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“Capturing Reality” or Hyperreality? A post-structuralist reading of documentary journalism’s “factual” authority in an aporetic media landscape

Lessons of Darkness (1992) Dir: Werner Herzog

“Every camera is a certificate of presence” (Barthes, 1981, p.5)

Since the advent of the photographic image, there has been an entrenched indexical bond between photorealism and notions of “truth” or “authenticity”. The 19th century philosopher and semiotician Charles Sanders Pierce wrote that indexical relationships are bonds that connect meaning between two units (the sign and the signifier) not by exact resemblance, but by “causality or proximity to the object they represent” (Spence & Louise, 2011, p.14). A photograph is considered to be a record; it is a tangible marker of reality in so far as it purports to capture a snapshot of an event, a figure, a subject or a phenomenon. Photographic media signifies presence; the camera is a witness which, due to its mechanical capabilities, can document, record, and disseminate its state of witness. Drawing from the theory of another semiotician, Roland Barthes explains in his seminal text Camera Lucida that a photograph is “never distinguished from its reference (from what it represents)” and “every camera is a certificate of presence” (Barthes, 1981, p.5) Contrary to other forms of “record” (i.e. the written account), there is a certain authority a photograph can claim; oftentimes thought of as without bias or transformation (Spence et al., 2011, p.14). The resemblance between photograph and reality, writes film & media scholars Louise Spence and Vinicius Navarro in the book Crafting Actuality, creates the notion that photographic media “can in fact show; they can demonstrate” (Spence et al., 2011, p.14). Photorealism, of course, is not solely compromised of still photographic images, for the emergence of film media marked an interesting shift in the indexical bond that connected photographs to “fact”. Early experiments with new, cinematic capabilities (i.e. the work of Eadweard Muybridge, the Lumière Brothers, broadly, “pre-classical” films), were driven by the desire to “move” the photographic image; to capture and document the witness state as dynamic, active and augmented. This was the birth of film (also known as the moving photograph). Although the purpose of film began to branch off in different directions (i.e. not solely as a documenting tool), Spence and Navarro argue that there has been a lasting “residual sense of that ontological authority” that the photograph claims over representations of “authenticity” (Spence et al., 2011, p.12). This is perhaps best demonstrated by French film critic André Bazin who wrote that technological advancements in cinema (both in documentary and fiction films) were driven by the desire to create the closest possible mimesis of our own reality; capturing a “complete imitation of nature” (Bazin, 1967, p.235). One of the earliest examples of cinema, from the pioneering Lumière brothers was a film called “L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat” which premiered in 1895 to a bewildered audience. The film, 50 seconds long, captures a train pulling into a station and, thus, could be classified as non-fiction. The oft cited lore of L'Arrivée states that the black-and-white film of the train “filled a movie screen in Paris, the people in the cinema thought it was going to drive right into them. They panicked, and bolted for the back of the theater” (Grundhauser, 2017). André Bazin, ruminating on the pioneers of cinema, states “In their imaginations they saw the cinema as a total and complete representation of reality; they saw in a trice the reconstruction of a perfect illusion” (Bazin, 1967, p.235). 

Films, in general, can be thought of as similar to these “perfect illusions” Bazin speaks of. Leaps and bounds in cinematic techniques are often likened to “trickery” or “magic”; the deception lying in the film’s ability to have audiences suspend disbelief and allow themselves to be transported into another world. “The camera supposedly never lies” writes film scholar Dan North “yet film's ability to frame, cut and reconstruct all that passes before its lens made cinema the pre-eminent medium of visual illusion and revelation from the early twentieth century onwards.” (North, 2008). Lighting and camera movements can shift perspective, editing can dictate pace and mood and, broadly, “special effects” (from its earliest use in the late 19th century) can create near perfect “illusions” on screen. This is the landscape of the fictional film; which grew in popularity shortly after the early cinematic experiments of the Lumière Brothers which captured snippets of “real” life (i.e. L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895), Employees Leaving the Lumiere Factory (1895) and La Mer (1895) to name a few). The rise of the fictional film gave audiences story, entertainment, and narrative structure; what film historian Tom Gunning calls “the cinema of attractions” (Gunning, 2006, p.32). Ultimately, fiction films (the cinema of attractions) became more desirable to audiences, who had grown indifferent to scenes of everyday life. Whereas The Birth of a Nation (1910) is widely credited as being the first feature film, the first feature documentary would only come about 12 years later with the seminal Nanook of the North (1922). That being said, scholars have argued that the origins of documentary film can be traced back far further than this date;

We can recognise a number of genres, which were already well established in the 1880s, if not before, for which there is remarkable continuity even to this day. They would include the war programme, the science programme, the religious programme, the ‘city symphony’ programme (to use an anachronism), the political programme, and so forth. The documentary tradition flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century with ‘documentary-like’ programmes. To not see this, takes an incredible act of blinding willpower (Musser, 2013, p.123). 

In fact, one may argue that the majority of early cinematic experiments (i.e. L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat, La Mer, etc.) are documentaries themselves, even though they aren’t canonically classified as such due to their “experimental” status in the history of cinema. Scottish filmmaker John Grierson is widely credited for coining the term “documentary” around the same time Nanook of the North premiered (1920s) and in his definition, the documentary is the “creative treatment of actuality” (Kerrigan & McIntyre, 2010, p.111). Distinguished from “fiction” (i.e. the unreal), the documentary purports to capture reality in a profilmic manner; demonstrating to its audience a snippet of “truthful” representation. Much like early perceptions of the photograph, documentaries purport to demonstrate “the truth” via their ability to capture, document and, most importantly, disseminate. As such they harbour an epistemological authority in the media landscape; one that cannot be attained by fiction filmmaking alone. As Spence et al. write “As viewers, we are affected by documentaries’ claims of truth but seldom notice it. Many spectators enter the theater with a naïve concept of ‘truth’ and ‘reality.’ They see documentaries as innocent sources of information” (Spence et al, 2011, p.4). To elaborate; innocent sources of information, here, means without bias, influence, or manipulation. The goal of the documentary is to “capture reality” and insofar as that is true, the documentary then is a completely undisrupted and objective portrayal of reality. Such is a feat, some may argue, is nearly impossible and thus we are left with a seminal question as audiences of “truthful” videos; “Is truth or reality readily available, easily acquired, or undisputed? Or do documentaries construct their own ‘reality’?” (Spence et al, 2011, p.4).  It is this question, so eloquently noted by Spence and Navarro, that drives a post-structuralist analysis of the documentary genre. As with most forms that possess “ontological authority”, a genre that purports to demonstrate “truth” values must be critically analyzed. As Spence et al. claim “Documentaries have the power to impose a sense of order, purpose, and interconnectedness amidst the chaos of data, calling some “evidence” and relegating others to oblivion.” (Spence et al, 2011, p.4) This begs the question whether documentaries are demonstrating truth/reality or whether they are, in fact, crafting it themselves. A relativist philosopher may argue “There is no such thing as absolute truth” and in that framework one could argue there is no such thing as an absolutely truthful film. Insofar as that may be true, the task then is to call into question to dominance and authority documentaries claim over “capturing reality” in a profilmic manner.


“The simulacrum is never what hides the truth - it is truth that hides the fact that there is none. The simulacrum is true.” (Ecclesiastes)

The above quote, by Ecclesiastes, is a powerful opening to Jean Baudrillard’s seminal book Simulacra and Simulation. Striking, except for the fact that the quote itself is falsified, with Baudrillard having written it himself and deceptively attributing it to Ecclesiastes (Baudrillard, 2003, p.11). This deception (falsifying information and passing it off as truthful) is intentional. In Simulacra and Simulation Baudrillard writes that “We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning” (Baudrillard, 1994, p.79). The book describes the process in which reality is overwhelmed by illusory images and information to the point where the proliferation and replication of these illusions and images start to become indistinguishable from “the real”. This blending (of the real and the unreal) Baudrillard claims is part of the simulacrum which constructs one’s perception of reality; a state which is deceptively synthetic but presented as authentic and ubiquitous. “To dissimulate is to pretend not to have what one has.” he writes, “To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn't have. One implies a presence, the other an absence” (Baudrillard, 1994, p.3). Baudrillard quotes Émile Littré’s example of sickness (i.e. falling ill) to elaborate on this notion further by stating “simulating is not pretending: ‘whoever fakes an illness can simply stay in bed and make everyone believe he is ill. Whoever simulates an illness produces in himself some of the symptoms’” (Baudrillard, 1994, p.3) Thus, it may be argued that simulation is not an obvious falsehood and in fact it is the very opposite; simulation is the belief that the inauthentic is real and thus has real reactions, ramifications and symptoms as a consequence. “Such is simulation, insofar as it is opposed to representation….Whereas representation attempts to absorb simulation by interpreting it as a false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation itself as a simulacrum” (Baudrillard, 1994, p.6). Throughout Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard offers his readers numerous examples of what constitutes a simulation state through societal and historical examples (including Disneyland and the Watergate Scandal). When illusionary representations engulf the real, we are no longer living in “reality” but rather, Baudrillard claims, a “hyperreality” of “images, spectacles, and the play of signs” (Kellner, 2019). Mass media, by extension, can recapitulate a hyperreality by reinforcing the “order of simulation” by, simply, pretending that it does not exist. Baudrillard explains “It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology) but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.” (Baudrillard, 1994, p.12). The mass media, for instance, can “save” the reality principle by either reiterating or shifting public perception on the importance, relevance and profound nature of any given event, phenomenon, or occurrence. In 1976, communication theorists Sandra Ball-Rokeach and Melvin Defleur published “A Dependency Model of Mass-Media Effects” which analyzes the role mass media plays in altering audience beliefs, behaviour, attitudes, and actions based on aporetic conditions and states of great social change (Ball-Rokeach & Defleur, 1976). “The greater the need and consequently the stronger the dependency in such matters” they write “the greater the likelihood that the information supplied will alter various forms of audience cognitions, feelings, and behavior” (Ball-Rokeach et al., 1976, p.6) Commenting specifically on the function of mass media outlets in contemporary, American society they write:

[The media] operate as a Fourth estate gathering and delivering information about the actions of government; they serve as the primary signalling system in case of emergencies; they constitute the principle source of the ordinary citizen’s conceptions of national and world events; they provide enormous amounts of entertainment information for fantasy-escape. (Ball-Rokeach et al., 1979, p.9)

If the role of the mass media is a trifold; to deliver pertinent information, shape perceptions of national and world events and provide escapism pleasure, then already one can deduce that mass media, as a whole, in not solely a purveyor of “pertinent” or “critical” information. Audiences are, in fact, also dependant on the media for a “fantasy” to escape aporetic states or time of social change/conflict. Ball-Rokeach and Defleur note that

Social conflict and social change usually involve challenges to established institutions, beliefs, or practices. When such challenges are effective, established social arrangements become, to one degree or another, inadequate as frameworks with which members of a society can cope with their life situations. People’s dependence on media information resources is intensified during such periods. (Ball-Rokeach et al., 1976, p.7)

A post-structuralist approach to the above analysis of mass media effects on audiences may ask; are states of aporia the cause of media dependency, or rather, the symptom of mass media dependency? Moreover, is mass media reinforcing the hyperreal narratives Baudrillard proposes and thus, in turn, producing more phenomenological unease, ambiguity and anxiety? Baudrillard poses a similar question in Simulacra and Simulation when he asks, “Are the mass media on the side of power in the manipulation of the masses, or are they on the side of the masses in the liquidation of meaning, in the violence perpetrated on meaning, and in fascination?” (Baudrillard, 1994, p.84). The formation of meaning (or the liquidation of) is part of the construction (or destruction) of collective, social reality and thus can dictate social “fact”. In the words of Emile Durkheim “A social fact is any way of acting, whether fixed or not, capable of exerting over the individual an external constraint ... which is general over the whole of a given society whilst having an existence of its own, independent of its individual manifestations” (Durkheim, 1982, p.59). Thus, if mass media is a major player in constructing social facts and social reality, it too can be analyzed as a major purveyor of hyperreality or, what Baudrillard calls “illusory” facts (Baudrillard, 1994). This symptom is exacerbated especially when the mass media purports to be documenting or recording truthful representations of our reality (i.e. as is the case with documentary media). Baudrillard explores this idea through an examination of what is widely considered to be the first “reality” television show; An American Family (1973). Produced by PBS, the show documented the lives of Santa Barbara couple Bill and Pat Loud and their five children. According to producer Craig Gilbert, the show “set out to capture the living patterns and mentality of a fairly typical middle-America household but instead recorded the drama of a family in the process of coming apart” (Gray, 2018). According to a retrospective on the show in Variety magazine:

When the show debuted, it sparked debates that have lingered through the hundreds of reality series since: Were the people really behaving naturally if the cameras were there? And were events edited in a way to make them more dramatic than they actually were? (Gray, 2018)

This act, the negation of “performance” in front of the camera in the documentary landscape, is known as “cinema verité” (roughly translated to truth cinema). Cinema verité has often been described as a “fly on the wall” perspective of documentary media; the camera being an unobtrusive, unbiased presence that captures reality without interference or objective. It is marked by a lack of artistic expression and relies heavily on substantial documentation (in the case of An American Family, the producers recorded 300 hours of raw footage) (Gray, 2018).  Though on the surface it may appear that cinema verité is the most “truthful” form of media in its attempt to have its production be objective, invisible, and unimpeded (allowing the documentary subjects to be “free” on film and for the audience to, in turn, be allowed into a “secret” world), Baudrillard argues against the aim of the genre and criticizes the paradoxical nature of what can broadly be described as the “invisible/presence” cinema verité purports to occupy. “In the ‘verité’ experience it is not a question of secrecy or perversion, but of a sort of frisson of the real, or of an aesthetics of the hyperreal, a frisson of vertiginous and phony exactitude, a frisson of simultaneous distancing and magnification, of distortion of scale, of an excessive transparency” he writes (Baudrillard, 1994, p.28).  The illusion of filming the Louds as if TV weren't there. The producer's triumph was to say: ‘They lived as if we were not there.’ An absurd, paradoxical formula - neither true nor false: Utopian. The ‘as if we were not there’ being equal to ‘as if you were there’….. The liturgical drama of a mass society. TV verite. A term admirable in its ambiguity, does it refer to the truth of this family or to the truth of TV? (Baudrillard, 1994, p.28)

Insofar as this is true, that the Louds were in fact not able to negate their performative state in front of the presence of cameras and act “truthfully”, then Baudrillard would be correct in analyzing An American Family as demonstration of hyperreality. And as such, hyperreality marketed to the masses as “reality”, would then permeate its effects on the construction of social reality and social fact (i.e. “If the American family behaves x way, then we as another American family can/will also behave in x way”). As hyperreality is disseminated through mass media, packaged and sold as “truthful”, then we are awash with what Baudrillard calls “non-signifiers”; something that may closely resemble a sign (in this case “authenticity”) but alas signifies nothing other than itself, bearing no relation to the concept it is attempting to represent. “There one sees what the real never was (but ‘as if you were there’)” Baudrillard writes, “without the distance that gives us perspectival space and depth vision (but ‘more real than nature’)” (Baudrillard, 1994, p.28). Herein lies the cyclical nature of hyperreal media; the act of generalizing documentary media as “real” (as is the case with cinema verité) and marketing to a mass audience as such may, in turn, produce phenomenological, societal, and epistemological effects in the actions, behaviours and attitudes of the masses until the construction of social reality and social fact too becomes an exercise of the hyperreal.

“The skies over Baghdad have been illuminated.” (Bernard Shaw, CNN, January 17 1991)

The 1990s Persian Gulf War is an event that marked a significant turning point in the delivery of live news footage from the frontlines of an event and into the homes of civilians. Specifically, in the United States (who led the coalition against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq army after they invaded Kuwait) the media coverage of the war accelerated to an unprecedented scale, filling television sets around the country with images and reportage captured in real-time. The network CNN, in particular, was at the forefront of this media revolution as the only 24 hours news network reporting the war non-stop (Blitzer, 2015). That being said, in Baudrillardian terms; wherever there is access there is also deficit. American media corporations, including CNN, have since come under fire for both overreporting the events of the Gulf War, whilst concurrently subjecting the reality of war to heavy censorship and suppression of information. “It is clear now and has been for some time that Americans were not informed of the war's major occurrences in a timely fashion” writes political scientist Marie Gottschalk, “the Pentagon consciously misled the media and the public; and that much of the media failed to cover a number of critical issues both before, during, and after the war” (Gottshalk, 40). Though many cite the Pentagon’s influence on American journalists who were on the ground as the main source of media aporia that made way its way into the homes of Americans, Gottshalk suggests that “The problem was not simply that the Pentagon and the president misled the media, but that the media generally swallowed without question whatever the military and the administration dished out.” (Gottschalk, 1992, p.451). Jingoism, many scholars agree, was rampant amongst American journalists who covered the conflict in the Gulf; perhaps exacerbated by the fact that, in Paul Gillespie words “some journalists behaved like soldiers” because they were forced to dress in military fatigues when reporting, or perhaps exacerbated by the fact that, in the past, American coverage of the Vietnam War undermined public support of the US war efforts (Gillespie, 1991). Nevertheless, the intersection of military and journalism efforts made it so that the errors and omissions that made their way to broadcast came not as the cost of the reporter’s journalistic integrity; but at the cost of the body politic (Gillespie, 1991). The misinformation that made its way into the homes of American’s was pervasive and began to create an image of the Gulf War that, in some ways, was in no way reflective of the reality that was occurring on the ground. For instance, Gottschalk explains:

Journalists repeatedly described the bombing campaigns as ‘surgical strikes against military targets’ even though the Pentagon acknowledged that roads, bridges, factories, railroads, and public utilities essential to the survival of the civilian population were on its hit list. In the first days of the war, most of Iraq's electrical capacity was knocked out, creating a public health nightmare as water- treatment facilities stopped functioning, food decayed, unrefrigerated vaccines spoiled, and many health facilities came to a grinding halt (Gottschalk, 1992, pp. 451-452).

“The gulf war has the dubious distinction of being both the most covered but also arguably the most censored conflict in history” argues David Shukman of the BBC “the more people watched television the less they knew” (Shukman, 1991); a statement which echoes Baudrillard’s affirmation “We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning” (Baudrillard, 1994, p.79). More than solely the events that were or were not reported by CNN and other American broadcasters in the Persian Gulf, some scholars argue that, rhetorically, the population was thrust into deception early on in the conflict by both governmental bodies (i.e. President George H.W Bush and his officials) and media outlets referring to the event as a “war”. “A conflict of this kind might not merit the term ‘war’” notes linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky “war is something where two sides shoot at each other” (Chomsky, 1991). Further to this point, Chomsky recalls the, perhaps intentional and ambiguous rhetoric that was used by President Bush during the announcement that American forces would join in the effort to free Kuwait from Hussein’s regime. “No official reason was ever given” claims Chomsky (Chomsky, 1991). Instead, the governing bodies used vague, but affective statements in their attempt to generate a passionate, public approval for their involvement such as the, now infamous Bush quote, “This will not stand. This will not stand, the aggression against Kuwait” and “aggressors must be punished” (CNN, 2019). Before the American troops were deployed into the Gulf, the illusion of war was solidified, in part, due to the messages and images the public were receiving via broadcast media.


“America, Saddam Hussein and the Gulf Powers are fighting over the corpse of war” (Baudrillard, 1995, p.23).

“From the beginning, we knew that this war would never happen” writes Jean Baudrillard in his essay The Gulf War Will Not Take Place.

After the hot war (the violence of conflict), after the cold war (the balance of terror), here comes the dead war - the unfrozen cold war - which leaves us to grapple with the corpse of war and the necessity of dealing with this decomposing corpse which nobody from the Gulf has managed to revive (Baudrillard, 1995, p.23).

Concurrently with the course of the Gulf Conflict (January 1991 – March 1991) Jean Baudrillard wrote 3 major essays on the event, influenced by his previous work on simulacra, simulation and hyperreality; The Gulf War Will Not Take Place, The Gulf War: Is it Really Taking Place? and, finally, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. The essays were subject to both public and academic scrutiny, with literary critic Christopher Norris calling them “absurd” and “ill-equipped to mount any kind of any effective critical resistance” (Patton, 1995, p.15). However, contrary to their titles, Baudrillard’s essays are not trying to argue that “absolutely nothing happened” during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent deployment of coalition forces (for instance, America’s Operation Desert Storm attack on Baghdad), but rather that the conflict was an illusion of “war”; and equally, the information overload that was being reported, relayed and disseminated to the masses from the battlefront resulted in a complete perversion and bastardization of the “reality” that was occurring on the ground in Kuwait and surrounding areas. In the introduction to Baudrillard’s collection of essays, Paul Patton writes

It is not irony so much as the kind of black humour which seeks to subvert what is being said by pursuing its implicit logic to extremes: so you want us to believe that this was a clean, minimalist war with little collateral damage and few allied casualties. Why stop there: war? what war? (Patton, 1995, p.7). 

From the aestheticization of the war from the American point of view (highly technological, precise, “clean”) to the sheer amount of deterrence throughout the war (stalemates, negotiations, the inclusion of hostages) to the extravagance and Hollywood-esque appeal of CNN’s news coverage (utilizing what Paul Patton calls a “John Wayne language” styled script), the Gulf War was nothing more than another exercise in the hyperreal; a masquerade of war without any meaning and wholly self-referential (bearing no resemblance to what the cultural zeitgeist previously understood as “war”). Moreover, the non-war being marketed as war to millions glued to their TV sets became the “a perfect Baudrillardian simulacrum, a hyperreal scenario in which events lose their identity and signifiers fade into one another” (Patton, 1995, p.2). When “signifiers fade into one another” the pre-established dichotomy between the “real” and the “unreal” begins to disappear; not unlike the effect of cinema verité as previously mentioned by Baudrillard. The cyclical nature of the hyperreal is reinforced through the delivery and receival of media messages; each having impact and effect on each other (the real and unreal) until no distinction can be made. For instance, take the absurd incident of CNN journalists on the ground in the Gulf interviewing American military on unfolding events. They asked the soldiers for an update to be relayed to masses, to which the soldiers replied they didn’t know yet… they were watching CNN to find out what was happening (Patton, 1995, p.2). “Television news coverage appeared to have finally caught up with the logic of simulation” writes Patton (Patton, 1995, p.2). Ill-equipped informers relaying a non-message, while waiting for an update from the non-message receiver; a banal hyperreality. “Real time information loses itself in a completely unreal space”, writes Baudrillard, “finally furnishing the images of pure, useless, instantaneous television where its primordial function irrupts, namely that of filling a vacuum, blocking up the screen hole through which escapes the substance of events” (Baudrillard, 1995, p.31). And yet, for the audiences captivated by the 24-hour news cycle of a three month long “war”, the images and videos they received through CNN and others’ documentary journalism showed an exciting war; with unprecedented access to the frontlines of America’s newest technological military capabilities (for instance, the advent of precision-guided munitions) and affective imagery showing troops edging towards eradicating the “aggressors”. The splendor of technology and the emotional, jingoistic media on the frontlines played a starring role in the Hollywood blockbuster that was the Gulf War, not the war itself. As Baudrillard writes:

Two intense images, two or perhaps three scenes which all concern disfigured forms or costumes which correspond to the masquerade of this war: the CNN journalists with their gas masks in the Jerusalem studios; the drugged and beaten prisoners repenting on the screen of Iraqi TV; and perhaps that seabird covered in oil and pointing its blind eyes towards the Gulf sky. It is a masquerade of information: branded faces delivered over to the prostitution of the image, the image of an unintelligible distress. No images of the field of battle, but images of masks, of blind or defeated faces, images of falsification. (Baudrillard, 1995, p.40).

What these images truly were vs. what they represented is part of Baudrillard’s critique of the Gulf War spectacle. Audiences watching in real-time seemingly had access (information) and yet no concept (meaning) of the reality occurring on the ground in Kuwait and surrounding areas. Instead, they were presented with an illusory and nationalistic hyperreality. “It is the same aporia as that of cinema verité which seeks to short-circuit the unreality of the image in order to present us the truth of the object” writes Baudrillard, “In this manner, CNN seeks to be a stethoscope attached to the hypothetical heart of the war, and to present us with its hypothetical pulse.” (Baudrillard, 1995, p.48). The illusion of access and the illusion of getting the “truth” or “full story” via the constant media coverage of the Gulf War, allows audiences to feel as though they are sifting through the aporia in an informed and cognisant manner. Once again, to quote Ball-Rokeach and Defleur:

When people become heavily dependent upon the mass media for the information they need to resolve ambiguity, the defining or structuring effect of mass-mediated information is considerable …. by controlling what information is and is not delivered and how that information is presented, the media can play a large role in limiting the range of interpretations that audiences are able to make (Ball-Rokeach et al., 1976, p.10).

In the case of the 24-hour news cycle that defined the Gulf conflict, one can argue that through the journalists’ bias (due, in part, to military influence and control) and the nature of the messages being delivered back to the United States (i.e. emotional, affective imagery paired with censorship of America’s military failures, blunders, and convoluted operations), that the documentary media recorded on the ground was not, in fact, “capturing reality”. Instead, it painted an illusory image of “war”; an ethos that pervaded the rhetoric from the United States government from the time the deployment of U.S troops to the Gulf were first announced. The cyclical nature of 24-hour news coverage only served to reinforce the “untruth” of the conflict (i.e. necessary war), thus, in turn, swaying public opinion, feelings and behaviours into a jingoistic hyperreality. “The closer we supposedly approach the real or the truth, the further we draw away from them both, since neither one nor the other exists” writes Baudrillard, “The closer we approach the real time of the event, the more we fall into the illusion of the virtual. God save us from the illusion of war.” (Baudrillard, 1995, p.49). And, in turn, God save us from the illusion of documentary images as purveyors of unobstructive truth.


“The word ‘documentary’ should be handled with care.” (Herzog, 2019, p.286)

In a similar vein to Jean Baudrillard’s post-structuralist philosophy, Werner Herzog is a famed director, working in both documentary and fiction filmmaking, whose body of work is often analyzed through a postmodernist lens. As it pertains to his non-fiction oeuvre, Herzog is especially subversive; as he claims there are variable levels of “truth” that can be captured in a documentary, whether they constitute “factual” truth or, in his words, an “ecstatic” truth. In classic Herzogian fashion, the filmmaker has never offered his audience or readers a singular definition of what constitutes an “ecstatic” truth, rather he claims “it’s a phrase that shouldn’t be interpreted too deeply; everyone should figure it out for themselves” (Herzog, 2019, p.286). What is apparent, however, is that representing an “ecstatic” truth in documentary media does not mean that a producer or director must solely portray “factual” truths in order to capture reality. Herzog explains,

Facts might have normative power, but they don’t constitute truth. Facts don’t illuminate. Only truth illuminates. By making a clear distinction between “fact” and “truth,” I penetrate a deeper stratum that most films don’t even know exists. In other words, I play with the facts as we know them. Through imagination and fabrication, I become more truthful than the bureaucrats. (Herzog, p.289)

Fabrication and falsification (elements of fiction filmmaking), Herzog claims, can make their way into supposedly “real” documentaries in order to capture a higher or more meaningful depiction of reality. As is the case with Baudrillard, information (an overload of facts) for Herzog is not synonymous with meaning. Like Baudrillard, Herzog too takes a rigid stance against the popular documentary genre of cinema verité, claiming “Cinéma-vérité is fact orientated and primitive. It is the accountant’s truth, merely skirting the surface of what constitutes a deeper form of truth in cinema, reaching only the most banal level of understanding.” (Herzog, 2019, p.288). In 1999, Herzog penned the “Minnesota Declaration” a manifesto for “Truth and Fact in Documentary Filmmaking” (Herzog, 2019, p.286). The origin story of the declaration is as follows;

I had flown from Europe to San Francisco and back again in a short space of time, and ended up in Sicily, where I was staging an opera. Unable to sleep because of jet lag, at midnight I turned on the television and was confronted by an excruciatingly boring nature film about animals somewhere out in the Serengeti, all cute and fluffy. At two in the morning I stumbled across something equally unbearable. But then, at four o’clock, I found a hardcore porno. I sat up in bed. ‘My God,’ I said to myself. ‘Finally something straightforward, something real.’ It was the naked truth, even if it was purely physical. (Herzog, 2019, p.286).

After this revelation, Herzog would write down a list of declarations of his views on what constitutes “truthful” documentary filmmaking and would later present it to a crowd at an art opening in Minnesota (hence, the name of the manifesto). Specific rules of the manifesto include “Fact creates norms, and truth illumination”, “There are deeper strata of truth in cinema” and “Filmmakers of Cinema Verité resemble tourists who take pictures of ancient ruins of facts” (Herzog, 1999). Famously, Herzog never employs a cinema verité style in his documentaries and is known to “play” with falsified elements common in fiction filmmaking such as recreations, scripted dialogue and directing his subjects to behave, move and perform to his liking. This style, Herzog claims, are sometimes necessary inventions or fabrications that must be used to penetrate the “ecstatic” truth. “None of us lead lives of pure logic and order, and similarly, in the best cases, cinema has a strange, mysterious and illusory quality. It isn’t suited to capturing realism and daily life; it has forever been able to reach beyond formal systems of understanding.” (Herzog, 2019, p.288). By including elements of fiction and “performance” in his documentaries, some film scholars may argue that that these are not “documentaries” at all; rather they are either purely fiction, or at very least, a form of “hybrid” genre filmmaking. While Herzog has not outwardly disagreed with these labels due his contradictory style of filmmaking, he does claim his documentaries speak to a higher truth; one that inaccessible to non-fiction filmmakers who the conventional tools, tropes, styles, and formulas of a standardized documentary production. He writes:

The word for “truth” in ancient Greek is ‘aletheia’, derived from the verb ‘to hide.’ This is a negative definition, meaning to bring something out of hiding and make it visible, and is actually a very cinematic concept because when you film something, there is a latent image on the celluloid; only when you develop that celluloid does the image emerge for all to see. My work in cinema strives for the same: to make visible those things that are latent in us. (Herzog, 2019, p.288)


"The collapse of the stellar universe will occur – like creation – in grandiose splendor." (Blaise Pascal)

The above quote, by Blaise Pascal, is the opening title card to Werner Herzog’s 1992 documentary “Lessons of Darkness”. Lessons of Darkness is Herzog’s exploration of the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War; when Kuwaiti oil fields were torched by Iraqi military as a final retaliation in a dwindling conflict. The quote, however, was not written by Blaise Pascal (whom it is attributed to in the opening sequence), it was written by Herzog himself (Herzog, 2019, p.292). This is the set up, for what is ultimately an absurdist “documentary”; an intentional deception that sets forward the ethos of Herzog’s attempt to capture an “ecstatic” truth. “War has no fascination for me beyond its absurdity and insanity” writes Werner Herzog in his retrospective A Guide for the Perplexed (Herzog, 2019, p.294). The film, with a runtime of 54 minutes, includes numerous sweeping aerial shots of oil fields burning in Kuwait, a soundtrack by Richard Wagner and only includes sparse narration from Herzog himself and approximately 3 minutes of interview footage. Notably, the documentary never actually situates its audience in Kuwait as a location; it is only inferred through shots of the burning oil fields and quick aerial over scene of Kuwait’s towers. As the camera flies through space, capturing the landmark, we hear Herzog’ narration: “Something is looming over this city. The city that will soon be laid waste by war. Now it is still alive, biding its time.” (Lessons of Darkness, 1992). Similarly, the opening sequence of the film, which shows the hazy Gulf war desert engulfed in smoke, refers to scene only as “A planet in our solar system. White mountain ranges, clouds, the land shrouded in mist” (Lessons of Darkness, 1992). As Herzog would later explain “There was never a need to name Saddam Hussein and the country he attacked. If people watch Lessons of Darkness in three hundred years time, it still wouldn’t be necessary for them to know the historical facts behind the film.” (Herzog, 2019, p.294). When the first human figure appears on screen (one of many firefighters attempting to harness the rampant flames in Kuwait), Herzog refers to him as “the first creature we encountered” (Lessons of Darkness, 1992). Dressed in a hazmat suit, shrouded in shadow and backlit by bright flames, the human does indeed appear otherworldly. Later in the film, more shots of firefighters are captured in a similar vein, reiterated by Herzog’s anthropological musings. Shooting the men at work, Herzog asks the audience “What are they up to? Has life without fire become unbearable to them?” (Lessons of Darkness, 1992).  Perhaps the only section of the film that closely resembles a standard documentary are the brief interviews conducted with 2 different women whose lives were severely impacted by the war (and, yes, in these interviews Herzog refers to the subjects as “women”, not “creatures”). “We met a woman who wanted to tell us something” explains Herzog’s narration in the introduction to the first documentary subject, “she had been dragged away by soldiers, along with her two grown sons, and had to watch her sons being tortured to death before her very eyes. This caused her to lose her speech, but she still tried to tell us what had happened” (Lessons of Darkness, 1992). The following 1.5 minute interview shows the woman trying to gather her speech, offering snippets of her dialogue (in Arabic) without any subtitles or translation. Although many audience members cannot understand what she is trying to say, it is evident she is distressed. She pauses, gathers her thoughts, and tries again clearly frustrated and upset at her inability to string together a sentence. Or at least, on the surface, this is how it appears; we, the audience who does not understand the language, may never know the full truth of what this woman is trying to tell us. The second interview, shortly after, is with a young Kuwaiti woman and her child. Herzog, in this interview, is the purveyor of speech, translating her interview for the audience. “The soldiers came at night while the children were sleeping” explains the woman/Herzog. “They dragged this one here [referring to her child] out of bed, and one of the soldiers trampled on the child’s head with his heavy boot and then pressed all his weight down on it…. look at this little fellow he hasn’t spoken a word since” (Lessons of Darkness, 1992). The mother then whispers something to her son whom she is carrying her arms. The child, unresponsive, looks straight into the camera. “Then they shot my husband, that was a year ago” the woman continues, “The boy used to be able to talk but now he says nothing more. Only once he said, ‘Mama I don’t ever want to learn how to talk’” (Lessons of Darkness, 1992). These two women are, in the 54 minute film, the only two subjects given the opportunity to speak to the audience. These are powerful moment in the film, not marked by an abundance of information and facts but, rather, by silence. The truth, in these interviews, lies precisely in the lack of information and profound meaning is formed by the inability to describe the horrors of war using speech alone.

Due to the film’s lack of pertinent information (i.e. interviews, context, spatiality), emphasis on images of destructions (i.e. oil fields burning, aerial landscapes of heavy smoke) and factual incongruities, the film received an abundance of criticism for “aestheticizing” the Gulf War (Herzog, 2019, p.293). Recalling the film’s premiere, Herzog explains “When the film was shown at the Berlin Film Festival, nearly two thousand people rose up with a single voice in an angry roar. They accused me of ‘aestheticizing’ the horror, and so hated the film that when I walked down the aisle after the screening, people spat at me.” (Herzog, 2019, p. 293). While some called Lessons of Darkness “dangerously authoritarian”, Werner Herzog retorted that this is was a rather ironic reading of the documentary, because the film held a stark mirror up to the 24-hour news cycle that dominated the coverage of the conflict (Herzog, 2019, p.293). “The world had been saturated night and day with images of the burning oil wells in Kuwait, but through the filter of television news” writes Herzog,

The networks and cable channels had filmed it all wrong; that tabloid style of reporting, with its eight-second snippets, quickly inured audiences to the horrors, and all too soon everyone had forgotten about those spectacular fields of serene, pitch-black burning oil that covered the landscape. I was seeking images of another kind, something very different, something longer lasting. I wanted to see these shots play out in long, almost endless takes. Only then could the images reveal their true power. (Herzog, 2019, p.293) 

By subverting the conventions of documentary journalism, especially as it pertained to heavy media coverage of such a catastrophic yet ambiguous event, Lessons of Darkness is an attempt to show the “ecstatic” truth of war; in all its absurdity and illusory qualities. Herzog even went as far as to call the piece a “work of science fiction” (Herzog, 2019, p.297), a statement which echoes Baudrillard’s own reflection of his work “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place”. As Paul Patton writes in the introduction of “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place

Baudrillard is reluctant to claim the status of philosophy, sociology or political analysis for his writing, but equally resistant to its dismissal as literature or poetry. In time and with a little imagination, he has since suggested it will be possible to read The Gulf War Did Not Take Place as if it were a science fiction novel (Patton, 1995, p.6).


Labels, whether in theory or in film genres, harbour authority and perhaps that is why one could surmise both Baudrillard and Herzog would be so willing to subvert or wholly reject them. For Herzog, “ecstatic” truth means defying documentary norms and conventions in order to illuminate a higher form of truth; one that is not solely accessible through the demonstration and explanation of “facts” alone. The ecstatic truth, it would seem, is more suited to artistic/creative influence, using the tools conventionally employed in fiction filmmaking and seldomly in a “pure” documentary. For instance, reflecting on his false Blaise Pascal attribution of the opening quote in Lessons of Darkness, Herzog explains “[The] Pascalian pseudo-quote helps elevate audiences to a higher, almost sublime level before they have even seen the first image of the film. We’re immediately in the realm of poetry, which inevitably strikes a more profound chord than mere reportage.” (Herzog, 2019, p.292). Mere reportage, in this case, was the dominant media coverage surrounding the Gulf War when Lessons of Darkness was produced. In sharp contrast to the journalism of CNN and others, the film attempts to sift through the mountains of information overload in order to penetrate a deeper understanding of the horrors of wartime by means of simplification, not addition. Similarly, Baudrillard too seems more inclined to a simplification of information, rather than the abundance brought forth by the “real-time” reporting that occurred in American Gulf War Journalism. He writes:

War, when it has been turned into information, ceases to be a realistic war and becomes a virtual war, in some way symptomatic. And just as everything psychical becomes the object of interminable speculation, so everything which is turned into information becomes the object of endless speculation, the site of total uncertainty (Baudrillard, 1995, p.41).

Once again, we, as a discerning audience of mass media messages, must ask ourselves whether documentaries are demonstrating truth/reality or whether they are, in fact, crafting it themselves? And, additionally, can overt falsification (i.e. fiction filmmaking tools employed by a documentarian like Werner Herzog) demonstrate a more truthful representation of reality than a medium that purports to be wholly authentic? These questions cease to have simple answers that can be objectively answered. Baudrillard would argue that the hyperreality is so entrenched and engrained in our mediated culture that it is perhaps impossible to make a distinction between what is real and what is wholly unreal. However, a post-structuralist approach to documentary media can challenge the ontological authority that it and other forms of photographic media currently possess, by questioning its purported “objectivity” in a phenomenon that is ultimately subjective; truth. Furthermore, by examining cultural/societal aporetic states (i.e. in times of conflict, war, or social change) one can see how the public’s heightened reliance on mass media may make them more susceptible to accepting a documentary image’s authority and authenticity. Insofar as that may be true, we are bound to repeat the cyclical nature of the hyperreal; through ambiguous events and information passed through the deceptive filter of “truthful” media images, (such as the documentary) which, in turn, impacts and effects the construction of social reality and social facts that pervade the cultural zeitgeist. To this end, there is no simple antidote to mass media aporia and reinforcement of deceptive simulacra, including documentaries capturing not reality, but rather, hyperreality. We can only attempt to take heed of Jean Baudrillard’s sage advice;

Be more Virtual than the events themselves, do not seek to re-establish the truth, we do not have the means, but do not be duped, and to that end re-immerse the War and all information in the virtuality from whence they came ... Be meteorologically sensitive to stupidity (Baudrillard, 1995, pp.66-67)



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