Statutory Construction: What is a “Documentary” Film?

As lawyers, we are prickly curmudgeons with respect to definitions, and all of the talk this year about documentary filmmaking prompted much disdain on our part over the use of the term “documentary.”  That word suggests some type of objectivity; Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary uses words like “factual” and “objective” in its definition.  A documentary filmmaker takes his or her camera to the scene of a series of events or profiles a particular person or persons and provides the most objective view of the subject of the film.   A documentary film is successful, we think, when both the subject of the film and those who are critical of the film’s subject matter agree that it is an accurate representation.  Thus, that factual and objective depiction – complete with the proper context – can prompt serious debate and discussion about the events depicted without falling victim to cries of bias, improper editing, or other editorial tricks of the trade.  But that’s not what documentaries do these days.  Just this year, we’ve written about would-be documentaries by Plaintiff’s lawyers advancing a litigious agenda (that being Susan Saladoff’s Hot Coffee) and disgruntled former litigants making films advocating tort reform (that being Brian J. Kelly’s InJustice.). These are filmmakers with agendas; they seek to convince viewers of a point and call them to action.

These are not documentarians; they are editorialists. There is, of course, a place in film for subjective editorializing, just as there is a place in a newspaper for an editorial and op-ed page. Heck, we here at Abnormal Use engage in editorializing every day and would not purport to be objective reporters of fact (unless we tried really, really hard to do so and specifically made that claim).  However, we do not generally bill ourselves as reporters or documentarians, and thus, we free ourselves of the constraints of journalistic objectivity.

We think that Saladoff, the former trial lawyer and producer of Hot Coffee, and Kelly, the former litigant and maker of InJustice – are editorialists.  They admit that they have an agenda, and they concede that they are trying to change people’s minds by showing them things they may not have seen before.  Their films are the work of advocates.  Thus, the term “documentary” is misleading when applied to their films, especially in light of  Saladoff’s representation that she is offering “the truth behind the McDonald’s case.”  Saladoff is a plaintiff’s lawyer with an agenda who has turned film maker; Kelly is a citizen who had an unpleasant encounter with the legal system who has a Washington PR firm with Bush administration alumni promoting his film effort. There’s nothing wrong with their decisions to make films to express their opinions about the American civil justice system; it’s just wrong to call them documentaries.

We suspect there would be similar charges of bias if we here at Abnormal Use produced a documentary on the merits of tort reform – the first complaint we would expect to hear would be that defense lawyers at a large southeastern civil litigation firm were attempting to change the minds of potential jurors.  (Kelly faced similar criticism with InJustice, and in fact, those charges of “bias” were leveled against us when we criticized Saladoff’s film). Similarly, we pointed out the potential bias of Saladoff, whose Facebook page explicitly requests viewers to “take action” and write letters to the editor to advance the film’s mission. (We’ve included in this post a few screencaps from the Hot Coffee official Facebook page indicating how the documentary’s producers are calling for actions by viewers – not something you typically see from an objective reporter of facts).  Take a look:

We suppose there is some point where the public is aware that what is presented as a “documentary” is not, in fact, an objective narrative.  Michael Moore became know for such films as Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, and Fahrenheit 911, all of which were documentaries, in the sense that they were not narrative fiction, although they certainly had an editorial agenda not implied by the use of the term “documentary.”  There’s always a conservative would-be documentary popping up in response to Moore’s films, as well, but again, those too have agendas. Whatever the case, when the public learns of a new Moore film, they are not expecting an objective documentary. But when an unknown filmmaker like Saladoff or Kelly appears on the scene purporting to expose truth, we must be mindful of the term.

Incidentally, and perhaps ironically, we did attempt to make one objective piece of reporting on this very case.  Please direct your browser to our “Stella Liebeck McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case FAQ” for an editorial–free question and answer session about the underlying facts of the infamous hot coffee case, the trial thereof, and the post trial developments.  We thought it might be helpful if there was at least one place on the Internet where there was an objective retelling of that case using only the original documents from the trial and early 1990’s media coverage thereof.  If you want to learn the facts of the case, that is a good place to go.