One of documentary’s most effective characteristics is its ability to highlight the world around us. Our world has so much to offer, and documentary helps to document it. Politics, nation states, or society can prove to be influential subjects, often posing a variety of questions surrounding the ethics of filmmaking and representing others. When creating documentaries about politics and nation states, filmmakers must question how they might avoid stereotyping certain people and instead remain authentic and respectful. When filmmakers are able to gracefully demonstrate society through a reliable and courteous frame, powerful films are made. Two such films were presented in class. Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber’s Peace Officerand Jesse Moss’s The Overnighters. While these documentaries appear on the surface to be a distant representation of society, they can have the power to personally connect with all audiences and individuals.
It can be easy to assume while watching a documentary that the viewer will solely passively watch the film and not be affected. Films involving politics, society, and nation states however, demonstrate an interesting dynamic between the audience, the subjects, and the filmmaker. Bill Nichols, author of Introduction to Documentary, explains that documentaries have a “complex weave of identities, voices, and times that constitute national identity as a fragile, multi faceted entity” (Nichols 185). Managing this can be difficult, but many filmmakers have successfully done so. In Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber’s Peace Officer,the directors create an interesting situation for audiences as they watch and hear sit-down interviews with both sides of the story adamantly testifying their opinions. On one hand the militarized police officers swear by using violence. Juxtaposed with their strong opinions, pleading victims of SWAT team forces personally demonstrate the affect of these traumatic attacks. Audiences watch in awe at the impact these societal issues have had on living people, and soon they realize that the film is in fact “focus[ed] on the individual rather than the social issue” (Nichols 187). These emotional testaments ring in the ears of audiences and viewers, most of who come to the theater with various background experiences and opinions. With such polarized opinions in Peace Officer, audiences bring with them the ability to connect and relate to the story being told on screen, and in the end, whether they believe it or not, they are changed by what they have seen. This is one of documentary’s most powerful abilities as it shows real people, real stories.
Another film that follows this same structure is Jesse Moss’s The Overnighters, a film about a North Dakota pastor who opens the church’s doors to homeless men and women. This film is one that most audiences might not feel an immediate connection to, but as the story unfolds, it is easy to see how the documentary isn’t exclusively focused on a societal issue, but rather many different struggles individuals are dealing with, including the pastor. This documentary helps to provide a voice for marginalized groups (Nichols 174). Although difficult, the filmmaker Jesse Moss had to restrain from getting involved in the story, such as warning the pastor about a controversial publishing in the newspaper, in order to remain authentic to the story unfolding. It is through the demonstration of vulnerability and emotional reveals that this film helps connect with audiences on another level. If the filmmaker had intervened and adjusted the truth and natural course of events from coming to the surface, the film would not have been as effective. Instead, it stands as an incredibly moving documentary that deals with a variety of issues from charity to adultery to homelessness.
Documentaries that feature society and all of its complex issues can have powerful impacts on audiences. Although on the surface they may seem to be observational documents of community and civilization, there are often beautifully personal connections to be found within. Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber’s Peace Officerdelivers a film filled with high stakes as opposing opinions clash over a sensitive topic of the militarization of SWAT teams in Utah. Audiences are given the opportunity to digest and contemplate the story that is unfolding in their very community. Jesse Moss’s The Overnighterssimilarly provides a heartfelt story of homelessness and compassion, which unexpectedly takes a turn toward betrayal. It is an emotional film that causes audiences to contemplate the intricacies presented. Both films, alongside many others, prompt audiences to feel emotionally connected and moved by the stories that are happening in their very communities.
Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary, Third Edition, Indiana University Press, 2017.