Lying in Documentaries

When I say lying in documentaries I don’t mean mockumentaries like “Catfish” or “Dark Side of the Moon”. What I mean is the usage of out of context material.

One of the most famous examples is the “cold dead hands” speech of Charlton Heston in “Bowling for Columbine’. In the documentary, the impression is given that Heston is holding the speech shortly after the Columbine Massacre in Denver, depicting him as an unemphathetic gun-fanatic. As it turns out, this speech was given a year later in North Carolina. So Michael Moore critics say, the material is used out of context and is therefore a false statement.

Let’s have a look at another example we are all familiar with. The little Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc running along a street after an napalm attack. Crying, naked and with 3rd degree burns.  3 G.I.s walk in the background, apparently indifferent to the suffering of the girl.

But when we watch film coverage if that event, the situation looks different. The G.I.s actually do care, give her something to drink and a jacket. And the physical and psychological pain for the girl seems far less intense as well. (And the airstrike that wounded the girl was not of American but South-Vietnamese origin by the way.)

So if we apply the “out of context” argument, the photo of the “Napalm Girl” is actually a lie, because of three reasons:
a) The photo seems to have captured the most horrific split-secound. Kim Phuc seems to scream in agony, but on the film it id evident that she is not.
b) The presence of the American G.I.s strongly implies that the girl was hit by a U.S. air-strike.
c) The soldiers seem indifferent in the photo but empathetic in the film.

However, I argue that it was morally justified to put the photo out of context. And the reason for it is that it is telling a generally true story. Because civilians were hit by napalm-bombs. Because children were burned alive during the Vietnam war and because most G.I.s were indifferent towards the people they were actually sent to protect. However, all the events that actually happened were not captured in such a breathtaking image. (Apart of the My Lei massacre, that spawned most of the other infamous Vietnam war-photographs) So the photo of the Napalm Girl is telling a true story as a generalisation, that it is not true for the actual event is not important in my opinion. The same applies to “Bowling for Columbine” and any other documentary.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.