Preparation A3 – Reality in film, between fiction and manipulation

In preparation for my assignment essay with regards to ‘shadows’ of reality on screens (TV, cinema) and the way we perceive or conceive reality, facts, and truth, I want to look on another category of visual culture: Documentary and Reality TV and how those provide us with illusions or delusions

“Mirror with a Memory” – O. W. Holmes

Holmes notion on photography is to be discussed and see whether it is valid or not.

Documentary and cinema vérité

Documentary films do have the connotation of representing true facts and reality, coined with the term cinema vérité. Documentary as photography are considered as providing evidence, an indexical sign for external reality and truth. Although moving images are in one respect completely different to photography: they need to be edited, to make a film, constrained by total length of the film and to be bundled with audio and voice over. So post-processing is and was always a key element.

As proclaimed by Benjamin and Barthes the image, especially the photograph, is no longer a representation of external reality but fully mediated and loaded by connotations through historical and cultural structures. Images in postmodern times are considered as manipulated constructions. There is no chance to get to the full reality and truth. The ‘ladder of inference‘ explains how our assumptions and beliefs impact sub-consciously what we select and where we pay attention to. To understand those underlying assumptions and how to overcome their restrictions would be key in all efforts addressing non-fiction and external reality.

From my fellow student Stephanie I got the link to an article by Linda Williams (1993) Mirrors without Memories. In comparison I looked up the book section on ‘Television’ in Howells an Negreiros Visual Culture (2015). Would there be a difference between cinema and television?

As explored in my previous posts on representation ( and , the way how we make images of the world is non-linear and non-directional, leaving us always with the question which part of reality we perceive. Jameson (1984) expressed his concerns that all representations of reality end up in a ‘new culture of the image or the simulacrum’ (Williams, p.10). A notion to which Williams offers a different perspective.

Documentary are addressing the ‘hunger for documentary images of the real’, the anxiety and uncertainty of ground in postmodern times. Williams compares Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) with Erroll Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1987) and Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985).  Howells and Negreiros are looking at ‘reality’ television, the UK series The Bill (1984-2010) and the US series The Cosby Show (1984 – 1992). Where to draw a line between fiction and non-fiction. A line that according to post-structuralists would not be relevant (see my thoughts in earlier post).

Williams describes JFK as a construction of a ‘counter myth’, kind of replacement for the ‘loss of historical truth’ in postmodern times. (Williams, 1993, p. 10). Embracing the way images can construct truth and create knowledge, Williams compares Oliver Stone’s attempt to exchange a hidden truth with a ‘grand paranoid fiction’ (ibid, p.11). It seems that any intervention of a film producer, director in the role as an observer is changing the perception of reality and truth, imprisoned in a paradox. Williams explores as counter examples of how reality and truth can be addressed with Shoah and The Thin Blue Line. The first one having the Holocaust as subject matter, the latter the near execution of an innocent man for murder. Both addressing the ‘trauma of an inaccessible past‘ (ibid, p.12).

Williams does explain the key differences between JFK with the notion of cinema vérité and the approach by Morris and Lanzmann as:

  • Rejection of voyeuristic objectivity
  • Truth exists because lies exists, thus exposure of lies will disclose a truth
  • Use of stylized and silent docudrama reenactments and showing how each witness claims what happened
  • Refrain from offering images of what actually happened.
  • Disclose underlying ideologies and consciousness that construct competing truths
  • Reconstruct subjective truths from different viewpoints

I can see here a reference to Plato’s conception of division and revealing ‘false claimants’ adhering to an idea and model of one real truth. Also there is a reference to Deleuze’s conception of difference as the essence of simulacrum. In the context of these two aspects, the difference lies between holding onto the essence of truth and applying different strategies of relative truth.

“There is no objective observation of truth but always an interested participation in its construction. Documentary can lead to an awareness of the condition under which it is possible to intervene in the political and cultural construction of truths which, while not guaranteed, nevertheless matter as the narratives by which we live.” – Linda Williams

Williams concludes that the truth in film and documentary cannot be figured, only through new construction, an understanding of politics and semiotics of representation where one can choose ‘strategies of fiction for relative truths’ (ibid, p.20). She sees an approach in revealing lies as a strategy in connecting with past events and truth.  She explains further based on two film examples how the present, through a palimpsest of fragmented and evoked memories, is reactivating the past and discloses patterns narrated from different viewpoints. Not past stories told by protagonists, but the current behaviour of those same people in recalling memories and reacting on ongoing interrogations do open a view on a possible truth. The viewpoint of the director is not one of a distant observer but one of an interrogator in the presence of the protagonists.

Holmes quote of ‘mirror with memory’ is therefore not valid any longer. There is no mirror as nothing is representable, only present experiences and fragments of a possible past.

Reality TV

There seem to be various strategies inside of  reality film. Wondering how ‘Reality TV’ works and compares to past traumatic events described above in representing reality as the term suggests?

Differences between actual reality and TV reality (Howells and Negreiros, 2015):

  • The Bill: showing a black Detective Inspector who didn’t exist at that time in UK (1994)
  • Cosby Show: showing the life of a black upper-middle class family that was significant different from life experience of the majority of black people in US at that time.

These two TV series do show what ‘reality TV’ is about or not. On the one hand, a perception or delusion of ‘convincingly real’ (Howells and Negreiros, 2015), a real that the viewer can connect to emotionally and un-restricted of external political, class or race issues. On the other hand, questions about typicality of presentation as well as representation of external reality. Here, film acts rather as entertainment and positive outlook of a world to come, issues in the outer world are excluded or re-edited to provide a more positive reality.  Deleuze would possibly say that these films are ‘showing the potential of a future becoming’. The emotional connection would possibly place those ‘reality TV’ series in one corner with popular culture and kitsch, a direct sentiment, building on effects and simulation at times drastically different from the real life of the viewers. These films do address a desire of people. But do they possibly defer real actions to take place for change in real life through a manipulative passivity and indulgence?

Transformation of Television in digital age

Cinema and Television do have different perpetual conditions. TV are often cropped and cut to accommodate time slots in the program. Also repetitive advertisement during the TV program need to be considered in the reception of TV as visual culture.  TV is offering a different viewing experience. (Howells and Negreiros, p.257-260) I am not going further into the differences and impact of cinema versus TV but rather be interested in how TV experience evolved over time.

Simpson TV - The Couch Gag

Fig. 1: Simpson TV – The Couch Gag

  1. Old broadcasting: as a get together, creating a passive ‘we-dom’ . Asymmetry between a few producers (in power) and many consumers (without power)
  2. New broadcasting: fragmented watching occasions. New experience and productivity models replacing old representational models. YouTube ideas with increasingly amount of producers as a democratic model.
  3. Digital and mobile broadcasting: Consumer monitoring: on demand, customization, traceable consumer behaviour

“The increasingly democratic system of viewer choice and participation seems also to require increasing silliness” – John Hartley, 2009

Hartley expressed his concerns with some visual evidences through YouTube. It seems the more democratic and less repressive one medium gets, the more free expression for all is visible. Earlier self-doubt might been replaced. What leaves the question open between an empowerment of consumer as producers or as repressive vulnerability and addictive habits.

“Surveillance with a commercial face” – Mark Andrejevic, 2009


  • TV and film reality is different from empirical reality, it works on the foundation of a perception of ‘convincingly real’.
  • Blurring boundaries between the dualism of a ‘serious’ documentary with the believe that those capture real events and a manipulative fiction makes it difficult to discern. Both categories work with same effects, build on same assumptions and do convey mediated narratives to the viewer. And an abstract idea of truth quite in a Platonic sense of the quality and essence of the idea of truth.
  • Considering that the truth of the past is lost and only fragments of subjective memories existing, Williams offers a new strategy of difference through reactivating and revoking memories in the present from different viewpoints as a palimpsest to connect with a ‘non-representational’ past. Here elements of fiction similar to pure fiction can be equally applied. E Morris and C Lanzmann are examples of new perspective on documentary.
  • The development of TV and films in a digital age is empowering people in a democratic way to take ownership as producers. The same time it is harder to discern truth and fiction, reality and simulacra. Williams
  • Overall, I can see that Plato’s conception of division and Deleuze’s conception of simulacra as the essence of difference are quite valid in visual culture of film.




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