Informative vs. Evocative: Contrasting Functions of “Stories We Tell” and “Shoah”

Stories We Tell ends with Geoffrey Bowes confessing that he had, in fact, slept with Diane Polley “on one occasion” (Stories We Tell 01:43:38). The documentary is an expression of the love Sarah Polley has for her deceased mother and the resolution of dissonance she felt confronting her mother’s flaws. The credibility of Geoffrey Bowes’ claim, and the actuality of all the details in the movie, are irrelevant because it is an evocative document of a single person’s perspective, not an account of historic events that have any bearing on the lives of the general public. The function of Shoah is quite different. The director, Claude Lanzmann, does not get to decide what is important because the Holocaust is not his story to tell. The full length film was 9 hours and 26 minutes, and though I imagine it would be quite taxing to watch the entire movie, anything Lanzmann left on the cutting room floor would have been lost forever. The fundamental difference between a documentary that is informative, like Shoah, and one that is evocative, as is the case with Stories We Tell: one is an account for the public, and the other is a personal expression.

Bill Nichols chapter on documentary cinema from Engaging Cinema categorizes it into 6 modes based on form (expository, poetic, observational, participatory, reflexive, and performative), but he only addresses the function as persuasive (Nichols 114 – 126). The first step in conscious viewing should be differentiating between a documentary that functions as a portrait of an experience from a perspective, which can have multiple truths, and a document of historic significance, which needs to be judged as true, false, or incomplete.

Evidence of the problem with a lack of distinction between informative and evocative is clear in the last two examples Nichols gives; Nanook of the North and Triumph of the Will. Nanook of the North was an evocative portrait masquerading as an informative documentary, and Triumph of the Will was evocative propaganda presented as historic documentation. Triumph of the Will did not contain any lies, but it was not informative and no more evidential than Stories We Tell. Similarly, the events portrayed in Nanook of the North were inaccurate because the filmmaker, Robert J. Flaherty, was trying to paint a romantic portrait of the life in the north. He saw the details of the actual events as inconsequential to the public, so he gave himself license to misrepresent the reality of Inuit life. This is contrasted with Claude Lanzmann’s approach to the witness’ accounts in Shoah. Several of the witnesses did not want to relive their ordeal, but details of the atrocities are too important to let the survivors be silent (Nichols 119 – 120).

Nichols tries to separate the sciences from the humanities as issues of objectivity vs. subjectivity (Nichols 129 – 130); I think this is a mistake. Subjective framing is unavoidable in all areas of study, even science. An inability to observe all the factors that contribute to a system, does not preclude the ability to judge the output. People are complicated, and immeasurable ambiguous conditions contribute to our decisions, but our actions are objective. The value of a life cannot be quantified, but the recounts are evidence of an objective event. While many past events cannot be observed and motivation is a complicated internal process, the effect on an overwhelming number of people can be uncovered as a psychological scar that could not exist without a specific cause. Accordingly, some historic events can be seen, judged, and quantified through the evidence of testimony.

Stories We Tell is a personal journal and Shoah functions as a testimony in a trial. Personal stories belong to the participants, and the events can be freely portrayed from the owners’ angle, but the evidence of history belongs to the public. There are people who deny that the Holocaust happened and those who deny their responsibility (Shoah 00:44:30). Human nature is on trial, and letting ignorance or egregiously deliberate misrepresentation slip back into our culture needs to be condemned. Preserving the awful details of the Holocaust as objective truth is critical so we do not deny our role, contributing to the cruelty through ignorance. As viewers and analysts we need to be conscious of the function of documentary cinema, and not group evocative portraits with informative historic testimony.

Nichols, Bill. Engaging Cinema: An Introduction to Film Studies. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2010. Web.

Hastie, Amelie. “The Vulnerable Spectator.” Film Quarterly. 67.2 (2013): 59-61. Web.

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