also crucial points to be noted. Triumph of the Will was set in 1935 in Germany, where people were in the middle of Nazi revolution and political chaos. In contrary to 2004 America where Super Size Me is shot, the taste of the audience has changed dramatically. Audiences of Super Size Me are not only in America but world around, which wasn't the target audience of Triumph of the Will, the latter was meant for only the Germans. To add to this, Germans in 1934 were comparably less educated than the audience of 2004, because one of Germany's major issues at that time was low education. Hence, propaganda movies worked to its full potential as people would not question or form their own opinions; however, the same cannot be expected from liberal thinking people in 2004. The taste of what audience around the world want now is completely different from what was expected in 1930's. Nowadays, reality and truth in the form of controversy is what really gets people's attention. One may wonder if 1930's audience would have liked to watch real documentary, what if Triumph of the Will was to include scenes from the concentration camps, how would have the audience responded to the documentary?

Lastly, editing plays a big role in representing reality. The camera can capture all the truth there is to be captured, but the audience eventually see what is presented to them after much chopping done in the editing room. Director's choice of scenes, images and music is what is eventually reflected in the documentary. In other words, only one or a few people's choice or ideology is selected and presented to the audience. The director's selection does not necessarily have to reflect the reality. Therefore, how is reality ever represented in documentaries?

Returning to Stella Bruzzi's statement, the aim of documentary is to represent the truth. According to her, the 'way' of doing is still being found. Truth can be the body of real things, events, actuality, or fidelity to an original or to a standard. Super Size Me does get close to Stella's definition of documentary. It represents what happens with Americans being addicted to fast food and barely exercising. What makes this documentary a real representation of reality is the presence of objectivity. If Spurlock enjoyed something it was showed and when he was not at his best (scenes of vomiting and depression) that was also shown, to portray both sides of the reality. On one hand, Triumph of the Will with the use or real images and not actors and fabricated scenes, is a way of showing the truth, however, the sincerity lacks because it is a highly biased propaganda. Moreover, with political pressure at that time, there was no freedom of showing a balanced truth, which is supposed to be the real essence of a documentary. To sum up about Triumph of the Will, it is right to say that it does actually 'document' the events such as Nazi rallies and political speeches, but the immense lack of objectivity does not make the propaganda film a real 'representation' of the 'truth' (according to the quote of Stella Bruzzi).

On the other hand, Super Size Me does get close to Stella's definition of documentary. It represents what happens with Americans being addicted to fast food and barely exercising. What makes this documentary a real representation of reality is the presence of objectivity. If Spurlock enjoyed something it was showed and when he was not at his best (scenes of vomiting and depression) that was also shown, to portray both sides of the reality. The documentary is also very credible because of all the science backing that it has thanks to the doctors Spurlock had on board for the film. The latter brings a logical reasoning to what is being shown in the documentary, unlike the Triumph of the Will where no space is giving to the audience to make their own opinion. The documentary is also very credible because of all the science backing that it has thanks to the doctors Spurlock had on board for the film. The latter brings a logical reasoning to what is being shown in the documentary.

To conclude, Super Size Me is definitely closer to Bruzzi's definition of documentary because of the unbiased representation of truth. Nevertheless, in Super Size Me, the experiment is itself not true or completely reliable, as no one eats fast food three times a day for a whole month with only 5,000 steps as 'exercise'. Moreover, Spurlock is a bit too aggressive in trying to bring down one specific chain of fast food joints which is Mc Donald's. He bases his whole experiment solely on Mc Donald's. What about the other fast food companies? Aren't their menus as harmful as or worse than Mc Donald's? This makes the documentary a little less objective than what the audience want to believe in because it is after all biased towards giving bad publicity to mostly Mc Donald's. It is however commendable that Spurlock wisely made science the back bone of the experiment. By doing so he bought the logic to the arguments he had against the unhealthy life style of Americans. The realism that Spurlock explores in his documentary is the 'psychological realism' which 'conveys the sense of a plausible, believable and accurate representation of human perception and emotion.'(Bill Nichols 2001:171) Spurlock achieves this realism but making the audience relate themselves to characters and situations which are life like in a universalizing way. After watching 'Super Size Me', one can either feel more knowledgeable about the dangers of excessive fast food eating or because they have been exposed to constant images of Mc Donald's, actually crave for a meal at Mc Donald's. This goes to emphasize that visual images is what is mostly kept in the audience's minds. On a final note, it seems that the 'perfect way' of representing the truth is yet to be found, till then individual prejudice and biasness will always somehow continue to influence the 'truth' in documentaries however transparent one is, there is always somehow a loophole which will lead to documentaries' "truthfulness" being questioned.

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