Authenticity versus propaganda in documentary film

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Human rights researcher Kate Nash presented a discussion on Human Rights within documentaries during a lunchtime seminar in the Dodd Center room 162 Wednesday afternoon. After the presentation, attendees were invited to ask follow up questions to be answered by Nash.  Photos by Erin Knapp / The Daily Campus.

Human rights researcher Kate Nash presented a discussion on Human Rights within documentaries during a lunchtime seminar in the Dodd Center room 162 Wednesday afternoon. After the presentation, attendees were invited to ask follow up questions to be answered by Nash. Photos by Erin Knapp / The Daily Campus.

Dr. Kate Nash came to UConn on Wednesday to discuss authenticity versus propaganda in documentary film. She is a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths in London, where she organizes a human rights film series similar to the Dodd Center’s.

Nash was interested in knowledge in film. Human rights films have a special relationship with truth but also always intervene with political controversies, which gives them the ability to be read like propaganda. This means they can be viewed as manipulating the way people think about an issue, and can be painted in a negative light by dissenters on the issue at hand. 

Human rights’ relationship with truth is based on the unveiling of hidden facts and the intervening in controversies over facts and values. Documentary films take this further by giving a recording of the hidden facts. But they are also very cinematic and can make people react with a certain degree of pathos, so the targeted need for change may gain momentum. Knowledge in documentaries can be split into “sober knowledge”—which represents what’s real and uses techniques like voiceover and text—and “immersive knowledge”—which is intuitive, emotional and imaginative and uses long-takes with little intervention and close-ups. 

“I thought it was really interesting to look at film through the strategies that are used,” Madeline Williams, a seventh-semester structural biology and biophysics major, said. “I’m on a class assignment for my human rights class, but it was also interesting, of course. I was looking at it more through a campaigning view and how film can be used as a campaign strategy, and whether or not it can be used as the foundation of a campaign, because I think that’s really interesting. So I took away all those strategies she was talking about and how each of those can be applied to different campaigns in a different way.” 

Nash explained that the key part of making documentaries is the ability to prevent people from immediately declaring them as merely propaganda. To do so, they need to produce a sense of authenticity. This can be done by having the producer of the film come directly from the region the film is focused on, but Nash said this is rare. It is more common for a film to be authenticated by the authenticity of the main person being filmed. Filmmakers may also choose to leave aspects of their documentary out to promote a sense of authenticity. 

“Authenticity is in itself constructed,” Nash said. 

Nash explained that ambivalence is one of the largest methods of filmmakers in building authenticity. This ambiguity doesn’t lead to relativism or devalue human rights films in any way. Nash used “The Other Side of Everything” as an example, since ambivalence is in the title, and incorporated throughout. In this film, Mila Turajli grows up in an apartment which was split in half 70 years before, and finds out an old woman lives on the other side who believes in everything she stands against, thus making her a sort of “bad guy” of the film. At the same time, Turajli’s family hadn’t always been kind to this old woman, thus creating an ambivalence in good versus bad. After the film’s release, Turajli noticed that her film had created a bigger political impact than a didactic film might have done so


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Nash said ambivalence is great at avoiding being called propaganda because it acts both as an art and a message. 

“I find it quite surprising that the majority of the people here are very intellectual about the subject, so kind of being here as a freshman who doesn’t know much about film was quite interesting, and seeing that dynamic was fun,” Naomi Arroio, a first-semester psychology major, said. “But besides all that, it was very informative and it served the purpose of why I was here. I’m here to gain the knowledge of human rights through film and connect that back to the class that I’m currently taking.” 

Attendees of Nash’s talk were interested in the ability of fictional human rights films in creating the impact of documentary film without having the support of authenticity. Nash explained that her students had always named “Avatar” as a human rights film when asked for examples, and so human rights can clearly be thought of, and is, in a fictional context. Fictional films are still completely capable of creating an ecology of knowledge, just as documentary films do. 

“The knowing is not just in the film, but it’s in the ecology as well,” Nash said. 

Nash was thanked for her great insight in human rights films and given a huge round of applause from her diverse audience of graduate students, undergraduate students and professors.  


Rebecca Maher is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rebecca.l.maher@uconn.edu.

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