Documentaries are films that claim to represent and reflect the world. No, that doesn’t really work. All films have to reflect and represent the world, because they’re cultural products created by people who live in a defined area in the world. Even the silliest comedy is saying something about the people who made it and consume it, even if they try to conceal that critique. But we like to say that documentaries are more concerned with facts and the truth than their fictional counterparts. Documentaries tend to claim the mantle of objectivity: just the facts ma’am. It’s imagined that the story of a documentary should be constrained by what actually happened.
Often, it’s the other way around. The facts must kneel before the all-powerful narrative. I’m not just saying that people like Al Gore and Michael Moore twist the truth and adjust the framing of a subject to further their own political agendas (which is obvious, regardless of how you view their topics). I’m suggesting that fact-bending also happens when a director thinks it will help them to connect with an audience. Werner Herzog is quite open about the extent to which reality gets bent in his films. In Grizzly Man, Herzog deliberately chose archival footage that would make the protagonist seem inexperienced and naive, the perception that he wanted the audience to have. Grizzly Man is a great film, even though its greatness comes from the rejection of truth.
I don’t think there’s a huge creative gulf between documentaries and agitprop. Some documentaries handle their facts with more care than others, but total objectivity is impossible (and if it was possible, it would be boring). But that’s fine; people aren’t looking for the truth. We want a filtered version of the truth. We don’t like outright lies, but we want things to be presented to us in a way that agrees with our aesthetic and political sensibilities. Sheila Bernard does some hand-wringing (in “Approach”) over the issues of using footage of one event to represent another event. I appreciate her concern for veracity, but does that issue really matter? Documentary-makers will stretch their footage as far as they think they can without getting caught. That’s what we want them to do.
What is an un-documentary? I’d guess that it would be a more openly fictitious form of the documentary.