Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 5, No. 1, 1991
Edited by Alec McHoul

The truth of the documentary

William D. Routt

For John Langer


What follows, commencing with the first section below, was delivered originally as part of The Line Between Documentary and Fiction event organised by the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in Melbourne during October and November, 1987. Other papers, more interesting and a propos, were delivered by Ross Gibson (published subsequently in Filmviews) and Adrian Martin (unpublished). 1

For publication in this issue of Continuum I have determined to make only a few, minor alterations to the text as delivered over three years ago. It is intended that the informal and event-specific cast of that discourse will suggest the tentativeness of the ideas herein and the unfinished nature of its project.

The experience of truth in viewing documentaries

It seems to me that what we are supposed to talk about here - the line between documentary and fiction - is actually pretty clear. Documentaries are films which try to tell the truth, and fiction films are films which do not try to do that. At least, this is my experience of documentary and fiction films: it matters whether Poto and Cabengo is telling me the truth or lying, but I do not care whether La Jetee, for example, tells the truth or not.

I think this is the experience of most people. From time to time I have shown Luis Bunuel's documentary, Las Hurdes (1932) to students, and without fail it has provoked in some an utter disbelief. No human existence could be so awful as that film portrays. The commentary says that none of the inhabitants smiled or laughed during the time the film makers were in Las Hurdes, but students say this could not be so. They say that in some shots some of the mentally defective people shown are smiling. They are often astute enough to recognise that the goat who falls off the mountain is shown doing so in two shots. Some have read Ado Kyrou's book and claim to see a puff of smoke in the lower left corner of the screen just before the goat falls. 2 In discussions they can pile detail upon detail, instance upon instance, to show why the film must be lying. Such a response is not really naive or stupid: it is quite right to expect such a film to tell the truth, even if one does not know what truth is being told.

Umberto Eco has a story about truth which is instructive and worth repeating. Like many a sophisticated parent he had cautioned his little daughter that what she saw on television was not true. One day however, they watched the weather report together and a man said that it would be wise not to travel the next day because of the snow. When Eco tried to use this statement as grounds for staying home, his daughter reminded him that television does not tell the truth. "I was obliged to begin a very complicated dissertation in extensional logic, pragmatics of natural languages and genre theory", Eco writes, "in order to convince her that sometimes television lies and sometimes it tells the truth" . 3 My point is, of course, that even the most sophisticated viewer does expect the truth to be told by films and media in certain circumstances. Another point is, of course, that whether film or television lies is only an issue if truth is an issue, that is, if it is reasonable to expect truth to be told.

Truth-telling is one of the most commonplace and most complex situations we get ourselves into. If you ask me the time, I tell you the truth as accurately as my watch will allow, and I do it without the slightest twinge of moral agony. If you ask me how I am, however, I may lie (again with no hesitation or self-doubt) and say, 'Fine' even if I am not feeling so good, just to avoid complicated explanations.

But let us suppose we are attending a seminar on the current condition of the stock market and I am a market expert. In that situation I might try to tell you the truth about the stock market. This would be harder to do and would probably cause me some trouble and some soul-searching. In order to tell you the truth about the market, I should begin by trying to make sure that whatever I said was accurate, that my figures were right. In order to make sure I was telling the truth, you might check up on my credentials and experience. In the end, if both of us were fools enough, we might believe there was a truth to be told in such a situation; and presumably, if I thought myself a market expert, I at least would be fool enough, and if you were attending such a seminar, you might be just as big a fool as I.

However, as I stand and speak to you here, or as I wrote this some time ago, the burden of truth bears/bore yet more heavily upon me (and upon you too, of course). For I am trying to tell you the truth of something when I do not know it myself. I have no figures, and if you check on my credentials you will find that they grant me no expertise in the matter of telling the truth. The truth we are interested in here is not like the time of day or how I feel or even like what has really happened to the stock market: it is much less clearly marked. I may or may not try not to lie as I speak to you now, but I cannot even be sure when or if I am accurate in what I say: is it true that the experience of documentary is the experience of an attempt at truth, or is this only sometimes true, or only true for me? Jean-Pierre Gorin wanted to know what Poto and Cabengo were saying ("What Are They Saying?" the titles ask in case you had forget to ask it yourself, and "?????"), but I want to know what I am saying - what do I know? - and presumably you would like to know what you are hearing. Gorin found out, or thought he found out, what the twins were saying, but I am not so sure about me, about us. Perhaps, like the twins, we are all talking about potato salad.

The discussion at the end of Chronique d'un Ete might provide us with a starting point here. Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin walk around talking about their film - or as much of it as we have seen. As I recall, Rouch says very little (the canny bastard) while Morin - a theoretician ever-innocent - spills his guts about truth. He says, I think, that this film told the truth, and I think also that someone in the audience giggled when he said it. The film finishes with Rouch shaking hands with Morin and saying, "We're in trouble". You know it.

Morin's claim to truth was advanced as part of cinema verite's technological claim to truth. This sort of film was supposed to be able to tell the truth where other films could not because it had been made with a certain sort of equipment. Now, such claims are as old, and older, than the cinematic apparatus itself. Edweard Muybridge's first serial photographs were taken in order to get at the truth of whether all of a horse's feet are off the ground at once at any point during a gallop. He was hired to find the truth, and he found it by putting into place a new technology, which gathered in and recorded what human senses alone apparently could not. Cinema verite's claim to truth was based upon more portable and more sensitive equipment which allowed directly-recorded sound films to be made in almost any surroundings. Here the improved technology did not so much better the human senses as replicate them, allowing the cinema to observe 'life in the raw', just as we might see and hear it without the camera and the microphone - or at least that is what Morin seems to believe.

But both technologies were employed in the service of truth. Perhaps the most unabashed polemicist for truth through technology in the cinema was Dziga Vertov, who stands chronologically somewhere between Muybridge and Morin. Vertov wished to make films based upon the more perfect seeing of the 'kino-eye', the film camera which "gathers and records impressions in a manner wholly different from that of the human eye". 4

... implied in kino-eye were:

all cinematic means

all cinematic inventions

all methods and means that might serve to reveal and show the truth.

Not kino-eye for its own sake, but truth through the means and possibilities of film-eye, i.e., kinopravda ['film-truth']

Not "filming life unawares" for the sake of the "unawares", but in order to show people without masks, without makeup, to catch them through the eye of the camera in a moment when they are not acting... 5

In these words the correspondence between Vertov's 'kinopravda' and what Morin believed had been done in Chronique d'un Ete seems exact. Indeed, the French 'cinema verite' and the Russian 'kinopravda' are, so far as I am aware, exact translations of one another (the former having been more or less explicitly taken from the latter). Vertov's mission to see better than the human eye is here dissolved - by the truth of people without masks - into the cinema verite mission to see (and hear) as well as the human eye.

Yet there is a further step, one which I believe is significant for an understanding of what 'film-truth' has been supposed to be. Just now I suspended Vertov in mid-sentence. Let us take him up again.

... to read their thoughts, laid bare by the camera.

Kino-eye as the possibility of making the invisible visible, the unclear clear, the hidden manifest, the disguised overt, the acted nonacted; making falsehood into truth. Kino-eye as the union of science with newsreel to further the battle for the communist decoding of the world, as an attempt to show the truth on the screen. 6

'Film-truth' then, is more than mere surface. Indeed, it hardly seems to be surface at all: it is what lies beneath the surface, what is specifically "invisible ... hidden ... disguised", not the actions of those represented on the screen but "their thoughts". Here again I find no glaring contradiction between Vertov and Morin (and indeed, not even with Muybridge, who was hired to reveal what could not be seen). Clearly Morin's truth as represented in Chronique d'un Ete is the truth of character, the revelation of the 'real persons' who exist behind the facade of everyday action, "their thoughts, laid bare by the camera".

But this truth may at second glance seem somewhat at odds with what is revealed by the inhuman kino-eye which Vertov had described prowling through the world in search of the hitherto unseen. How indeed can the camera show the thoughts of its objects? How can it 'decode the world' which imprints itself upon its lens?

One of the most interesting, and fanciful, answers to these questions which I know has been posed by Michelangelo Antonioni who, I am sure you are aware, was very interested in the truth revealed by the photographic image. Writing in 1964 about photographing a street lamp on a darkened corner, Antonioni speculates that

film probably registers everything, no matter what the light and even in the darkness ... but our underdeveloped technique does not allow us to unveil everything which figures on the photogramme. We know that underneath the revealed image another image is found, one which is more faithful to reality, and beneath that another, and yet another underneath this last. And so on, unto the true image of reality, absolute, mysterious, which no one will ever see. Or perhaps again unto the decomposition of all images, of all reality, which would be a reason for an abstract cinema. 7

This is surely the apotheosis of the kino-eye, Vertov in extremis. It is also, with the words "the true image of reality ... which no one will ever see", a profession of realist faith or realist idealism, which declares truth ever beyond human apperception. We cannot go that way, although the path may well lead to a better place than this, for we would have nothing to talk about along the way.

Another path, a good one for conversation, is opened up by Chronique d'un Ete, although neither Rouch nor Morin remark on it, perhaps because to acknowledge it would also be to acknowledge that the true goal of cinema verite was not to replicate the human senses but, once again, to utilise the technology of the cinema in order to tell a truth which the human senses alone could not attain.

Surely most viewers of that film recognise that what they see in it was provoked by the camera. In the most spectacular scenes, Marilou's revelations of her feelings seem to have been made because the camera was there to gather and record them; without the camera, the kino-eye, Marilou would have said nothing. It is even possible that she would have felt nothing (she says that she did not know that she had such feelings until she began to talk for the film). But this is not only the case for Marilou: it is equally the case for Morin himself, who would not have thought precisely what he thought nor said precisely what he said had there not been the peculiar, compelling presence of the camera to register what unfolded before it. The same instrumentality is at work throughout this film, and throughout cinema verite. We see it here in the film's insistence upon the interview as its basic mode of address, but it is no less operative in Jaguar, in which the story of a journey is re-created and transformed for the film, and in which our recognition of that process of transformation is part of the truth the film is trying to tell.

In this way, through the technology which grounds the cinema, some kind of truth which differs from the truth of everyday life, from life as it is lived, is revealed in these two films of Rouch's. This truth is clearly related to the camera's ability to gather and record, which Muybridge used to settle the bet about a horse's feet; but it is also related to what Vertov calls the "structuring of the film-object" which "enables one to introduce into a film study any given motif - political, economic, or other" 8 and which John Grierson described as the "creative shaping" of natural material "which more explosively reveals the reality of it" than does mere surface description. 9 I would like to spend the rest of my time today fussing around with the idea of film-truth, if you will bear with me.

Truth as accuracy

Objections to 'film-truth'

Although I have suggested that everyone knows that documentaries try to tell the truth, I have lied in that suggestion. Some people do not know this, or do not admit it. Michelangelo Antonioni, for example - this time in a piece specifically on cinema verite and reality - pointed out that reality is characterised by "an excess of material" and that "in selecting, you falsify it". 10 In a more complicated passage, Paul Rotha resumes a number of arguments against the possibility of telling the truth in a documentary film:

No documentary can be completely truthful, for there can be no such thing as truth while the changing developments in society continue to contradict each other. Not only this, but technical reasons also preclude the expression of a completely accurate representation ... The very act of dramatizing causes a film statement to be false to actuality. We must remember that most documentary is only truthful in that it represents an attitude of mind. The aim of propaganda is persuasion, and persuasion implies a particular attitude of mind towards this, that, or the other subject. To be truthful within the technical limits of the camera and microphone demands description, which is the aim of the instructional film, and not dramatization, which is the qualification of the documentary method. Thus, even a plain statement of fact in documentary demands dramatic interpretation in order that it may be "brought alive" on the screen. 11

One does not have to accept the prescriptions of Rotha's understanding of the documentary method as necessarily involving dramatisation in order to recognise the basis of his argument: that 'facts', once enlisted in some discourse which has an aim other than their mere representation, are no longer simple facts, but complex, multi-level signs. Like Antonioni, Rotha wants to make the possibility of truthfulness dependant upon the accuracy of what is represented, that is, upon its congruence to the actual world in which we live. And, like Antonioni, he finds that this is not possible - not technically possible (the camera cannot do it, and neither can the dramatic discourse of the documentary).

Yet neither Antonioni nor Rotha entirely dismiss the accuracy of the cinematic image. Antonioni merely suggests that there is more to life than can be recorded cinematically (later in the article he writes of photographing the wind), and Rotha even says that instructional films do, or could, give more or less accurate representations of their objects. Over against this, Antonioni describes a simple encounter in a country bar, and effectively demonstrates that mere photographic accuracy would not be enough to register the truth of that encounter; while Rotha relates the truthfulness of some documentaries to "an attitude of mind", which he seems to accept can be accurately represented, thus pointing to the level at which truth can actually be attained. Gorin's films, it seems to me, clearly illustrate Rotha's observation about an attitude of mind.

Sense and reference

There are two ideas of truth at work here and, fortuitously perhaps, they correspond to the ideas of 'sense' and 'reference' in the sentence, at least as those idea have been used by Paul Ricoeur. 12 The sense is the 'what' of the sentence. It answers the question, 'what did you say?' The reference is what the sentence is about. It answers the question, 'what are you talking about?' When it is a question of shaping the material, of structure, of an attitude of mind, we are speaking of truth as sense. When it is a question of accuracy, of the kino-eye, of what can be said by an instructional film, we are speaking of truth as reference. Every sentence, every film shot, produces both sorts of meaning, and thus can produce both sorts of truth. For every shot is structured and can be read for what it says, and every shot represents something else and can be read for what it is about.

When people talk about documentary and reality it seems to me that there is usually some notion about truth and reference at the bottom of it. Most often when we experience a documentary as a lie, it is a question of accuracy that exercises us. But this need not always be the case. Jaguar, it seems to me, is a documentary in a way which I understand and accept immediately. I do not think to question its accuracy and I believe implicitly that it tells the truth as well as it can. Yet it is a film in which the reference is not immediately clear either. But if that is the case, how can I (and we, if you agree with me) accept Jaguar's accuracy when we do not know precisely what it is about?

It is not an accurate record of a journey taken some time ago, which would have been filmed at the time it took place. It is not an accurate record of a journey taken to repeat that journey, which would have included shots of the film makers and of the filming. It is not an accurate record of a contemporary African folk tale about that journey, which would have been a record of the performance of the telling and would have had to include its African audience. It seems to be about the telling of a such folk tale, yes, but one which is very much 'of the cinema', inasmuch as its audience is us, is anyone at all.

Apparently Jaguar's reference and its sense are very closely linked. It is about what it says.

Eco on the generic tendency of semiosis

I need more help here. Perhaps I can get it from Umberto Eco again. In the French version of A Theory of Semiotics, which was called La structure absente (the absent structure), he made some observations about iconic images in which he pointed out that a photograph of a rhinoceros tends to be read as The Rhinoceros rather than as one specific rhinoceros in one time and place. 13 The Rhinoceros was effectively dropped from A Theory of Semiotics, but it resurfaced in reflection in Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (164-226). 14 It seems to be germane.

In that book Eco's discussion of mirrors finishes with the transformation of the mirror image into a sign, as happens in photography. He stresses that the photographic image is tied to its referent, that it "is indeed an imprint or a trace". 15 However,

While testifying that the plate has been exposed to something (and, in view of that, photographic images can be used as evidence), it nevertheless arouses the suspicion that something has not been there at all ... A photograph can lie. We realize that, even when we assume, naively, if not under the influence of a fidelistic attitude, that it does not. The objective referent is conjectured and yet, at every moment, it risks dissolving in pure conjecture. Is a photograph the photograph of a man or the photograph of that man? It depends on how we use it ... in any imprint, however well defined, as that of an exposed plate, generic characters ultimately prevail over specific ones. 16

The transformation into a sign is, in other words, a transformation into generality. It is an opening-up of the specific, limited character of 'the real world'. This is the reverse of a usually unspoken attitude which attributes to unmediated reality an infinite possibility of meaning (and thus, of truth) - an attitude commonly expressed by documentary film makers and theorists. Most often, it is assumed that transforming something into discourse or into a code restricts that something, as when Antonioni assumes that selection falsifies reality, but this is not the case, according to Eco:

A code is not only a rule which closes but also a rule which opens. It not only says 'you must' but says also 'you may' or 'it would also be possible to do that'. If it is a matrix, it is a matrix allowing for infinite occurrences, some of them still unpredictable, the source of a game. 17

In a photograph then, the reference is made into "a genus, a scheme, a concept, pure content" 18 at the same time that it retains its specific, causal relation to the image. Put into the terms I have been just been using, the reference becomes, in part at least, transformed into the sense, and the image is about what it says.

On another level, it seems to me that this dual property of photographic reference is the origin of the truth of photography (and of documentary). Without either the photographic referent's specific character as an imprint of actuality or its generalising tendency as a sign we would have no impression of its truth, or its truth would not be the same sort of issue that it is for us now (its truth would be like the truth of everyday or of a painting, not, as it is, like the truth of history).

The line between documentary and fiction as a question of reference

To return to the ostensible subject of this seminar, the line between documentary and fiction seems now to be a matter of the reference of the one and the other. Documentaries do intend to refer to 'the real world', to things as they actually are, but this reference is finally not inextricably tied to the kino-eye photographic properties of film, to its ability to imprint itself. For the imprinting of actuality is only a symptom of a certain kind of reference which places a great deal of significance on the real world; it is only one way in which such a reference can be made, not the only way. Jaguar is a test case for me precisely because of the ambiguous reference of its photographic images and the unambiguous reference of the film as a whole to the real world. In Jaguar the specific accuracy of the images, whether they are 'about' anything that really happened, is of no moment in apprehending its truth. This is the reverse of a situation with which we are all familiar, where 'real images' are used to create 'fictional worlds' - the situation we call, at one extreme, propaganda and, at another, collage.

I think most of us share an intuitive, unthought feeling that documentary in film and history in writing have a common bond, and I have already played upon that feeling. Paul Ricoeur distinguishes history from literature very much as I have tried to distinguish documentary from fiction. Since he does it far better than I could and since his ideas are one basis for what I have been saying, his words warrant quotation.

However fictional the historical text may be, it claims nevertheless to be a representation of reality. In other words, history is both a literary artefact (and in this sense a fiction) and a representation of reality. It is a literary artefact insofar as, in the manner of all literary texts, it tends to assume the status of a self-sufficient system of symbols. It is a representation of reality insofar as the world that it depicts - and which is the 'world of the work' - claims to hold for real events in the real world. 19

Truth as metalanguage or situation

Truth-telling and truth-hearing

Truth-telling is not what this paper is about - certainly not if you take that phrase as the beginning of a how-to lecture: 'Fifty Ways to Improve Your Health and Income by Telling the Truth in Documentary Films'. The only way I know how to tell the truth is by reminding you that I am lying. But that too, is a lie, of course.

I am glad that I have to do that, however, because it gives me an apt example for the next significant point of this talk: that truth is not a solitary vice. I cannot tell the truth to myself.

It is surely both grandiose and banal of me to have called these remarks "The Truth of the Documentary", but they are finally about that partly because they are about the situation in which truth is revealed or makes itself manifest. Not then, about speaking the truth, nor yet about hearing the truth, not about making films or watching films, but about the circumstances of making and watching. Truth-telling is as much, or more, a set of expectations about what will be said as it is an intention to say something. If truth is experienced - if it is told - in a particular situation, it is as a result of the situation, as a result then, of communication. As such, it escapes the direct control of either the truth-teller or the truth-hearer, although as a phenomenon it seems to be one of reception rather than of projection - by which I mean that truth is something we recognise first of all, not something we make.

The question

The question that arises as I watch a documentary, 'is this film telling the truth?', does not spring unbidden to the mind. It is, I think, the question of documentary, which is to say, the question asked by every documentary. I say that the film asks the question, but perhaps it is truer to say that the situation asks the question: the metalanguage which tells me what is going on or, if you prefer, the set of expectations set in train by the genre 'documentary'. What seems important about this right now is that I am only a vehicle for the question, not its origin.

Put in another way, as a documentary attempts to tell me the truth, it asks whether this is what it is doing. Not 'What Are They Saying?' or even 'What Do I Know?', but 'can you dig it?' Truth is not simply a matter of stating something, nor is it simply a matter of seeing something. It is a matter of asking and answering a question: of agreement, of communitas. We must be together in this business, the film and I.

The conversation

A question is one beginning for the interchange which in speech we call a dialogue or a conversation. I find no difficulty in extending the idea of a conversation to cover my relation to a film, either insofar as the metaphor describes what happens when I am watching a film or as it describes what happens when I undertake to more fully understand the film, that is, to interpret it. It seems to me that in either case there is a constant interchange between me and the film, from which neither of us emerges the same as we went in.

I am using the idea of a conversation (which in any case is not my idea but Hans-Georg Gadamer's) 20 as a counterweight to two other positions about what happens if one experiences truth in a film. The first of these suggests that if truth is recognised it is only at the expense of one's separate identity: to accept the truth of what is said is to submit to the film, to lose integrity. The second asserts the opposite, that to find truth is to impose one's self upon the film, to make it fit one's preconceptions: one swallows the film, so to speak, discretely expelling what does not conform as one might convey a fishbone to a serviette.

Over against these antithetical, and unpleasant, positions, there is the idea of the conversation as a means of mutually discovering something neither of us knew when we started. The truth which arises during a conversation is not your truth, nor my truth, but our truth and its truth. Indeed, the plural subject is significant here, because the truth which arises during a conversation belongs, by virtue of its having come to be in discourse, to all of us. It is not something private at all, as it is in the self-obsessed analyses of power and control in discourse, but a public phenomenon, a communication.

By the same token, if the model of conversation is to hold for the experience of truth in a film it must be conceded that discourse informs that experience as well, that truth does not arise outside of discourse, which is only to say, once again, that truth is a phenomenon of communication, that it postulates communication as its ground. Here however, our understanding of communication is not that a message is passed from one person to another, but rather that a complex interaction takes place, calling upon and redefining the world we hold in common.

Truth as a result of historical experience.

Most of the time when we speak of truth we mean something which exists outside of time. I think it is important to recognise that the truth of which I am speaking here does not do that. Because it can only be conceived of within a situation, because it is a phenomenon of discourse (which is language in use), this idea of truth asserts that it arises out of historical circumstances and into historical circumstances. Perhaps it is true that science can utter truths which are independent of the time and place in which they are uttered, but I certainly cannot.

Yet, it is the particular property of history that it does not stop (or at least, it has not done so thus far). We are not radically cut off from what has gone before us; and those who come after, even those who come after the revolution, will not be radically cut off from us or from those who went before us. We are not prisoners of history, for there can be no existence outside of history. All the truth we know or can know shares the cell with us, which is the same cell humanity has inhabited and will inhabit. Only the markings on the walls change, and even they tend to repeat the same things over and over. (Doubtless they are the shadows of the panopticon of language.) Within the cell lie an infinity of points, of positions, not one of which repeats any other. Each time one of us deciphers the writing on the wall she reads a different message - and, strangely, the walls move outward. Or it could be a trick of the light.

Truth as compulsion and revelation

Truth and meaning

Now where have I got myself, trying to tell the truth? Surely into a mammoth lie: contrary assertions leading to an unwieldy, inappropriate metaphor spun out beyond the limits of toleration. If this is truth - or even a stab at it - we'd all be better off at the movies, where what you see is what you get on some level at least.

Hannah Arendt says that "there are no truths beyond and above factual truths: all scientific truths are factual truths ... and only factual statements are scientifically verifiable", and "to expect truth to come from thinking signifies that we mistake the need to think with the urge to know". 21 Here is perhaps the strongest possible equation of truth with reference, the strongest reminder of the connection between truth and the concrete world of fact. But what is the foundation of that connection? What understanding of truth is at work here?

"Truth is what we are compelled to admit by the nature either of our senses or of our brain", Arendt answers. Her examples, garnered from the Philebus and Being and Time, are themselves compelling commonplaces. 'What is it that appears there? It is a person.' 'There is a poster on the wall behind me.' "Truth as self-evidence does not need any criterion; it is the criterion, the final arbiter, of everything that then may follow". 22 It may be that finally it is because we do not know any 'higher truth', which would compel our behaviour, that we can claim to be free at all. 23

The compulsion of metaphor

This is the counterposition to Eco's recognition that when we consider a photograph the absence of its reference opens up a space for doubt, for freedom, which we then fill with generality. Here fact and compulsion are one and truth becomes necessity: the specific and inescapable causal antecedent of the photograph dominates over its wayward existence as a sign.

Yet there are compelling truths that are not dictated by the necessity of facts. These are the truths we associate with works of art. They are, it seems to me, as equally undeniable in their force as are the mundane truths of face-to-face existence. When we speak of being 'overwhelmed' by a film, a book, a piece of music, we are, I think, acknowledging an experience of truth. The artwork hits us with the compulsion of direct experience: we feel its truth above and beyond the force of any argument. We do not need to be persuaded, we do not need to think: we know.

The difference is that, unlike the compelling truths of facts, the truths of art are often not shared with others. Fact compels me and you alike, but it is quite likely that, of us here, only I am similarly compelled by Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens. These truths arise much more certainly out of and into historical circumstance; they are more surely of the situation rather than of any situation.

This does not mean, I believe, that such truths are not truth, nor that they are incommunicable. Truth, even fact-truth, is founded in discourse, and discourse is what binds and separates us. Indeed I think that the truths which compel us in art are elaborations of a common discursive experience of truth, perhaps the common discursive experience of truth. I mean metaphor. Here I must have recourse again to Paul Ricoeur, who knows more about metaphor than I do. The ideas that follow are adopted for convenience from the condensed discussion of this topic that occurs in Interpretation Theory. 24

The truth of a metaphor whose truth we admit is, like that of an artwork, immediate and compelling. Metaphor is no argument: it is crystallisation, realisation. Like any other element of discourse, metaphor refers to the real world, but it does so by comparison, by saying that such-and-such in the real world is like such-and-such. Moreover, it does so by eliminating the trace of its direct reference and substituting something else. When I referred to our existence within history by speaking of a prison cell, I did not in fact say anything directly about history and its effect at all. I lied then, by pretending to be talking about one thing while really talking about another. But if I lied, it was in order to better tell the truth, it was because discourse offers me the possibility of metaphor to tell you what cannot be said directly.

This is because discourse contains certain mechanisms which are designed to change the way we see the world - no, to change the world, tout court. Metaphor redescribes the world and, as Ricoeur says, with its "eclipse of the objective, manipulable world thus makes way for the revelation of a new dimension of reality and truth". 25

Metaphor compels then, but it also reveals. It forces those who accept it to look again, to look anew: to see the truth which had not been visible before. This is not, it seems to me, simply a question of meaning or of, as Arendt says, the speculative, tentative endpoints of thinking. What happens in metaphor is an experience of truth, and is ultimately the same sort of experience of truth as what happens in art, which is itself only an extreme case of all truth-telling, the inevitable consequence of the referential aspect of discourse.


Let me recast things slightly. Truth compels, but it also reveals. And to say that it reveals is to say that it is in some sense unsought - that it does not matter if we seek it or not. Truth cannot be made, only apprehended. It is "not what we do or what we ought to do, but what happens to us over and above our wanting and doing". 26

The truth of the documentary then, is not the 'message' which its maker may or may not have intended (which is, quite clearly, the sense of the film) nor a meaning which we 'read into' the film, but something which escapes the control of both film maker and audience and which is, moreover, on this level tied at least conceptually to the imprinted, referential nature of the film image: the truth of the events, the object, about which the film purports to speak. On this level the relationship is analogous, not casual, as it is in Eco's discussion of mirrors. 'Here is something' says the film image, just like Socrates, and 'here is truth' says the film, just like Gadamer.

So the truth told by documentary is not what this or that film declares to be true. Indeed, it seems to me that the denotative, referential quality of the photographic image suggests/demands interpretations of events other than those offered within a given film, strictly in accordance with the tension between specificity and generality in the iconic sign. This is the case even when, as with Rouch's films, the film involved is the only record of those events, or when, as in the case of Jaguar specifically and of Marker's documentaries, the film's reference is to a real fiction, when it is the document of a dream.


1. Ross Gibson, "What Do I Know? Chris Marker and the Essayist Mode of Cinema", Filmviews, v.32, n.134 (Summer 1987/88) pp.26-30.

2. Ado Kyrou, Luis Bunuel: An Introduction (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1963), pp.42-43.

3. Umberto Eco, "Can Television Teach?" Screen Education, n.31 (Summer 1979), pp.15-24; this quotation, p.15.

4. Dziga Vertov, "Kinooks: A Revolution" in Kino-Eye: the Writings of Dziga Vertov (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984) (originally published, 1923), p.15.

5. Dziga Vertov, "The Birth of Kino-Eye", in Kino-Eye: the Writings of Dziga Vertov (Berkeley: University of California Press 1984) (originally published, 1924), p.41.

6. Ibid, pp.41-42.

7. Quoted in Barthelmy Amangual, Clefs pour le cinema (Paris: ditions Seghers, 1971), p.53.

8. Veryov, "Kinooks", pp.20-21.

9. John Grierson, "First Principles of Documentary" in R.M. Barsam ed., Nonfiction Film: Theory and Criticism (New York: Dutton, 1976), pp.19-30; these quotations, pp.20 & 23.

10. Michelangelo Antonioni, "Le cinema direct et la realite", tudes cinematographiques, n.36-37 (1964) pp.3-6; this quotation, p.3.

11. Paul Rotha, "Some Principles of Documentary" in R.M. Barsam ed., Nonfiction Film: Theory and Criticism (New York: Dutton, 1976), pp.42-55; this quotation p.53.

12. Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1976), pp.19-22. His usage here follows that of Gottlob Frege.

13. Umberto Eco, La structure absente: introduction … la recherche semiotique, trans. U. Esposito-Torrigiani (Paris: Mercure de France, 1972), p.184.

14. Umberto Eco, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (London: Macmillan, 1984), pp.164-226.

15. Ibid, p.223.

16. Ibid, pp.223-224.

17. Ibid, p.187.

18. Ibid, p.226.

19. Paul Ricoeur, "The Narrative Function" in Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p.291)

20. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: Crossroad, 1986), pp.325-341.

21. Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind Vol.1: Thinking (London: Secker and Warburg, 1978), p.61.

22. Ibid, p.120.

23. Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind Vol.2: Willing (London: Secker and Warburg, 1978) p.22.

24. Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory, pp.45-69.

25. Ibid, p.68.

26. Gadamer, Truth and method, p.xvi.

New: 23 December, 1995 | Now: 18 March, 2015