The first step is to recognize that multiple truths exist in documentary. Truths are constructs built of carefully arranged information.
What truths are presented in the documentary?
How are these truths presented?
What information does it put forward?
What information is left out?
Point of View
The second step is to recognize that all documentaries are biased. The word “bias” is equated with prejudice and information that is slanted in a particular direction. The connotation here is that the information is tainted in a negative way, much the same way the word “propaganda” has taken on connotations of having evil intentions behind it. Another term that might be more useful here is “point of view.”
From what point of view is the documentary speaking? What perspective is it offering on events and arguments?
Can you relate to this viewpoint or at least understand where it’s coming from?
Are there multiple viewpoints? Do they agree or contradict each other? Does one come across as more “right” while the other seem more “wrong?”
Can you think of some other perspectives that might be out there but not addressed in the documentary?
What is the tone of or emotion behind the(se) viewpoint(s)?
After truths and point of view, other parts of the documentary can be questioned as well. Here are just a few:
What conventions does the documentary incorporate? Does it use voiceover, reenactments, archival footage, interviews?
Does it rely on one convention more than another?
Why does it use the conventions it does?
Who are the dominant voices in the documentary? Are they official sources such as government representatives, or are they experts of another kind? Or are they people from the street?
Are most of the voices men or women? Are they of a particular ethnic group?
What is their connection to the documentary’s subject? What kinds of truths are they putting forward?
Do the voices agree with or contradict each other?
How is the documentary structured? Does it follow chronological order? Does it use a different order?
What impact does the structure have on the unraveling of its truth(s)?
What is the subject of the documentary? In other words, what is it about?
How does this documentary compare with others about the same or similar subject?
How is the subject of social relevance?
Is the documentary maker present within the piece either in person or in voice? Or is the maker absent?
If present, does the maker call attention to him or herself? Or, does the maker’s presence seem incidental?
What purpose does the maker’s presence serve? Does the maker drive events, serve as another observer, or fulfill another function?
What is the maker’s reputation outside this documentary? How does that reputation affect your viewing of it?
Where was the documentary first exhibited? On television, in a movie theater, at a film festival?
How might where the documentary is viewed affect its reception?
In what context did you see it? How might seeing it elsewhere change your perceptions?
Where was the documentary made?
In what time period was it made?
What were the technologies used at the time? What were their possibilities and what were their limitations?
How do the technologies, origins, and time period contribute to the documentary overall?