How Real Is the Reality in Documentary Film? Jill Godmilow, in conversation with Ann-Louise Shapiro

History and Theory 36 (4):80–101 (1997)
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Abstract

Documentary film, in the words of Bill Nichols, is one of the "discourses of sobriety" that include science, economics, politics, and history-discourses that claim to describe the "real," to tell the truth. Yet documentary film, in more obvious ways than does history, straddles the categories of fact and fiction, art and document, entertainment and knowledge. And the visual languages with which it operates have quite different effects than does the written text. In the following interview conducted during the winter of 1997, historian Ann-Louise Shapiro raises questions about genre-the relationship of form to content and meaning-with documentary filmmaker Jill Godmilow.In order to explore the possibilities and constraints of non-fiction film as a medium for representing history, Godmilow was asked: What are the strategies and techniques by which documentary films make meaning? In representing historical events, how does a non-fiction filmmaker think about accuracy? authenticity? invention? What are the criteria you have in mind when you call a film like The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl "dishonest"? How does the tension between making art and making history affect documentary filmmaking? Should documentary filmmakers think of themselves, in the phrase of Ken Burns, as "tribal storytellers"? What kind of historical consciousness is produced by documentary film?

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