In what ways does the activity of watching events on a screen differ from watching them in real life? What does this imply for our attitudes to documentary filming?


The activity of watching events on a screen differs a lot from watching them in real life. In most cases, events that are watched on a screen take the form of documentaries. Documentaries are an excellent source of information that would otherwise escape our attention in the hustle and bustle of daily life. However, unlike in real life where a person has to be directly involved in the context in which the events take place, the documentary enables the viewer to maintain a distance. Many people like documentaries because they enable them to view real life events very closely while simultaneously avoiding any dangers arising or any responsibility to act in a certain way to save the situation.

The debate on how watching events in documentaries differs from watching similar events in real life is a subject of an ongoing debate. This paper sets out to contribute to this important debate. The differences that characterize these two different situations imply that people are likely to develop certain attitudes towards documentary filming. For instance, a by-stander does not experience a robbery incident the same way that a documentary viewer does. In such a case, one may criticize documentary  enthusiasts of being withdrawn from real-life issues simply because of their preference for witnessing events from a perspective where they cannot offer any assistance or provide meaningful change. By addressing issues of attitudes such as skepticism towards documentary filming, this paper aims to connect everything to contemporary human relationships.

Differences between watching documentaries and experiencing real-life events

                Documentaries play a critical role in the modern world. They are a source of crucial information regarding different happenings in terms of human endeavors as well as the natural environment. Since it is not possible for people to move to all parts of the world to experience various events, they have to rely on documentaries. Even if people were to have the ability to travel to all parts of the world, they would not possess the ability of being present in all parts of the world and experience real-life events as they unfold. People from one part of the world must rely on documentaries to learn one thing or two about the way people from other parts of the world lead their lives.

Documentary differs from fiction in the sense that they provide an analysis of events that actually took place. It is only one step away from real-life events. In this one step, the viewer is able to acquire some insights into how it feels for one to experiencing certain issues and events directly. At the same time, he is able to avoid the dangers and inconveniences that come with being present when the event occurs in real life. Those who film these documentaries are the ones who get exposed to such dangers and inconveniences.

Unlike real-life events, documentaries have a unique way of challenging attitudes and perceptions. They do this simply because of the claim they make of being real. Therefore, they are said to provide sufficient proof of all the claims that they make. Documentaries have changed many people’s attitudes towards different phenomena in life. For example, many people who have negative attitudes towards Africans tend to change their attitudes positively after filming or watching documentaries that feature Africans. In other words, documentaries provide an alternative point of view that may not necessarily be provided by real-life experiences. However, such an alternative point of view cannot be accepted as valid unless viewers support the claim that the information contained in the documentary is a reflection of what actually transpired in real life.

A major problem that arises when differences between documentaries and real-life events are being drawn out is about the ambiguous process of interpreting documentaries. Viewers are aware that the documentary that they end up watching is a product of a lengthy editing process. Therefore, they are compelled by circumstances to act as media auditors. They examine the content of the documentaries and relate them to their personal real-life experiences. In such a situation, an ambiguous situation arises; it becomes difficult to determine whether the viewers’ attitudes are being shaped by the contents of the documentary or the viewers’ responses to these contents based personal experience. This ambiguity may be defined in different ways depending on whether one is talking about the viewer as a unified mass audience or an isolated viewer.

In the process of preparing a documentary, different parties contribute to the final product. The viewer’s process of interrogating the media content starts at the other end. Yet most of the information that is contained in the documentary can best be interpreted through an in-depth understanding of the context in which it was incorporated in the final product. Although concerted efforts are normally made by makers of documentaries to provide as much contextual information as possible, it is impossible to create an accurate picture of the circumstances that influence their decision to provide motion pictures in a specific sequence. To understand fully the context of an event, one has to be present to experience the event in real life. This goes a long way to show how the activity of watching events on a screen differs from that of watching the activity in real life.

Unlike people who witness events in real-life situations, documentaries viewers tend to occupy a subtle place. They become engaged yet they are also given an opportunity to deliver a judgment. Those who know what it is like to be filmed and made into a subject of a documentary may understand better what it means to be subjected to judgment by an emotionally engaged yet passive audience. Such people may be reluctant to appear in documentaries for fear of attracting criticism and controversy. Such fear does not exist in the case of real-life situations. However, as more and more people gain a better understanding of what it means to be filmed in a documentary, there is optimism that the interpretation process will increasingly become a “two-way traffic” phenomenon in which the audience can request the documentary makers to expound on, explain, or disambiguate some issues.

It is good that today, eventual viewers have now joined the commissioning organizations and filmmakers in efforts to communicate messages through documentaries. These viewers rely on their individual experiences when providing feedback. Since every individual is likely to have a unique understanding of a phenomenon, the interaction process is likely to bring about numerous complexities for filmmakers. However, this problem has been addressed by recent changes, primarily increased availability of new forms of communication and feedback and the emergence of a new wave of media literacy. Digital production tools that are targeted at consumers have greatly contributed to the growth of this media literacy. The sooner the feedback is provided, the better for both the filmmakers and the audience since glaring mistakes can be rectified in subsequent productions, thereby enhancing quality of the documentary.

When people are watching events in real life, the resulting interactions are not likely to be as lively as those triggered by documentaries. This is simply because no one steps in to mediate between the unfolding event and the audience. Since the audience is able to experience the event firsthand, the need to provide documentation in the form of a film may not always arise. Nevertheless, whenever filmmakers feel the need to documents the unfolding events for posterity or for broadcasting to a wider audience, they must be prepared to manage controversies that come with the claim of truthfulness which is a defining feature of this medium. This claim of truthfulness and authenticity triggers a wave of expectation among the audience. Since the film can be played repeatedly, the audience gets an opportunity to raise questions regarding even the most subtle issues. In real-life situations, critics never get an opportunity to view the event in such a vivid manner.

The problem of attempted communication in documentaries

The rigorous process of filming and editing a documentary means that there is nothing like an accidental communication in documentaries. Rather, what exists is a lengthy process of attempted communication. The audience is always keen to point out false starts in order to either provide feedback or develop a skeptical attitude towards the film production company, broadcasting station, and commissioning organization involved in one way or the other in the filmmaking process.

Filmmakers are always that their documentaries will be viewed. Yet they do not know precisely which viewer to target. Different categories of audience tend to have different expectations, attitudes, and perceptions towards different issues. Therefore, the best that the filmmaker can do is to attempt to make different communications.  According to Ellis (2012), such attempted communications are by no means successful. Rather, they constitute a composite product consisting of a collection of actions and persons brought together, each of them cut from one situation to the other and then pieced together in a near-arbitrary manner. It is upon viewers to deliver judgment on whether what they have just seen conforms to what they may have experienced in the past. They have to consider whether other the cut could have occurred at an alternative point, and the impact of this action on other scenes in the documentary. Unlike in real-life situations, the documentary audience has to reach a conclusion on every scene. This greatly influences attitudes towards trustworthiness. It also influences the way people perceive the phenomena being described in the documentary. The communicative attempts in the documentary constitute only one of the numerous dimensions that influence the viewers’ attitudes.

Although an excellent documentary may have the power to change attitudes among the mass audience, its actual potential may be influenced by the context in which it is presented to the audience. Many documentaries are publicized through television stations. These television stations sometimes tend to have deeply vested interests in the content being aired. Therefore, the notion of attempted communications has to be viewed against the backdrop of competing interests of distributors and broadcasting organizations. These competing interests are likely to influence the way the TV audience perceives the element of truthfulness once the documentary is aired.

The concept of attempted communication relates to both the uniqueness of watching events on a screen in relating to watching them in real life as well as its implications for our attitudes to documentary filming. Whenever an individual starts to watch a documentary, he acquires the instinctive feeling that he is being appealed to. The best that the filmmaker can do is to attempt to convince the viewer that the sequence of events depicted provide a true picture of what actually transpired in real life. Such an instinctive feeling does not arise when one watches real-life events because they unfold at their own pace and no medium has been introduced to influence the arrangement and presentation of scenes.

Implications for attitudes towards documentary filming

Different people tend to have different attitudes towards documentaries. Some people hate documentaries while others like them. However, literature provides certain attitudes that are universally associated with documentary filming. The most dominant attitudes in this case include skepticism, ambivalence, empathetic feelings, and curiosity. In any given documentary-watching audience, all these attitudes tend to prevail.


Skepticism arises from the awareness by the audience that it is being appealed to. Although the events being narrated may trigger a lot of emotional engagement, the audience is compelled to “look back” and determine whether the events have been exaggerated by either the subjects themselves or by the filmmakers and commissioning organizations. On the one hand, the viewer becomes emotionally engaged while on the other, he becomes wary of falling victim to the machinations of video editors, audio controllers, and directors, and indeed the entire production crew through special effects, lighting, and props.

Moving images provide an audience with a new kind of reality that stimulates their critical instincts while at the same time triggering very strong emotional appeal. Like photographs, moving images are constructed through a production process. The resulting documentary is an elaborate attempt to tell a certain side of the story. Viewers always feel that there is another side of the story that is being hidden from view. In other words, there is always room for criticism. Makers of documentary films are aware of this fact, hence the need to constantly struggle in efforts to establish truthfulness and trustworthiness.

Skepticism in documentary filming arises because different forms of human intervention have to come into play for any event to be told. Filmmakers are confronted with too much content to choose from when piecing scenes together to make a story. Indeed, one may argue that in theory, there are infinite ways of piecing the scenes together, each of them resulting in a different story. Viewers who are aware of the situation tend to be skeptical of the version of the story being presented in the documentary. They argue that the filmmakers could as well have chosen other equally compelling perspectives.


Ambivalence is a phenomenon in which a person experiences a mix of both positive and negative feelings. Biography filming stirs such feelings. According to Ellis (2012), this a magical element that photography continues to retain even in the modern age of sophisticated information and communication technologies that have drastically expanded the reach of image- and video-enabled mobile phones. Ellis (2012) points out that the magic of a photograph exists in its ability to both charm and disturb. One can be happy to have photos of him taken. However, it is also possible for people to be reluctant to attend events where photos of them will be taken. Such people are often concerned that an unwanted gesture may end up being captured in the photograph or video.

Moving images excite ambivalence in an even more vivid manner by creating contradictory feelings of different forms. Many people love watching documentaries because they surprise them with new insights about life, people’s accomplishments, and human struggles. They enable us assess how well we interact with others intellectually and emotionally. They enable us express our feelings in ways we never thought we could. The ability to perceive one’s familiar self in a completely new way greatly contributes to ambivalent feelings. For example, one may suddenly become embarrassed by the way he has responded to a very inspiring anecdote presented in a documentary. In subsequent presentations of similar anecdotes, the viewer may constrain his responses in order to produce a more “natural” response.

Extreme levels of ambivalent feelings are more common among documentary viewers who have difficulties reconciling their behavior with the idealization that they have always carried around as a part of their self-concepts. Ellis (2012) argues that if a recording of the behaviors of such people was to be availed to them, they would be embarrassed at the extent to which they have always misconceived their real selves. A feeling of liberation seems to engulf the viewer who all of a sudden gains new information about how everyone has always perceived his behavior. One feels happy that he has at last been able to reconcile his imagined self with his real self. At the same time, it is natural for the view to feel somewhat embarrassed by the surprising revelations about his character.

Whenever photographs and video recordings are produced, they may be said to embark on a career as objects of analysis, interpretation and discussion. As long as they exist, everyone who watches them will always arrive at a certain conclusion. In some cases, the same individual may derive different interpretations at different times. One of the greatest challenges for filmmakers is that it is impossible to predict how different people are going to react after watching them at different times.

The impact of documentaries on skepticism towards events





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