The assertion that certain means of cinematic representation in documentary filmmaking, such as animation, blurs boundaries between fact and fiction rests on misconceptions about the terms ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ and the relationship between reality and representation. In this paper I argue that a study of animation in factual filmmaking helps to clarify the function of representation in documentary film and the rigid boundary that divides factual from fictional assertions.
The distinction between fact and fiction is essentially a concern for the metaphysics of modality. Documentary filmmakers maintain an obligation to represent denotatively existent or possible objects and states of affairs, whereas fiction filmmakers do not. Documentary filmmakers need not succeed in their representations. They may be mistaken, or they may lie. Nevertheless, their representations concern reality and not fictions.
‘Truth’ implies a representational correspondence with a fact. Documentary filmmakers and theorists have rightly recognised that uninflected cinematic images are indexical signs and therefore truthfully represent pro-filmic reality. However, documentary films are not just collections of truthful sounds and images, but assertions about actual states of affairs. The sounds and images in a documentary film serve as evidence for the filmmakers’ overall purpose, but the film is not reducible to those sounds and images. Other aspects of reality, such as philosophical and mathematical reasoning, are factual but not photographable. Such existent ideas, though, can be represented in text, equations, diagrams, models, and animations.
Analysing the 1960 National Film Board of Canada documentary Universe, I argue that documentary filmmaking is not determined by indexical representations, but by the filmmakers’ obligation to express knowledge and beliefs about reality. Animations in Universe present astronomical knowledge of the period. Neither the filmmakers’ now dated knowledge of astronomy, nor their use of animation, blur boundaries between fact and fiction. At worst, the knowledge and animation in the film is only inaccurate.
Sellors, C. P. (2011, June). Drawing a Clear Line between Fact and Fiction in the Animated Documentary. Paper presented at Animated Realities Conference, Edinburgh College of Art, Edinburgh, Scotland