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  • The Unreliable Narrator in Documentary
  • Fiona Otway (bio)

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.

—Oscar Wilde

in a media-saturated world, it can be very hard to parse who and what to believe. With the lines between documentary and fiction increasingly blurred in the aesthetics of contemporary filmmaking, documentary practitioners are faced with ongoing questions about the nature of documentary “truth”—from analyzing how the conventions of documentary realism function to renegotiating the terms of documentary’s truth contract with its audiences. These age-old questions are enormous in scope, inviting debates that do not necessarily lead to clear, concrete answers. But considering that documentary is often packaged as entertainment or produced to advance an agenda, reviving and reconsidering these kinds of questions is necessary not only to whet the art and craft of making documentaries, but also to enrich the dialogue that occurs among documentary viewers after they have seen a film. Unraveling the complex knot of power embedded in representations of documentary “truth” is an essential practice for filmmakers and spectators seeking to challenge systems of oppression as well as those simply seeking to become more self-aware and informed about the world. Unreliable narrators are merely one thread in that knot, but a discourse about the unreliable narrator as a construct in the documentary form is nevertheless a vital component of these larger conversations.

Whether in literature, film, or theoretical essays, the unreliable narrator most often appears in the context of fictional storytelling; far fewer examples of the unreliable narrator have been theorized in nonfiction or documentary filmmaking. Perhaps this is for the obvious reason that the presence of an unreliable narrator suggests a falsification of truth that would seem to invoke a world of fiction. It could be argued that an unreliable narrator works against the very definition of documentary filmmaking; however, documentary filmmaking has always had a tenuous relationship with the ideal of truth. If one accepts the premise that both truth and misrepresentations of truth coexist in the documentary tradition, then the construct of an unreliable narrator can help draw attention to the rhetorical nature of documentary “truth.”

To explore these issues, this analysis will begin by drawing upon the work of Wayne Booth to establish a working definition of an “unreliable narrator.” Revisiting a well-known example of the unreliable narrator in the film Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa (1950) and applying theory developed by Seymour Chatman will help elucidate this definition and make an important distinction between how the unreliable narrator is constructed in written texts versus films. Since documentaries function within a different rhetorical dimension than fictional [End Page 3] films, the analysis will proceed by exploring how the concept of the unreliable narrator in documentary has different effects and consequences than in the world of fiction. Close readings of two contemporary documentaries, Laura Poitras’s The Oath (2010) and Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010), will serve as the central focus of these arguments. These two documentaries—one about the war on terrorism, the other about the commercialization of art—are similar in the manner that they suggest the unreliability of their protagonists, but differ greatly in their presentation as reliable documents. Additional scrutiny of Atomic Café (1982), directed by Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty, and Pierce Rafferty, and Luis Buñuel’s Land Without Bread (1932) will provide points of comparison to further delineate the significance of precise narrational positioning for framing unreliability in the documentary form. These case studies will illustrate variations in how unreliable narrators are constructed and in how the unreliable narrator functions relative to the perceived intentions of the implied author in each film. Ultimately, this analysis will interrogate how the use of an unreliable narrator in documentary can be a powerful tool to help spectators engage actively with documentaries, invite constructive questioning and critical thinking about the authorial power of filmic narration, and open up more profound layers of meaning for viewers in interpreting films.

Defining “Unreliable Narrator”

In 1961, Wayne Booth introduced the term “unreliable narrator” in The Rhetoric of Fiction to describe a storytelling device in...


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