The Philosophy of Documentary Film

The art of documentary filmmaking carries with itself a sense of philosophical undertaking beyond any established or proverbial school of thought. With its philosophical component in the act of producing a documentary film documentaries also carries in itself a language, a film language, which is used to communicate a message to its niche of diverse viewers. In this pursuit of communication two things occur—one, the act of entertaining a story to its growing and changing audience, and two, the act of informing others through raising awareness. These intentions to use such film language compels the documentary filmmaker—in some degree—to take on the role of the philosopher with a camera in the field.

Just as the philosopher devises arguments with well-conceived premises and point-of-views by semantically defining terminologies used and deconstructing realities and perspectives so does the documentary filmmaker do too as he and she goes to work. A specific and simple question is what guides both the philosopher (in the academia or in writing) and the documentary filmmaker; and mildly the journalist at work. This question is the motive for the thesis for a documentary film. It may begin with a “why” or a “how” or even a “what” or “who”. Nonetheless, documentary filmmaking is the tendency to dig deeper into a topic and subject matter—an undertaking that requires the same scrutinizing homework as the philosopher.

The only slight difference in both realities of documentary filmmaking and “philosophizing” in the traditional sense—the writing of treatises and the teaching component in the academia—is the level of research necessary in both fields. The documentary film director and producer drives their specific story with, hopefully, a graceful flow of meticulous details in storylines and features necessarily delivered with heavy research. Research is paramount in this regard to the searching of archival footage material, documentation of a long, continuous narrative or issue, biographies of potential interviewees, and tidbits of information on a given topic or subject matter. All of these details and notes to the research is then scripted for the documentary film—which eventually outlines the film’s thesis. On the other hand, the traditional philosopher uses research for his or her concluding arguments to dialogues that have been carried forth in the history of philosophy with the continuance of established universals. Research in this regard is not at the same level and capacity as the research of facts, information, and impartial understanding to material that documentary film productions necessitate for their completed works.

Since documentary filmmakers must be excellent communicators to their story’s subjects and interviewees they too must be demonstrably superb writers and thinkers. The tendency to simplify language for better and more informed clarity is at the heart of any published philosopher, philosophy professor, and public intellectual in the field of philosophy. This practice is also fundamental for the documentary filmmaker and his small crew. The questions that film documentarians ask in a sit-down, on-camera interview and the story they end up scripting for post-production of a film is very much in par with the works in the field of philosophy. Philosophers ask a series of questions to get a better feel of the topic at hand and must redirect such answers to questions in written form—either in a college thesis paper, an article in an academic journal, or in long form through a book or essay.

The title of this blog could very much be the name of the next college course to befall in a public or private university’s academic curriculum. In such a course the professor bridges both the understanding and enterprise of philosophy with the art of documentary filmmaking. Here, the marriage of the two disciplines can teach of the power of the platform documentary filmmaking have in the 21st century. Even if broken down in semantics philosophy can be better understood as “learning how to learn.” In that understanding documentaries can literally take on that philosophical enterprise using the camera lens to document a story or tackle an issue as a prescription to changing people’s minds or simply changing people’s thoughts and thinking from ideology and doctrine to enlightenment and self-realization.

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