Essay: Do documentarians struggle to stay objective throughout making their documentaries ?

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  • Do documentarians struggle to stay objective throughout making their documentaries ?
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“The European intellectual tradition has grappled with the difference between subjective and objective knowledge since ancient times” (Chapman, 2009)

It’s statements like the above from “Issues in Contemporary Documentary” by Jane Chapman, that have led me to investigate the way documentarians should try and stay objective whilst making a documentary and whether they do. Everyone struggles to stay objective with global issues, or any issue for that matter, even throughout history. Of course, it all depends on the facts that we are given but then it is the documentarians’ job to try and make sure all the facts that are shown are true and that both sides of the issue are shown. Whilst watching Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” (Moore, 2002) and Louis Theroux’s’ “Louis and The Nazis” (Theroux, 2003) you can tell, by the different styles and conventions that were used, that they struggled to stay objective. Whereas, in “Super Size Me” (Spurlock, 2004), Morgan Spurlock has an overt subjective agenda as he sets out to show how McDonalds food is bad for you when you eat it all the time.

In all three documentaries, the people conducting the interviews or experiments, Louis Theroux, Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, are all very average and normal looking guys. This is very different than a movie where they would choose someone who is good looking or well known. By having this it will help the audience believe that the information they are finding out is genuinely true and it will not distract them from the facts. It also means the people that the interviewer talks to will tell them how they feel and their beliefs as they would feel more comfortable and probably feel less like they are on camera. If someone famous was conducting the interviews the interviewee may feel pressured to give a certain answer to please the interviewer as they may think that’s what they want to hear.

“Research is simply forming the answer to these questions before you dive in. If you skip this vital step, you may easily find yourself wasting countless hours and budget dollars pursuing people, themes and events that will never see the light of day” (Anthony Q. Artis, 2013)

By doing research you get the answers that you need to make the documentary before you make it, which means you know if you have enough true facts that make making the documentary worthwhile. Research allows you to get all the facts and plan the direction you want to take your documentary. It helps you to decide what people you want or need to interview and why. It also means you can think about what you want to show and what you don’t want to show. If you don’t do any research not only do you waste time and money on the actual production but you could be sued for slander or liable. This is something that Morgan Spurlock faced in Supersize me because if he did not do his research he wouldn’t have any facts about McDonalds and therefore he wouldn’t have been able to make his documentary. Since he couldn’t get interviews with anyone from McDonalds, or other brands such as Pepsi, he made an animation to show the facts and figures about how much they spend on advertising compared to the advertisement of The Five a Day Fruit campaign. Pepsi spend 1 billion dollars on advertisement, where as The Five a Day Fruit campaign only spent 2 million dollars. This was a way to balance the documentary and have both sides of the argument. However, by not agreeing to interviews, this it allowed him to represent McDonalds how he wanted them to be shown which may not be ethically right as he showed McDonalds, Pepsi and Hershey’s as big men who have a lot of money and bullied the smaller character who represented The Five a Day fruit campaigns.

Within the first six minutes of Louis and The Nazis, Theroux tells Tom Metzger that he “thinks slightly less of him” for some of the language that Tom uses. This is slightly subjective as his supposed to stay impartial. By saying this so early on it will influence the audience to think badly of Tom before they’ve heard what he has to say and what he believes.

Whereas Michael Moore opens his documentary by basically showing how everything is normal in America before going in to a bank where you can get a free gun when you open an account. He shows the newspaper where he saw the article which had the slogan “More BANG for your BUCK”. Even though it seems like his making a mockery of the bank he is still staying objective, as his aim is to put in restrictions against guns but not to completely get rid of them. He is adding humour to keep people interested but showing that it is slightly ridiculous. It can be seen as a subjective agenda but at the same time he is not openly agreeing to either side. He is a neutral party.

Morgan Spurlock, in Super Size Me, sets out with the agenda to show how fast food will make you ill and overweight when you eat it all the time. However, he is not just being biased against the companies who make the food. His also showing how the people who eat it do know it is bad for them in the first place and that it is easy enough to not eat it. In the opening minutes of this documentary, after Spurlock says “I’m ready. Super size me”, the clips are then cut to the beat. This will keep the audience interested and captivated by what’s on screen therefore they will want to watch even more.

20 minutes into Louis and The Nazis they visit a skin head named Skip. Louis becomes a bit subjective here too after Skip says to him “Well, because you’ve got the camera right now I’d allow you to stay. If not, I’d probably kick your ass and put you in the street somewhere”. To which Louis responds by saying “I’m not a racist and I actually think it’s wrong to be a racist. And so, I feel as though by saying whether I’m Jewish or not I’m kind of, in a way, acknowledging the premise that it really matters when I think it shouldn’t and it doesn’t”. This statement makes it clear that he does not agree with Skip, or the other racists that he interviews, which means that Louis is not very open minded about how they think and their way of life. However, by staying calm and articulate whilst they slightly raise their voices and use bad language, he makes them seem like angry and violent people and so the audience will think this is the same for all skin heads. Since he is only interviewing people who are racist it may also come across that he is representing the other side of the argument. This then counteracts the fact that he is being subjective. He is bringing balance to the documentary and making it clear that the documentary is not pro racism.

This is very different to how Michael Moore speaks to those he interviews. Whilst talking to James Nichols about the law that allows Americans to have weapons, he begins to badger him slightly before James agrees that there should be some restriction on the types of weapons you can have in your home. Michael Moore: “Do you think you should have the right to have weapons-grade plutonium here in the farm field?” James Nichols: “We should be able to have anything…” Michael Moore: “Should you have weapons? Should you have weapons-grade plutonium?” James Nichols: “I don’t want it.” Michael Moore: “But, should you have the right to have it if you did want it?” James Nichols: “That should be restricted.” Michael Moore: “Oh. Oh, so you do believe in some restrictions?” James Nichols: “Well, there’s wackos’ out there.” Badgering is a questioning technique that interviewers use when someone is not answering the question or is avoiding the question. Sometimes it is done to get the person to say the answer that the interviewer wants. This is a subtle way of being subjective about the topic.

Michael Moore is also asking hyperbole questions, which is when the question is quite exaggerated, this puts the audience on the edge of there seat waiting for the person to answer. It’s used to create a reaction. By using this outrageous question, he is also pointing out a loophole in the law about having weapons as the wording is not specific about what type of weapon you can have.

During the interview with James Nichols, the talking head interview technique has been used to some extent, as James is the only person in shot. They have used mostly natural lighting however it has caused shadows over James’ eyes making him look a little untrustworthy and mad.

By the end of Louis and the Nazis, Theroux has become more subjective through his interview techniques. He begins to badger people and even uses leading questions. He does this when talking to John Malpezzi about Toms’ paper when he says to him “Why don’t you just say no?” which means his trying to get John to agree with him. This is not very professional and is not objective at all.

When Michael Moore goes to Kmart he ends up badgering the people there to basically meet with someone who can do something about taking bullets and guns out of the stores. Even though he was badgering them I don’t feel that he was being overly subjective here as his agenda from the beginning was to try and show that restrictions need to be put in place when it comes to guns and ammo. Some people may argue that this was subjective as it benefits one side of the argument, however I disagree as it just goes to show that even the people selling the guns and ammo agree there needs to be some restrictions. I feel that this is one of the ways that he succeeded in doing something to help his cause as in the end he did get Kmart to stop selling ammo and was even surprised at how fast they were going to do it.

However, at the end of the documentary, when interviewing Charles Heston he badgers him about why the crime rate involving guns is so high in America compared to other countries. He does say to Charles during the interview that he is part of the NRA but even he thinks there should be restrictions.

When Michael Moore brings up the six-year-old girl, who got shot by another six-year-old, he becomes very subjective as he asks a loaded question to get a reaction from Heston and even resorts to a form of emotional blackmail in the end by leaving the little girls photo. While they were talking Charles Heston walks away and leaves Michael Moore to show himself out. Michael does follow him and calls to Charles to look at the picture of the little girl. The big issue with this scene, that makes it look very subjective, is the fact that it looks like it was shot in two takes. When watching the scene, it looks like there should be two cameras. One behind Michael Moore facing Charles and the second in front of Michael looking up at him. It could have been one long take with the cameraman turning around but the way they have cut it makes Charles Heston look a lot guiltier and therefore like the bad guy as he walks away. By portraying Heston in this way, as the representative for the NRA, it makes anyone involved with pro gun rallies look bad too. Shortly after the films release Charles Heston announced some restrictions that were put in for having guns but he tells everyone that it had nothing to do with the actual documentary.

“However, even when made by a collective, a documentary can never be wholly objective. Gaylor as the websites editor decides ultimately what is or isn’t published – there is always a point of view.” (Chapman, 2009)

This statement by Chapman holds a lot truth as, when making a documentary, things are always changed in the edit to fit what a person wants to show therefore creating an opinion. Whilst editing clips can be taken out or moved to a different place to create more meaning to things that are being done or said. Such as in Bowling for Columbine, the shots are not in chronological order and some appear more than once with other clips in between them, this is done for a reason. It would have added more meaning to certain scenes by splitting them up and putting something else in between. This is evident when he is talking to James Nichols, half way through he cuts and shows an interview with two boys in an arcade before he cuts back to James.

Louis Theroux makes his documentary more subjective through the voice overs that he puts in. What he says in his voiceover mostly undermines what the supremacists have said in the clips before it. “It had been a long, and in some ways, depressing day. I’d found Tom’s attitudes exhausting and I still more confused when the karaoke bar he took me to turned out to be largely non-white. I could assume that, for Tom, karaoke sometimes took precedence over racism.” After spending a day with Tom Metzger, Louis said this in his voiceover. His basically saying he doesn’t think Tom is as big a racist as he makes himself out to be. It portrays Tom as a liar and by the end of the documentary the audience would also think of him as a hypocrite due to what they have seen. Since he goes to Mexico to basically go on a bar crawl in a very multicultural area and then has a friend who is “non-white”.

Overall I do think documentarians struggle to stay objective throughout the process of making a documentary about a global issue as they are something that you can’t help but to have an opinion on. Both Louis Theroux and Michael Moore become subjective, however I feel that Louis was more subjective mostly because he had to represent the other side of the argument to balance the documentary. Michael Moore is not as subjective in his documentary as he was trying to show that gun crime is a problem in America. Morgan Spurlock was subjective as he had the agenda from the beginning to show how bad fast food was. All the issues looked were ones that anyone would have an opinion about before they even watched the documentaries.



• Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore, 2002.

• Louis and The Nazis, Louis Theroux, 2003.

• Super Size me, Morgan Spurlock, 2004.


• Issues in contemporary documentary, page 50 and 70, Jane Chapman, 2009.

• The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide: A Down & Dirty DV Production, Anthony Q. Artis, 2013.

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