Comparing Written Texts & Documentaries of the Same Subject

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson compares documentaries and texts using examples from both media. We will identify medium-specific conventions in film, novels, memoirs, and other historical accounts to see how documentaries and texts present facts in different ways.

Are Books More Reliable Than Documentary Films?

Many people believe that documentary films are less reliable as sources of information than books because films are made for entertainment. By dramatizing historical events with images and sounds, doesn't the film alter its subject matter? In some ways, the answer is yes. But if you compare several different examples of documentary films with written texts on the same subject, you might be surprised at what you find. In many cases, the medium in which a story is conveyed matters less than the meaning the author intends to communicate.

Let's look at different types of documentaries and texts, exploring how their elements line up on a spectrum spanning from fact to fiction. We will examine examples of films and documents about the Holocaust in order to discover how authors and filmmakers craft stories based on facts.

Types of Nonfiction Media

We can begin our comparison of texts and documentaries by noting the common root in the word 'document.' Regardless of medium, the document refers to the record of a factual event. As a noun, it is a factual record or report. As a verb, it refers to the process of documenting an action or event.

There are different types of nonfiction texts just as there are different types of documentary styles. To make sense of how these works convey factual information, we arrange them into categories. First we can arrange written texts and documentaries according to their medium, or the material form in which the information is communicated. Different types of text include memoirs, diaries, legal records, census reports, and newspapers. Textbooks, encyclopedias, and academic books based on research fill library collections. Next to these sit audiovisual media, including archival and stock footage, oral histories and direct interviews recorded on film. Descriptive and persuasive documentaries that aim to present an argument about their topic also line the shelves.

Another way to categorize the veracity of documents is to identify how close their author was to the actual event being recorded. Primary sources for studying the Holocaust include diaries, letters, concentration camp records, photographs, archival footage, and newspaper articles created at that time. Memoirs and interviews are one step removed from the event, but are still considered primary. Secondary sources include texts and audiovisual media that were created to analyze and interpret the event: academic books, encyclopedias, and documentaries.

Comparing Documentaries & Memoirs About the Holocaust

While it's true that documentary films and written texts can approach the same subject, they aren't the same in every way. If you watch Shoah (Lanzmann, 1985), the notorious 5-hour long documentary about the Holocaust, you will learn that oral histories and interviews convey the same degree of factual information as a written memoir. In comparison, reading Anne Frank's diary might be a more pleasant experience because it invites the reader into her personal story.

Anne Frank at the Montessori school, Amsterdam, 1940
Anne Frank

By combining images and sounds, films dramatize historical events and make them easier to empathize with. Seeing the camps and hearing about the event from those who experienced it firsthand can have a powerful effect on viewers.

Gates at Auschwitz Concentration Camp read Arbeit Macht Frei (Work will make you free)

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