October 20, 2010

Documentary Films, Law and Justice

Cynthia D. Bond, The John Marshall Law School, has published Documenting Law: Reality & Representation on Trial. Here is the abstract.

Documentary films frequently address issues of social and political injustice; thus, however indirectly, implicating law as their subject. Documentary film and legal process also frequently share formal similarities as they both seek to reconstruct actual events through representational techniques. Thus, notions of the truth are deeply overdetermined in documentary films about law. To most lay spectators, such documentaries are truth-seeking systems (documentary film) depicting a truth-seeking system (law). Thus, it is particularly useful to analyze the impressions of law lay spectators gain (or confirm) from these films since, given the truth claims of documentaries, spectators may more fully trust images of law in them than in fiction film. Documentaries engage different strategies in ignoring, negotiating, or acknowledging the overdetermined sources of truth they contain. First, many documentaries mount a competing narrative of truth, contesting the ability of legal processes to adequately find the truth (a dynamic this article dubs “Film vs. Law”). Alternatively, documentaries may contest law’s truth claims without fully supplanting them with their own purportedly superior access to truth (“Film and Law”). These films both critique the truth claims of the legal process while acknowledging the inevitably open-ended and provisional nature of the events they reference. Finally, documentaries may underline the shared representational techniques of law and film to reveal the vexed nature of accessing the truth in both realms (“Film = Law”). These three documentary strategies are defined in part by the stylistic choices the films make, and by the on- and off-screen performance of the filmmaker’s relationship with his or her subject. Yet regardless of a particular documentary film style, the notion of the truth of depicted events is an inescapable element of the documentary narrative.
Download the full text from SSRN at the link.

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