Truth Claims and Reality Effects

I know no issue seems more trodden than the issue of documentary veracity - or in particular the spectatorial investment in the real that documentary and documentary style engenders. I'm glad the field of documentary studies has found new research agendas and new angles of approach. Yet, like a moth to a flame, I return...

Post cultural studies, there's been a working consensus that the reality effect (to borrow Barthes' term) was overstated and even a straw man. Of course, viewers know that they are watching a film and are not just dupes to illusionistic filmmaking.

Well, two films I've seen lately have reminded me that I'm a dupe. The Hurt Locker falls short of being pure pseudodocumentary, but it uses a hand-held aesthetic to suggest a documentary-like veracity. There are a few moments when I was keenly aware of the camera's narrational presense, such as the racking of focus or the positioning of camera in a position in direct danger of gunfire. And intellectually, I was able to dissect the deconstructive action film/war film generic repurposing going on. But viscerally, I felt I was watching a slice of historical reality.

Perhaps more interesting theoretically was a similar investment in the historical real I felt watching Manda Bala (Jason Kohn, 2007), a documentary about kidnapping and political corruption in Brazil.

What's interesting is that the film is fairly stylized. Where The Hurt Locker appropriates documentary for the fiction film, Manda Bala appropriates a lush, fictional shooting style for documentary. True, there are moments of video images that stick out in reality-effect fashion:

Rhetorically, though, the film only partially uses these reality effect moments to buttress its arguments. Most of its truth claims come from the structuring of testimony, in which artifice of mise-en-scene corroborates the "officialness" of the bureaucrat.

The seeming paradox of much postmodern documentary - that Manda Bala creates a spectatorial investment in truth via means of artifice - is only a paradox because it overlooks the latitude documentary narration has in sublating the indexical trace to larger truth claims. Unlike Errol Morris, Jason Kohn does not back into his argument. Rather, he relies on the expository thread of the film's structure to carry a good deal of style.


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