This essay on documentary film takes on as its mission a daunting task: defining criteria for the identification of "documentary film" and subsequently applying them to Michael Moore's Roger and Me. From the outset, I acknowledge the problematic nature of this undertaking. Were there a general consensus on the definition of documentary film then the task would be straightforward; at the end of this exercise, the reader would be either convinced or unconvinced by my argument as to the status of Roger and Me. But there is no, and can be no, agreement on the definition of documentary film. If you resist my definition, and therefore my conclusion, so be it. However, at a time when the line between documentary and drama is being increasingly and intentionally obscured, this attempt to isolate a more conclusive definition seems a worthwhile challenge. Before I proceed, I must state unequivocally that my goal here is neither to laud nor discredit Michael Moore or Roger and Me. It is rather to lay out the criteria that define documentary film and then determine whether Roger and Me can be said to belong to this genre.
A Working Definition of Documentary Film
What is it that makes a film a documentary? This question has been debated since the first nonfiction films appeared with the invention of the moving picture. For the purposes of this discussion, I posit that a documentary must meet the following five requirements: (1) it must attempt to tell a true story in a non-dramatic fashion; (2) it must appear to do so by presenting only factual evidence; (3) it must not attempt to re-create the truth (though some would defend the validity of this method); (4) it must claim objectivity; (5) most importantly, (and perhaps most difficult to ascertain) it must, as closely as possible, present all factual evidence in its original context.
John Grierson, who coined the term "documentary" in a 1926 essay, identified it as a "creative treatment of reality." This definition certainly seems to leave room for authorial augmentation and interpretation of events. I would suggest that "creative treatment" of reality leaves a documentary film vulnerable to becoming a work of fiction. Still, while my five criteria drive full-force at the necessity for a factual, objective, in-context examination of events, I do not lose sight of Grierson's definition. Though the perfect documentary should, in the Foucault tradition, appear to be authorless, the very medium of film precludes the possibility of this ideal. My "perfect" documentary is an impossibility (an issue I will address further towards the end of this piece). So I acknowledge Grierson here; every documentary brings with it, its author's repertoire of experience and his/her creative vision of reality.
In support of my definition, I will briefly justify each of the criteria I mentioned. As to the need to tell a true story, this is the very basis for documentary film. In "Questions Regarding the Genesis of Nonfiction Film," Komatsu Hiroshi writes, "The concept to which 'documentary film' currently refers is, in the end, subsumed in nonfiction...The negation signified by the prefix "non" in the term "nonfiction" is conceptually very clear: namely, that nonfiction is what is not fiction" (Hiroshi, WWW). Put quite simply then, the narrative must purport to be true.
My second and third criteria, require that only factual evidence be presented and that its representation not be in the form of "re-creation." I find it necessary to include these criteria in order to preserve the integrity of the "true story." Surmised truth, in my opinion, must be assumed to be fiction. It may likely be true, it may, in fact, seem to be the only rational explanation, but it may also be convenient to achieving the author's ends. I do not take issue with documentary filmmakers who present partial truth and thus permit viewers to make a personal determination of what most likely is true (one could argue that communication of "complete" truth is never achieved due to the inability to fully control interpretation). I simply disqualify those documentaries that invent truth when none is legitimately available. Likewise I dismiss "re-creations" of the truth which rely on the assumptions of both director and actors as to how factual events occurred. Verisimilitude is, in my opinion, detrimental to the documentary. There is a current trend in documentary, particularly popular television docu-dramas such as Unsolved Mysteries, to recreate a story and present it as factual evidence. However, truth lies in details and these recreations can only guess at them. Worse off, those crafting the recreations are unduly tempted (even subconsciously) to fill in details that further their own discursive agendas.
My fourth criterion states that the film must appear to be objective. Most literary theorists tell us, and rightly so, that every text has an agenda above and beyond its ostensible content. No text is created in a vacuum and no author can claim to be unaffected by the events, experiences, and learning that shape his/her perception. That said though, I expect a documentary to claim objectivity and make a reasonable attempt at it. If the director/author reveals an agenda that seems above and beyond the matter at hand, the audience, I believe, can become distrustful. In, "Documentary and Self-Representation in the Post-Verité Age, " Michael Renov supports the possibility of objectivity by building Raymond Williams' concept of a reasonable reliability into its definition: " ...objective was to be construed as 'factual, fair-minded (neutral) and hence reliable, as distinct from the sense of subjective as based on impressions rather than facts, and hence as influenced by personal feelings and relatively unreliable'" (Renov, WWW). Though objectivity itself may exist only in theory, Renov's less stringent definition calls only for a clear and reasonable attempt at fair-mindedness.
My last requirement is perhaps the one that is easiest to understand but most difficult to prove in a work: communication of proper context when relaying factual evidence. Intentional miscommunication of context is a powerful and effective way for a director to elicit a specific response and control viewer interpretation, while appearing to adhere to other expectations regarding accurate historical representation. One must never forget that the creation of documentary film shares more in common with the creation of fictional film than it does with the actual occurrence of the events it portrays. The documentary may portray the truth but it remains a narrow view shown through the eye of a camera; this is an eye that remains beyond the audience's control. When perceiving "truth" in actual events, we experience those events with multiple senses and, often, 360 degrees of mobility. The documentary does its best to simulate the experience, but it cannot escape reliance on standard techniques of filmmaking that require a filmmaker to construct the reality. It is startlingly simple to create a fictional story by carefully arranging and controlling the revelation of reliable, factual information. The filmmaker's challenge is great: to reveal the "truth," in a context that first and foremost supports the factual evidence (not to the exclusion of extenuating circumstances), and only secondarily, the filmmaker's "creative" interpretation.
With my definition of documentary film established, I now turn the spotlight on Michael Moore's Roger and Me. In "Jargons of Authenticity," Paul Arthur describes this film as one of a handful that "shares with other cultural phenomena...a perhaps unprecedented degree of hybridization (of film genres)" (127). It would be foolish to suggest that Michael Moore intended to make a traditional documentary. It was his very intention to synthesize the traditional forms of the genre with the techniques used in the creation of dramatic film. It would further be foolish for me to delay in stating my own hypothesis: while Roger and Me attempts to reinvent documentary for the modern audience, the end product, in my estimation, borrows too much from the realm of fiction, to be called a documentary. By measuring Roger and Me against the definition I set forth in the first part of this essay, I will attempt to justify my position.
My first stated criterion requires that the film attempt to tell a true story in non-dramatic fashion. In some respects, Michael Moore appears to fulfill this requirement. This film does tell the story of how the city of Flint, Michigan suffered after General Motors laid off thousands of autoworkers. This story is told as our filmmaker attempts to track down Roger Smith, then chairman of GM. There is no question that this town found economic hard times in the wake of GM's actions; in principle, the telling of this story does not violate my first requirement.
Unfortunately, the companion text, Michael Moore's quest to meet Roger Smith and bring him to Flint, is an out-and-out construction. Michael Moore has created a story about himself (the first few minutes of the film are actually dedicated to telling his own life story). The search for Roger Smith and many of the exploits Moore experiences along the way, would not have occurred were he not filming this movie. It is, in many respects, dubious to create a documentary about events that would not otherwise have occurred.
Not only is the storyline developed for the purpose of creating this film, so too are characters constructed for the purpose of creating that story. As I mentioned, from the initial moments, Moore himself is inserted as a "character" in this fiction. In fact, Michael Moore has built a series of recurring characters who form the basis for the story (see figure 1); Moore himself stars as "the filmmaker" in search of Roger Smith. Other characters include a sheriff's deputy who evicts the residents of Flint, an underprivileged woman who must sell rabbits (as meat or pets) to get by; an Amway salesperson and aura analyst; a GM lobbyist who, after arguing tirelessly in GM's behalf, is himself laid off at the film's end; and of course the great enemy himself, Roger Smith. While the characters may be constructed from reality, they are constructed nonetheless.
The camera follows these characters in dramatic fashion as they reveal the details of their lives. Each of them helps to drive home Moore's pointed message about the egregious wrong that has been perpetrated on his hometown.
One last point regarding my first criterion: I must take issue with Moore's dramatic technique in presenting this "true story." The latter portion of my first requirement states that the story must be told in non-dramatic fashion. After all, even Sunday night made-for-television movies claim to be true stories. It is the non-dramatization of a story that enables it to bear the authenticity of a documentary. Moore's hybrid takes too many liberties in the use of traditional dramatic tools. Consider the frame of Tom Kay in figure 1 which has been taken from the end of the film. The title informs us of Tom's fate after the conclusion of the "story." This is a technique used in fictional film for relating the fate of a character whose story cannot be contained within the temporal structure of the narrative. In documentary though, there should be no such need. There is no parcel of time that is beyond our reach because we are usually looking at events that have already concluded or are presently happening. Moore uses other dramatic devices as well including old movie footage, an ironically pointed soundtrack, and even a progress map (not unlike the one used at the beginning of Casablanca) which summarizes Smith's travels across the country (see figure 2). I also call into question the gratuitous violence in the rabbit scene which does not serve to further our understanding of events. Gratuitous violence is another technique employed in dramatic portrayal to hold viewer attention or draw emphasis to particular events, beyond that which those events normally command. Whether it be in construction of a fictional story or use of dramatic devices, Moore's film does not present a strict non-dramatic presentation of a true story.
Use of Factual Evidence
My second and third criteria relate to the presentation of factual evidence and the avoidance of re-created "factual" evidence. Certainly the facts we learn about Flint are true. Actually, Moore goes to great pains to provide us with hard numbers, real people, and real imagery. However, Moore taints justifiably important interview footage by juxtaposing it with footage that has very little to do with his story. There are many scenes of Flint's townspeople that, rather than show how their lives have been ruined, seem to serve little purpose other than to ridicule them; one cannot always see a cause-and-effect relationship between certain idiosyncratic behaviors and the GM layoffs. Other scenes, particularly those near the beginning of the film, seem only to document the life of Michael Moore and do nothing for the case that he is ostensibly presenting.
I must also call into question two scenes, one which I suspect is re-created the other which is wholly created. When Moore laments his experience in San Francisco, he relates his inability to find a simple cup of coffee. The audience is presented with a waitress (see figure 3) who nervously lists the multitude of coffee options available while looking directly into the camera (as if we the audience were making an inquiry). While it is possible that a hidden camera simply happened to catch this moment, it seems much more likely that this woman is performing for us. I would similarly call into question the scene in which the woman who raises rabbits kills and then guts an animal for the camera.
This woman is clearly performing this disturbing act for the camera's benefit.
In my opinion, these scenes are beyond the realm of documentary film.
My fourth requirement calls for objectivity. Lack of objectivity is perhaps an understatement when it comes to Roger and Me (and Moore's other work, including TV Nation). This is not a judgment on the worth of the film; it is simply a statement that this work may not meet my criteria to be considered a documentary. I will quickly posit that Michael Moore makes no claims to be objective. From the outset of the film, he makes his resentment towards both GM and the town of Flint abundantly clear. He says, in regard to a comment by a GM spokesman on the dedication of GM workers:
Well that all sounded fine and good but the assembly line wasn't for me. My heroes were the Flint people who had escaped the life in the factory and got out of Flint. Like the guys in Grand Funk Railroad, Casey Kasem, the women who married Zubin Mehta and Don Knotts, and perhaps Flint's most famous native son, Bob Eubanks, host of TV's hit show, The Newlywed Game. I figured if Bob Eubanks could make it out of here, then so could I.
Moore's contemptuous view of his hometown, coupled with his unflattering portrayal of its townspeople, make it clear that he is not bringing us an objective vision. Likewise Moore's
portrayal of GM and Roger Smith is shown to be highly subjective within the first ten minutes of the film. I call particular attention to the scene in which we are introduced to Smith via news footage and more importantly Moore's voice-over. Moore's carefully crafted language, peppered with sly editorial commentary, leaves the viewer little room to impose his/her own judgment on Roger Smith:
So this was GM chairman Roger Smith and he appeared to have a brilliant plan. First, close eleven factories in the U.S. Then, open eleven in Mexico where you pay the workers 70 cents and hour. Then use the money you've saved by building cars in Mexico to take over other companies. Preferably high-tech firms and weapons manufacturers. Next, tell the union that you're broke and they happily agree to give back a couple billion dollars in wage cuts. You then take that money from the workers and then eliminate their jobs by building more foreign factories. Roger Smith was a true genius.
Moore's cold logic, biting cynicism, and ironically upbeat intonation, leave the viewer little doubt about his true feelings. Further no attempt is ever made to reasonably understand or communicate Roger Smith's point-of-view. In fact, the careful structuring of Moore's language here effectively discredits Smith's point-of-view by combining a sarcastic tone with the inference of a dastardly plan devised by an unsympathetic Smith. Clearly, Moore does not present an objective analysis.
Context of Evidence
Closely related to the matter of objectivity, is my fifth and final criterion, that of presenting evidence in context. As I mentioned previously, context may be the most difficult point to argue as one could suggest there is really no such thing. Context is itself a construction-an attempt to create verisimilitude. I must fall back on Renov's definition of objectivity which I feel can apply to context as well: a film need not be strictly objective and facts need not be strictly in context. However, the film must appear to make an honest attempt at being objective and preserving context. Michael Moore is quite obviously not concerned with objectivity. However, somewhat less obvious is the fact that he is not overly concerned with presenting events in context.
To support this claim, I will cite a few specific examples of ways in which Moore controls context to sway the viewer's interpretation of events. In one scene, the woman who raises rabbits, is being questioned about her sad state of affairs. She is about to kill and gut a rabbit in a manner that is gratuitously violent and, in my estimation, unnecessary for Moore to make his case. Just as the first blow is to be struck, Moore asks the woman, "What happened to your brother who was working over at the factory?" The woman responds, "he got laid off." Immediately we cut to a scene of the woman bashing the skull of the rabbit. This instant transition is not coincidental. By juxtaposing these two moments, Moore has created an association between the acts of GM against its poor defenseless workers and the act of this woman against this poor defenseless rabbit. There was, in fact, no reason for Moore to ask the woman such a question just at that moment. It served only to further his own agenda.
A second compelling example of "creative" context occurs near the end of the film as we see Roger Smith deliver his Christmas address to GM employees. Moore has chosen to interweave scenes from this address with scenes of the deputy sheriff evicting tenants on Christmas (see figure 4). There can be no mistaking the ironic meaning that Smith's words take on as we see an evicted man carrying his Christmas tree out of his apartment together with his family's other belongings. The GM chairman says of Christmas, "We've listened for the jingle bells in the country, we've smelled the pine needles on the trees and the turkey on the table"; these words are spoken over images of the evicted family finally being ejected from their home and their Christmas tree dumped in the trash.
Moore has done a masterful job of imparting tragic irony. However, we must keep in mind that this tragic irony has been created in the studio. These two events did not, most likely, take place concomitantly. Yet it serves Moore's purpose to portray them as if they did. Careful control of context can distort historical representation and can turn real events into a fictional account.
I must make one last point about the control of context in Roger and Me before I conclude. Moore makes extensive use of voice-over in this film. Voice-over serves an important role in documentary by creating context. Used judiciously, voice-over can provide, at least what appears to be, illuminating, objective context for the images that accompany it. However, Moore goes beyond a simple commentary on extenuating circumstances or the telling of a history which can not be visually represented. Moore provides constant narration that, as previously established, attempts to control the viewer's interpretation of events being shown. This manipulation of context changes the perceived value of real footage. When Moore says, "Roger Smith was a true genius," we note his irony and incorporate it into our interpretation of the actual footage and audio (of Smith) we have simultaneously experienced. I must also hark back momentarily to my first requirement regarding use of non-dramatic techniques in documentary. Moore has created a full script for this documentary; not a script that simply describes his visuals, but rather a screenplay which is intended to entertain and influence. The narration of Roger and Me violates my definition of documentary film by telling a largely constructed story which serves to distort the context of the camera's testimony.
It is not possible for this author to pronounce final judgment on whether Roger and Me can justifiably be called a documentary. As I stated at the outset, with no widely accepted definition of the genre, documentary can be whatever Michael Moore wishes it to be. Still, I believe I have clearly demonstrated that, by my own five-pronged definition, Roger and Me veers too far into the realm of fiction to be considered a documentary film. Its lack of objectivity, its creative treatment of context, as well as its extensive use of dramatic technique and peripheral or "re-created" evidence, seems to me to create a picture of reality that is as much fiction as fact. I do not doubt the larger truth that Flint, Michigan has been devastated by the actions of General Motors (be they warranted actions or not); but, in my opinion, Moore's "creative treatment of reality" is too "creative" to be accepted as the unmitigated truth. This assessment does not detract from the value of the work. In fact, now that I have reached the conclusion, I feel there is no need to further equivocate on one important point: I actually like the work of Michael Moore in Roger and Me (as well as TV Nation). I find his manner to be both entertaining and endearing. I simply cannot classify this film as a documentary, by my own standards.
- Arthur, Paul. "Jargons of Authenticity (Three American Moments)." 118-134 (Full citation not available)
- Hiroshi, Komatsu. "Questions Regarding the Genesis of Nonfiction Film." Documentary Box, No. 6, March 26, 1995: http://www.tuad.ac.jp/net-expo/ff/box/en/index.html
- Renov, Michael. "New Subjectivities: Documentary and Self-Representation in the Post-VeritŽ Age." Documentary Box, No. 7, July 31, 1995: http://www.tuad.ac.jp/net-expo/ff/box/en/index.html
- Roger and Me. Dir. Michael Moore. Warner Brothers, 1989.
- Williams, Raymond. "Subjective," Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (London: Flamingo, 1976): pp. 308-312.
Michael Weinberger received his Bachelors degree in Writing from Carnegie Mellon University and his Masters degree in Liberal Arts from the University of Pennsylvania. While Michael maintains a strong interest in film studies, he makes his living as a manager of internet-based marketing strategy for one of the world’s largest healthcare companies.
Michael may be contacted by e-mail at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.