Documentary and the World as Exhibit

This section of the Visual Research Methods class has been a really enlightening experience for me. I have always enjoyed watching documentaries and learning new things, especially with the advent of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime that have given me unprecedented access to a huge library of documentaries. With this section of the class I have learned to not only analyze this form in new and deeper ways, but also experiment with communicating in a medium of which I have only been a consumer before.

The opportunity to create my own documentary allowed me to explore the position of the film maker and consider:

  • What are the motivations for making a particular documentary?
  • What am I trying to communicate?
  • How do I build trust with an audience?
  • How do I construct a narrative?
  • How do I maintain transparency and honesty with an audience?

Watching and analyzing my classmates’ documentaries and reading their analyses of professional, full-length documentaries helped hone my ability to engage in the process of unpacking these same questions as a viewer. I have a new appreciation for the process of documentary as a mode of communication and I’m actually looking forward to exploring it further.

The readings for today took this process of examination further. One of the themes of the Michell reading was the ways in which the West and colonizing forces have turned the world into an exhibit, blurring the lines between the real and the represented. As someone who also loves museums, aquariums, and zoos as much as documentaries as opportunities for learning is was a new perspective to me. What does it mean to view the objects of another culture’s everyday life as a work of art? What does it mean to look at live animals in a controlled environment? How real are those experiences? More than that, what does it mean to be a Westerner interested in learning about other cultures? Growing up as a member of a colonizing society, isn’t that desire to see and learn about others inherently “othering” and objectifying? And if this is true for these physical spaces, then how does that play into documentary? These connections seem obvious with regard to ethnographic films, but I struggle to understand how true they are for other types of documentary. I appreciate documentary as a tool of communication and teaching and learning, both as an audience member and now as a creator as well. Incorporating this concept of  the world as exhibit is another step in the process for me. I’m interested in further unpacking what it means to attempt to capture something in a documentary when that process also transforms the subject into a symbol of itself.


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