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Personalizing What Is Observed
“What you perceive, your observations, feelings, interpretations, are all your truth. Your truth is important. Yet it is not The Truth.”
Ira Konigsberg defines a documentary in The Complete Film Dictionary as “a film that deals directly with fact and nonfiction, that tries to convey reality as it is instead of some fictional version of reality. These films are concerned with actual people, places, events, or activities.” The term comes from the French word documentaire, which has the literal meaning “travelogue.” Documentaries are created to depict a perspective of reality, resulting in a wide variety of context. Many suggest designating specific names for genres of documentaries, such as “propaganda documentaries”, “romantic documentaries”, or “experimental documentaries,” so as to more clearly specify the foundation of the film. Documentary style is theoretically intended to “create a sense of reality and objectivity.” (Konigsberg). Robert Coles believes that is and can only be the intent because no documentarian is capable of achieving an entirely subjective documentary. He says that the compilation of a documentary itself is a demonstration of perspective and it will cater to either the short or the long view.
The documentary Stupid in America was created in 2006 by the producers of 20/20. It is narrated by anchor John Stossel. The film begins with brief clips of well-known movies, such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Each film portrays the common theme that students are unintelligible and teachers are entirely uninteresting. Stossel questions whether or not the media projects an accurate depiction of modern day society or a slightly skewed version. He asks numerous high school students and they confirm that many students and teachers are portrayed accurately in Hollywood films.
In search of legitimacy behind the presumptions of producers and students, Stossel provides a basic test to a selected class of students in a New Jersey school and a class in Belgium. The scores were incomparable. While both sets of students claimed the test to be easy, the students of Belgium outperformed the students of New Jersey by over twenty percent. The New Jersey students thought the teaching they received must be responsible for the gap between the students of Belgium’s intelligence and their own. To add to the impression, the film plays a selection of Jay Leno clips in which Leno asks simple questions to teenagers and they respond with far from reasonable answers, if they supply any answer at all.
Stossel sought to film teachers conducting class in many states, but was turned down by all school districts. Finally, after much persistence, a Washington D.C. school district allowed Stossel to film a select few students in specified classes within specific schools. He found that the classes were, in fact, alike to those depicted in films. He expanded his search about the country and interviewed numerous parents. One mother explained her experience with a failing school system; her eighteen-year-old son is incapable of reading higher than a fourth grade level.
The film then showed an interview between Stossel and Jay Greene, author of Education Myths. Greene asserts that allocating more money to education would not improve schools and student learning. Stossel confirms his theory with an example of a Kansas City school. It received a significant increase in funding and improved its facilities dramatically; scores, however, dropped substantially. Money, Stossel argues, is not the solution to the education crisis.
Stossel returned to Belgium to discover the secret behind their success. He found that unlike American schools, the money is tied to the student. Parents are able to choose whichever school they please. This encourages all schools to function well and offer a variety of subjects, so that the student does not take their “business” elsewhere. Inadequate schools do not receive students and are in turn shut down. As a result, the students often receive a better education and it costs significantly less per student than it does in American public schools.
In America, the schooling system is a monopoly. The film compares it to AT&T’s monopoly over telephone service in a majority of the twentieth century and even the previous Soviet Union. Stossel supports removing monopolies to provide customers with choice and create competition among providers. In this situation the principals would want the teachers to improve so that students would choose their school. Suddenly the “customers”, students, would matter much more.
Robert Coles, currently a professor at Harvard University, attended the school in 1950 and then earned a M.D. degree at Columbia University. Coles has written numerous books, including Doing Documentary Work. A chapter within the book is titled “The Tradition: Fact and Fiction.” It addresses Coles’s interpretation of perspective within a documentary.
In “The Tradition: Fact and Fiction”, Coles expands on the concept that despite all measures, a documentary always shows perspective. Every individual is unique; they see, interpret, and perceive life in different ways. Something as simple as the direction of a camera is an example of perspective. Coles writes,
“A documentation’s report will be strengthened by what has been witnessed, but will be fueled, surely, by what those observations come to mean in his or her head: we absorb sights and sounds, and they become our experience, unique to us, in that we, the recipients, are unique. What we offer others in the way of our documentary reports, then, is our mix of what we have observed and experienced, as we have assembled it, that assembly having to do, again, with our imaginative capability, our gifts as writers, as editors, as storytellers, as artists.” (179)
The producers of Stupid in America created the film subject to what their observations meant to them and determined how they translated the meaning into the film. Their mix portrayed a failing school system through a selection of interviews, film footage, and narration.
Coles also justifies the compilation of the various aspects of a documentary in the sense that the documentarian is in fact creating a “story” as an example of perspective. The images or film used, the music played, and the interviews included are all examples of the creator’s preference. Each person would assemble the components in a distinct manner because they perceive them differently.
“We who cut, weave, edit, splice, crop, sequence, interpolate, interject, connect, pan, come up with our captions and comments, have our say (whenever and wherever and however) have thereby linked our lives to those we have attempted to document, creating a joint presentation for an audience that may or may not have been asked to consider all that has gone into what they are reading, hearing, or viewing.” (185)
The creators of Stupid in America cut, wove, and edited the film to create their story. Footage from movies and television shows was included to support their claims. They determined the order in which to present their findings. Statements from people that strengthened their argument were shown. All of these assorted aspects combine to generate the producer’s “story.” Similarly, Coles writes,
“Moreover, to repeat, some of us add our two cents (or more); we work what others have become to us into our narrative- the titles we give to photographs, the introductions we write for exhibitions, the statements we make with films. Even if our work is presented only about them, we have been hard at work for weeks, for months, discarding and thereby concentrating what we retain: its significance mightily enhanced because so much else has been taken away.” (185)
The producers portrayed the film as entirely about the education system, but displayed their “two cents” through the exclusion of contradicting statements or facts. The significance of the issue portrayed in Stupid in America was clear. While the message was obvious, it focused almost entirely on the negative aspects of American schools. Many students think otherwise of the labels put on teachers and classmates and many parents are pleased with the education their child is receiving in the public school system, and yet there was absolutely no footage of those opinions. It goes to show that documentarians often do not include information that may weaken the theme or topic they are aiming to expose. In this situation, the consequence of perspective is a subjective outcome.
Coles also believes that all documentaries favor either the short or the long view. The short view pertains to an individual and the long view applies to cultural, social, and historical context. Stupid in America is a demonstration of the long view. The film reveals the claim of an undesirable education system in need of reconfiguration. The unacceptable state of the public school system is a trend that affects people through out America, therefore applying to both the social and cultural contexts.
Evidently, Coles’s theories apply to Stupid in America as they do to all documentaries. It was apparent that the producers of Stupid in America put their “two cents” into it through the editing process as a whole. The parts they selected to comprise the film are their interpretation of the issue, their truth. They may have used documentary style, attempting to “create a sense of reality and objectivity”, but creating The truth is entirely unattainable. Coles writes, “We are less likely to account for the almost infinite possible variations on an encounter that constitute a human exchange, or a human response to the nonhuman world of the landscape or the multihuman world of a social scene.” (180) Coles’s belief that all documentaries cater to the short or long view also applies to Stupid in America. It is an example of both social and cultural context. As a whole, Coles’s assertions prove accurate in accordance to the documentary Stupid in America.
Coles, Robert. “The Tradition: Fact or Fiction.” Ways of Reading. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002. 175-219.
Ellinor, Linda. "Linda Ellinor Quotes." Thinkexist.com. Web.
Konigsberg, Ira. "Documentary Style." The Complete Film Dictionary. Print.
Konigsberg, Ira. "Documentary." The Complete Film Dictionary. Print.
Stupid in America. Dir. 20/20. Perf. John Stossel. ABC, 2006. DVD.