Film as Verb: Documentary Imperfection in the Post-Factual Era by Gabrielle McNally

Film as Verb: Documentary Imperfection in the Post-Factual Era

We are living in a post-factual era during which people of power in the United States are claiming a mutually exclusive relationship between media and truth, thus presenting an interesting set of problems for documentary filmmaking. Nonfiction film and video, widely believed to be the filmic form most adept at representing truth and reality is, in its current form, far from it. Film scholars understand the constructed nature of documentary’s singular point-of-view, but the average viewer does not see documentary as a creative treatment of actuality, pioneering documentary filmmaker John Grierson’s infamous definition.1 Bill Nichols describes this treatment as the documentary voice, in which every decision made by the filmmaker including:

the selection of shots, the framing of subjects, the juxtaposition of scenes, the mixing of sounds, the use of titles and inter-titles—all the techniques by which a filmmaker speaks from a distinct perspective on a given subject and seeks to persuade viewers to adopt this perspective as their own.2

With the recognition of a perspective, we must also recognize the presence of a counter-perspective, both of which exist on the spectrum of truth and fiction. The current climate of documentary filmmaking is capitalistic, product-oriented, and colonized, all leading viewers to question its truthfulness. In order to work outside of this commitment on the part of capital to sell, persuade, and manipulate, documentary media must work to regain the trust of the viewer. In an attempt at a more truthful form of nonfiction cinema—and a return to truth in media—we must consider the word film as its verb form, indicating the importance of the process and change that occurs through that process, because the action of filming is the truthful, political act, not the film itself.

Of course, we must acknowledge the problematic terminology at hand; words like “truth” and “fact” can lead down the rabbit hole of philosophy and semiotics. The difficulty in defining documentary as truthful becomes not only a burden, but one more struggle in accepting non-traditional, experimental, and radical forms into the canon of documentary-making. As Italian semiotician Umberto Eco states, “If signs can be used to tell the truth, they can also be used to lie.”3 Therefore, documentary cannot be judged as either truthful or non-truthful based on the form alone. In the case of this essay, my argument stands that documentary, as a sign, is the closest to reality. Nichols approaches a definition:

Documentary film speaks about situations and events involving real people (social actors) who present themselves within a framework. This frame conveys a plausible perspective on the lives, situations, and events portrayed. The distinct point of view of the filmmaker shapes the film into a way of understanding the historical world directly rather than through a fictional allegory.4

For a clearer definition of Truth as it is used here, I turn to William D. Routt in his 1991 essay “The Truth of Documentary.” Routt argues that two forms of truth exist in documentary: truth as “sense” and truth as “reference.” Truth as sense refers to the structure and the shaping of the material. I will modify this also to include the process of making, in both production and post-production. Truth as reference refers to the “accuracy of . . . what truth can be said” by a documentary film.5 The notion of “alternative facts” and differences in perspective relate more to the latter, truth of reference, whereas the filmmaker’s experience of the process relate more to the former. As I use the term “truth” throughout, I refer to truth as a sense, and the intentional distribution of that truth through the final edit of the documentary film.

In order to re-establish documentary as a form of truth and to uncover the potential application of improvisation to documentary filmmaking, we need to recognize the relationship between improvisation and creative work as a historical, political method. Taking risks, letting go of control, and going with the flow as a creative practice has functioned as a tool for politically marginalized people. Improvisation studies, the scholarly exploration of the ways in which improvisation interacts with culture, primarily reads as a history and theory of jazz music, particularly discussing how jazz operates as a political tool for oppressed African communities in the twentieth-century United States. Jazz was (and is) a means to work outside of the standardized construct of composed and recorded music. Improvisational jazz is musician-based, centered on community action, and difficult to commodify, focusing instead on the emancipatory process of creatively working through polyphony: simultaneously combining a number of parts, each forming an individual melody and harmonizing with each other.6 Within their respected communities, jazz musicians were less concerned about making records than the relationships of power and freedom during the shared experience of making music live as marketability is “inherently at odds with improvisational narratives of experiment and autonomy.”7 In the mid-twentieth century, jazz’s improvisational practice was appropriated by whites as experimentation and chance to be utilized in aleatoric music and indeterminate art.8 The appropriation and labeling of improvisation into mainstream white US culture also instigated its transition from a verb, an action, into a noun, a name to call a certain method.9

Improvisation studies has not been considered in association with nonfiction filmmaking, despite its obvious intersections. Many documentary films exist featuring content related to improvisational practices, but very little has been theorized regarding improvisation as a practice within documentary production. Through improvisation, the process of relinquishing power and trusting relationships with outside forces, nonfiction filmmakers can neutralize the active documentary voice of naming, authority, and control while creating truthful work. Following up on Amiri Baraka’s theory regarding the racist appropriation and commodification of jazz, one can understand film’s political function in its processual verb form to film, which poet Nathaniel Mackey argues “linguistically accentuates action” and calls attention to the real, first-person experience of the filmmaker.10 These conventions of improvisation have adapted easily into other creative and performative political endeavors: namely theater and dance. However, explorations associating improvisation and filmmaking—particularly documentary filmmaking—have not yet been conducted.

We are living in a technocratic age in which technical ability, production value, and aesthetics control our options for festival acceptance, distribution, and positive reaction in documentary filmmaking. Instead of making film solely out of enjoyment or need, we are making film that:

only enhances the growth of capital and the all-consuming power of the state. In these models, all individual choices merely maintain the appearance of independence. On closer scrutiny, however, the structuring of individual initiatives reveals prior co-optation by governmental or capitalist channels through which power exercises its control.11

This focus on the commodification of the documentary object creates an asymmetrical relationship between the filmmaker and all other components of making. This explicit link between creation and ownership is an ideology driven by capital and the ways in which it circulates.12 Thus, the telling of truth through nonfiction film becomes secondary to the creation of a product. Instead we must consider Routt’s statement, “The experience of documentary is the experience of an attempt at truth.”13 Documentary films cannot be completely true but are themselves a subjective truth of experience for the filmmaker.

The first step in creating this more truthful space in documentary filmmaking is revoking the film’s status as thing (noun) and instead referring to it as in process (verb), a form of political revolt functional in jazz and explained thoroughly by middle-voiced-ness. To develop a new language of documentary, one that speaks corporeally and addresses the bodily encounter of the filmmaker during the process of filming, documentary form must adopt the middle voice: that which philosophy scholar Philippe Eberhard states “does not focus on the subject and the object but on the subject and the verb.”14 It regards the mindful practice of letting go of control inside of a process instead of attempting to control a thing. The middle voice is a verbal voice in which the subject is simultaneously his or her own object that can describe many everyday activities including to dialogue as Eberhard explains, “A good and successful dialogue is an event that happens to the dialogue partners who are not actively in charge of it but medially involved in it, being at the service of the subject matter coming to language.”15 In jazz, the subject-musician is the center as well as the agent of the process. He or she steers the direction of the music without completely controlling its final form which is also determined by a variety of outside factors, including the other musicians, audience interaction, and mood. In improvisational documentary film, the filmmaker embraces the experience of filming without complete control over the environment, the technology, or the outcome. Instead of focusing on the final product, the filmmaker focuses on the process of making—the relationship between the subject-filmmaker and the verb (to film).

By challenging the current practice of documentary filmmaking and by giving up control over the final product, the possibility for a more truthful cinema emerges: one with less editing, less structure, and less consideration. We must keep in mind the relationship between the process and the result as a continuation of the process and a way for it to be experienced by viewers outside of the original improvisational encounter between the filmmaker and the film. This concept challenges the typical understanding of documentary as static knowledge. Although improvisation occurs only in the present, it can affect more lives, particularly the lives of its viewers, through its historical signifier: connecting the process of recording (verb: to film), to the resulting record (noun: the film).

Historically, improvisational jazz and its continued influence in other creative fields is more concerned with social and political matters than aesthetic and monetary ones. Because aesthetic value generally relates to monetary value in the production of film and video, the mindful use of improvisation creates tension in the documentary form that has been colonized by trained white male filmmakers. In many ways, the history of documentary reads like the history of any effort of colonization: a certain autocracy—well read, affluent, and of cultural majority—identifies, labels, and documents the other in an effort to both understand and control. Access to the subject and also the equipment and distribution necessary to document the subject has, through the history of documentary, continued to create structures of power in which some filmmakers have had the ability to tell their stories and others have not. Instead, we must discover a new language, one that does not replace the documentary encounter with the technological understanding needed to record it. As political writer Audre Lorde states, we can locate revolutionary change in identifying “that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.”16 For documentary, that oppression exists in the control over the image, edit, and sound of a documentary film.

If media no longer relates to truth, documentary filmmaking in its present aestheticized and colonized state also cannot be trusted, as it is made inaccessible to many who could benefit from its use as a political tool. The digital age has created accessibility for untrained photographers and documentarians around the globe. Cuban film director Julio García Espinosa called for this transition in 1979 in his manifesto For an Imperfect Cinema and many of the fantasies he had about film at the dawn of videotape have come to be possible.17 Espinosa refers to filmmakers as a minority within culture who have the time and circumstances needed to develop an artistic culture and the materials and technology required to film and edit.18 This is not true almost forty years later. This is also an age in which resistant media no longer needs a curator; smartphone video, YouTube, nonlinear editing, and social media screening opportunities such as Facebook Live, Vine, Snapchat, Instagram, etc. allow more people than ever to pick up cameras and record their experiences of the world. However, the documentary form still behaves as though only films adhering to strict technique and aesthetic guidelines fulfill the definition of nonfiction filmmaking. We must discover a new language that does not replace the documentary encounter with the technological understanding needed to record it.

By no means do I intend to discredit the history of experimental documentary or the post-structural theorizing over the past decades focusing on documentary praxis. Many subversive, resistant, and experimental filmmakers, both those inspired by Espinosa’s words and not, have made documentary works that de-constitute the constructed, institutional nature of truth and work outside of documentary’s mainstream. I do not intend through this manifesto to discredit these movements; although the critical work made by feminist, poststructuralist, and subaltern filmmakers reflects the base desire to work outside of and away from the traditions of over-aestheticized and capitalistic documentary that presents reality as unquestionable, they do so without acknowledging improvisation as a political tool as I aim to explain here.

In post-factual documentary, less training could potentially equate to more truthful production. This calls for a reimagining of Espinosa’s theory, which argues that it is up to the citizens to transform the world, and our understanding of it, through cinema.19 The concept of Imperfect Cinema also suggests a lessened interest in production values and technique and a focus instead on the filmmaker’s experience during the filming—returning again to the idea that film is a verb indicating a process. According to Espinosa, imperfect cinema shows “the process which generates the problems”; it does not “[celebrate] results.”20 In a way, the quality of the image—or lack thereof—makes the documentation of the process appear more genuine. Drawing attention away from the formal qualities: aesthetics, polish, editing, music, voiceover, etc. provides an opportunity for those not immersed in the technology to begin its utilization. Easy-to-use, consumer-friendly cameras allows for the action more easily to merge with awareness inside the process, thus offering a new validity to filmed objects that appear imperfect.

Marginalized voices, the voices of the people who are untrained in documentary making, disappear when the documentary canon valorizes the auteur model: the subject/filmmaker in control of the situation telling the audience what to know and think. This also speaks to the notion of patriarchal (and auteuristic) notions of ethnography. Academic innovator in twentieth-century American theater Viola Spolin explains: “Having thus to look to others to tell us where we are, who we are, and what is happening results in a serious (almost total) loss of personal experiencing.”21 In a way, documentary media has never been truthful because it is inherently produced from a singular perspective masked as pluralism. Espinosa suggests, “It is possible that art gives us a vision of society or of human nature and that, at the same time, it cannot be defined as a vision of society or of human nature.”22 When we consider the historical requirements necessary to complete a documentary film, we recognize that this pluralism, “the pretensions of privileged classes to speak…for the whole of society,” does a disservice to truth.23

We must acknowledge that the old-model of history, and the documentation of history, refers to “truth” and “fact” uncritically. Phenomenology, the area of philosophy that explores the ways in which things are experienced by a subject, has also greatly impacted our understanding of the word “truth.”24 Documentary is truthful in that the only undeniable truth in documentary is the truth of the subjective experience of the filmmaker during the process of the film’s making. That truth may or may not be shared with a viewing audience. When an audience views a work, regardless of the factuality of the work, their experience of the film, which is also a process, becomes a truthful experience.

Most of documentary functions as history from above; in which governments, corporations, and wealthy benefactors provide capital for the creation of nonfiction works. Even independent, self-funded documentary relies on, to some extent, this funding, be it through like-minded institutional grants or the neoliberal higher education system. However, when the documents of culture and history come from those being paid to display it, ethical issues arise—particularly works exploring the plight of racial, cultural, or gender minorities. Third cinema calls for a future of filmmakers who should be other things—professions beyond “artist”—without ceasing to be filmmakers.25 What we need instead of history from above is horizontal history—what one person might experience and what it might feel like to undergo that experience. In the current world climate, and in the days of Trump, political knowledge production must occur horizontally. Solidarity in filmic form, that which says Look what is happening to me—do you relate?, is an incredibly powerful political tool. Only by returning the word film to its verb form will the importance of the process and experience be indicated.

Oppressed individuals, the majority of United States citizens, the 99%, need a working method that falls outside of the traditions of over-aestheticized documentary storytelling. Through the use of digital photography, digital editing, and digital upload, the process of filming and distributing material is more available and easier than ever before, allowing for horizontal history to occur. Daniel Fischlin states that he believes, “improvisation is at its heart a democratic, humane, and emancipatory practice, and that securing rights of all sorts requires people to hone their capacities to act in the world.”26 The current model only furthers the oppression.

True pluralism of the documentary form in which no sharp line of demarcation exists between those who produce and those who consume media can provide makers/viewers control over the media and its inherent truth.27 This transition of form also opens up possibilities for civilian filmmakers who have not been formally trained, offering a new validity to filmed objects that appear imperfect. Only by seeing a surplus of singular, intersectional perspectives across class, race, religion, and gender, can we deduce for ourselves the truth out of the multiple, and possibly conflicting versions of the truth. Improvisational documentary can function as a discipline that will allow practitioners and viewers alike to “learn to bear witness truthfully to actual experience.”28 In the post-factual era, we can no longer rely on mass media for the disbursement of accurate information; we must instead rely on each other.

Social media allows for a curated view of reality based on the media we either select to view or scroll past. By embracing this confirmation bias, interpreting new evidence as a confirmation of our own existing beliefs and/or theories, we knowingly disengage with media that subverts our own truths and beliefs in the world. Thus, the truth lies in the eye of the beholder. I do not argue that what the camera films is inherently truth because signs must always be interpreted. To quote Jacques Derrida, “Language bears within itself the necessity of its own critique . . . any text inevitably undermines its own claims to have a determinate meaning, and licenses the reader to produce his [or her] own meanings out of it.”29 If we disrupt the idea of one correct truth and start discussing nonfiction film as a process instead of focusing solely on the product, this bias can be lessened. Feminist philosopher Tracey Nicholls states, “It is sensitivity to difference, and engagement with it, that makes improvisatory ethics an attitude so well-suited to the building of socially just futures.”30 With a plethora of positions, intersections, and perspectives from which to cull, social media can break down the ease with which people can block out other people’s differing opinions and truths.

In 1979, Espinosa called the future of art folk art, suggesting that art should be made by those untrained in the craft. I am calling for documentary to become the same—art by the people for the people. It is the right time to do so, as there are, thanks to the internet and social media, more spectators now than at any other moment in history. According to Espinosa, this is the first stage in “the abolition of ‘elites,’” the individuals defining culture for everyone else.31 If everyone consciously works through this process of improvisational filmmaking/truth-telling and viewing each others’ easily disseminated perspectives as well, a new aesthetic of truth can develop and everyone can be creators of their own culture, another of Espinosa’s commandments of the third cinema. The politics of the practice, once shared, can become also the politics of the viewing. The politics of citizen truth-making can negate the oppression that mass media has instilled on the aesthetics and form of filmmaking.

Consider Espinosa’s provocative question: “What are you doing in order to overcome the barrier of the ‘cultured’ elite audience which up to now has conditioned the form of your work?”32 If we all become improvisational documentary filmmakers and record the world around us to share our perspective with each other, and if that form can replace the technocratic form that currently presides, documentary can become a democratic form of truth for all. Consider the smartphone images and videos recorded in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017, during the Unite the Right rally and related protests. These acts of filming embody the themes discussed here: the process of documentation of truth and reality by citizen-filmmakers on the ground. I call not only for documentary filmmakers to begin exploring notions of improvisation and middle-voiced-ness in their own work, but for historians and theorists to consider writing about such work in a similar way—focusing more on the subject-filmmaker, the situation, the present-ness of the project, than an analysis of the product. We should be supporting this kind of documentary by finding it, writing about it, and respecting it as a documentary form. We should be considerate of the production of the work instead of the product. In this age that is simultaneously over-aestheticized, over-mediated, and crisis-ridden, filmmakers and spectators alike look to find that language that allows their experiences to speak for themselves.

GABRIELLE McNALLY is a practicing filmmaker and an assistant professor of Digital Cinema in the School of Art & Design at Northern Michigan University.

NOTES 1. John Grierson, “The First Principles of Documentary,” in Grierson on Documentary, ed. Forsythe Hardy (London: Faber & Faber, 166), 147. 2. Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 5. 3. Quoted by Arthur Asa Berger, Media Analysis Technique (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 2012), 14 4. Nichols, 10. 5. William D. Routt, “The Truth of Documentary,” Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture 5, no. 1 (1991), 6. Daniel Fischlin, Ajay Heble, and George Lipsitz, The Fierce Urgency of Now: Improvisation, Rights, and the Ethics of Cocreation (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013), 81. 7. Ibid., 134. 8. Rob Wallace, “Writing Improvisation into Modernism,” in The Improvisation Studies Reader: Spontaneous Acts, ed. Rebecca Caines and Ajay Heble (London: Routledge, 2015), 192. 9. Nathaniel Mackey, “Other: From Noun to Verb,” in The Improvisation Studies Reader, 244. 10. Ibid., 245. 11. Susan Leigh Foster, “Taken By Surprise: Improvisation in Dance and Mind,” in The Improvisation Studies Reader, 402. 12. Fischlin, Heble, and Lipsitz, Fierce Urgency of Now, 81. 13. Routt, Ibid. 14. Philippe Eberhard, “The Medial Age or the Present in the Middle Voice,” The International Journal of the Humanities 3, no. 8 (2006), 126. 15. Ibid., 127. 16. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007), 123. 17. Julio García Espinosa, “For an Imperfect Cinema,” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, trans. Julianne Burton, no. 20 (1979), 18. Ibid. 19. Ibid. 20. Ibid. 21. Viola Spolin, “Seven Aspects of Spontaneity,” in The Improvisation Studies Reader, 407. 22. Espinosa, Ibid. 23. Tracey Nicholls, An Ethics of Improvisation: Aesthetic Possibilities for a Political Future (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2012), 26. 24. Eleanor M. Godway, “Phenomenology and Frontiers of Experience: Merleau-Ponty and Irigaray,” in Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques 19, no. 1 (1993), 18. 25. Espinosa, Ibid. 26. Fischlin, Heble, and Lipsitz, Fierce Urgency of Now, xi. 27. Espinosa, Ibid. 28. Godway, 18. 29. Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 284. 30. Nicholls, 24. 31. Espinosa, ibid. 32. Ibid. (emphasis mine).

Information about Images


Provided Description: Man wearing Adolf Hitler / Nazi T-shirt prepares to enter Emancipation Park. August, 12, 2017.

Additional description: Event participant uses a consumer-grade camcorder to document his experience at the event.

Attribution: By Anthony Crider (Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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Provided Description: An unidentified alt-right member takes photos of the counter-protesters in Justice Park before phoning someone and driving off. August 12, 2017.

Additional description: Citizen photographer documents the event from a distance.

Attribution: By Anthony Crider (Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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Provided Description: Virginia State Police in Emancipation Park hours before the scheduled event. August 12, 2017.

Additional Description: Individuals on both sides of the barrier photograph themselves and each other.

Attribution: By Anthony Crider (Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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Provided Description: Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally. August 12, 2017.

Additional Description: Many civilians record the unfolding events with their cell phones while others employ professional video and audio equipment as police stand watch.

Attribution: By Anthony Crider (Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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Provided Description: A counter-protester gives a white supremacist the middle finger. The white supremacist responds with a Nazi salute. August 12, 2017.

Additional Description: A man in the back right holds up his cell phone as though he is documenting the encounter unfolding.

Attribution: By Evan Nesterak (Nazi Salute) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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Description: Charlottesville, August 12, 2017.

Additional Description: Protesters and counter-protesters engage each other while others hold up their phones as though they are photographing the encounter.

Attribution: By Evan Nesterak (skirmish 2) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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Current Issue, Vol. 45, no. 5

4 3 2 CRY: Fracking in Northern Colorado by Kathy T. Hettinga

Vol. 45, no.5

Xilunguine by Paul Castro


Image Text Ithaca Symposium

Film as Verb: Documentary Imperfection in the Post-Factual Era by Gabrielle McNally

Speculations and Inquiries on New Participatory Documentary Environments

Toward a Theory of Participatory New Media Documentary

Documentary Untethered, Documentary Becoming

Collaborative Documentary Practice: Histories, Theories, Practices


Silos by Andria Hickey and Matthew Chasney

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