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Introduction. 2

Differences between watching documentaries and experiencing real-life events. 3

The problem of attempted communication in documentaries. 6

Implications for attitudes towards documentary filming. 8

Skepticism.. 8

Ambivalence. 9

Empathy. 12

Curiosity. 13

Conclusion. 14

References. 14


The activity of watching events on a screen differs a lot from that of 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 (Ellis, 2012).


The debate on how watching events in documentaries differs from watching similar events in real life is a subject of 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 In such a case, one may criticize documentary enthusiasts of being withdrawn from real-life issues simply because of their preference for witnessing events from a perspective where they cannot offer any assistance or provide meaningful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. Out of this discussion, four attitudes towards documentary viewing are discussed. They include skepticism, ambivalence, empathy, and curiosity. By discussing these attitudes, this paper aims to connect aspects of documentary viewing 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 in the natural environment. Since it is not possible for people to move to all parts of the world to experience every event, 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 be able to be 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.

Documentaries differ from fiction in the sense that they provide an analysis of events that actually took place. It is withdrawn only one step from real-life events. In this step, the viewer is able to acquire some insights into how it feels for one to experience 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 about 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 featuring Africans. In other words, documentaries provide an alternative point of view that may not necessarily be accessible through 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 (Whiteman, 2004). 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 are 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 as 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 similar events 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 judgment. Those who know what it is like to be filmed and to be made into a subject of a documentary may understand what it means to be judged 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, optimism about a “two-way traffic” phenomenon increases (Ellis, 2012). In this two-way traffic, 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 such as increased availability of new forms of communication. It has also been addressed through 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.

Ellis (2005) points out that filmmakers are always aware that their documentaries will be a subject of public debate. 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 occurrence of ambivalent feelings also has a lot to do with concerns about privacy on the one hand and the excitement that comes with being the subject of public attention on the other. Alternatively, one may interpret ambivalence from the perspective of the impact of different private realms. One crucial private realm is one that is characterized by events that occur at home. Some situations are meant to be exposed only to close family members in the privacy of the home setting. Many people, particularly those who are introverted, would be taken aback by the publication of photographs that were meant for viewing by family members alone.  They may strongly feel that it was inappropriate for a private event in which they participated such as a family gathering to be published for the entire world to see.

To understand the impact o privacy ambivalent feelings during or after a documentary-watching activity, one must first appreciate its importance. One way of doing so is by viewing privacy as a possession, such that one can give it up, give it away, or have it taken away. If the production team reveals too much private information about an individual, an outpouring of criticism is likely to come not just from the affected individual but also the audience that views the documentary. At the same time, the audience may take pride in having discovered one thing or two about the individual’s personal circumstances.

It is difficult for producers of documentaries to draw a clear line between privacy and right to provide information to the public. This problem is very common among those who prepare documentaries for consumption by media houses. The media houses, commissioning organizations, and filmmakers have to maintain a delicate balance between public interest and private right. The public audience has a right to information about people and issues that are of public interest. On the other hand, individuals have a right to privacy. It is virtually impossible for a documentary to fully satisfy these requirements, such that complaints tend to emerge from either the public or the affected individuals. The best that the filmmakers can do is to venture into the realm of attempted communications and attempt to look at the same situation from different perspectives. By so doing, they distance themselves from the event, thereby enabling the audience make decisions, and judge their accuracy and professional probity.


Empathy is often created in documentaries through attempted communication. Through complex processes, viewers tend to be distanced from the actions unfolding in the documentary. This enables them to adopt an analytical approach. It may be impossible for people who experience the events in real life to adopt such an approach. This is simply because numerous interruptions tend to occur. For instance, a witness may be tempted to intervene and mediate in a quarrel between two warring parties. In the case of documentaries, the best that a viewer can do is to empathize with the problem an individual may be encountering. From such a distance, the individual is able to reflect on different possible courses of action and their consequences.

Whenever the audience expresses empathy towards a situation, a filmmaker may claim to have achieved his goal of triggering a discussion and a process of artistic appreciation and interpretation. In some instances, the degree of empathy expressed by the audience may be interpreted to mean that the audience regards the information provided as trustworthy and truthful. In other cases, the truthfulness of a documentary may be defined in terms of the complexity of reactions that it invokes among the audience. Empathy is one of the most important reactions. People tend to empathize with situations that they believe to be a true reflection of the difficult circumstances that an individual finds himself. If they consider a scene to be grossly exaggerated, they are unlikely to react empathetically.

Whiteman (2004) adopts a different perspective; he argues that most viewers develop empathetic attitudes because of the distance that maintain from the events unfolding in the documentary. According to Whiteman (2004), the viewers develop a pessimistic view of the situation simply because they are fully withdrawn from the unfolding phenomenon. The phenomenon tends to be so withdrawn from the viewers’ worlds and lives that they seem to be beyond the reach of compassion, care, and any productive action (Whiteman, 2004).


It is natural for humans to be curious about the world around them (Ellis, 2012). In fact, a major reason why documentaries continue to be produced is to respond to this curiosity. A tug of war seems to exist with regard to the way humans behave in terms of curiosity. Whereas we want our private lives to remain within the private realm, we at the same time want to as much about the private lives of other people as possible. This element of double standards best illustrates the mystery of human nature in relation to curiosity.

In literature on the act of watching documentaries, it is evident that too much curiosity tens to be threatening especially in the context of contemporary urban culture. Urban settings, people are compelled to encounter people about whom they know nothing (Ellis, 2012). To negotiate their ways in such situations, urban dwellers are compelled to adopt a culture of “inattention” in order to reach their destinations and do their businesses as quickly as possible. To such people, documentaries provide an excellent source of recollecting their instincts as far as curiosity is concerned. The action of watching a documentary enables them to be withdrawn from the real-life event. The viewers no longer have to assume an attitude of “civil inattention” since no one is likely to interfere with their movement around town. They are safely removed from the action yet they are able to follow keenly whatever is happening.

Although people living in highly populated neighborhood are likely to adopt an attitude of “civil inattention”, they tend to be very curious about the acceptability of different behaviors and norms. They simultaneously endeavor to gain some provisional understanding of the identities of different people, their behaviors, their norms, and their expectations. This vital information is in plenty in the modern world of online media. Many documentaries are being produced with a view to shed light on the way different people lead their lives.


In conclusion, the activity of watching events on a screen differs from watching them in real life in many ways. People who watch documentaries tend to be withdrawn from the unfolding actions. They are able to analyze and interpret the phenomenon from a distance, such that they cannot be called upon to participate in the process of influence the outcomes. The manner in which people respond to content provided in the form of documentaries tends to have far-reaching implications for attitudes towards documentary filming.

For filmmakers, a major problem relates to efforts to create trustworthiness and truthfulness. The concept of attempted communication has been developed to explain the difficulties that filmmakers, commissioning organizations, distributors, and broadcasting organizations encounter in their attempt to balance competing interests while at the same time trying to promote elements of truthfulness and trustworthiness. Regardless of these efforts, certain attitudes are bound to emerge from the audience. The attitudes that this paper has discussed include skepticism, ambivalence, empathy, and curiosity.


Ellis, J (2012),Documentary: Witness and self-revelation, New York, London.

Ellis, J 2005, A new history of documentary film, Longman, London.

Whiteman, D 2004, ‘Out of the Theaters and Into the Streets: A Coalition Model of the Political Impact of Documentary Film and Video’, Political Communication, vol. 21, no. 1, pp. 51-69.

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