There are three central issues in the study of moving-image documentary – evidence, narrative and ethics – and of these the first which must be considered is evidence. Without it, the concept of documentary telling, in some privileged way or another, a story about the world (rather than being an evidence-less, imaginative fiction about a world) cannot be sustained.
All discourses, including documentary film, seek to externalise evidence – to place it referentially outside the domain of the discourse itself which then gestures to its location there, beyond and before interpretation. Reference to this external location then names and renders visible what awaited nomination. Evidence refers back to a fact, object, or situation – something two or more people agree upon, something verifiable and concrete – but facts and events only acquire the distinctive status of evidence within a discursive or interpretive frame. Evidence, then, is that part of discourse, be it rational-philosophic, poetic-narrative, or rhetorical, charged with a double existence: it is both part of the discursive chain and gives the vivid impression of also being external to it. In other words, facts become evidence when they are taken up in a discourse; and that discourse gains the force to compel belief through its capacity to refer evidence to a domain outside itself.
The compelling documentary An Injury to One (2002) about the history of Butte, Montana, as a mining town and the murder there of a Wobbly (Industrial Workers of the World) organiser, Frank Little, in 1917, demonstrates vividly how facts convert to evidence and how their evidential status is contingent on the discourse to which they attach. At one point Wilkerson recounts the story of a large flock of geese that land on the enormous lake that fills the open pit mine that still dominates the town. The lake is extremely toxic, loaded with copper, cadmium, zinc, nickel, lead, arsenic and sulphates; it has a pH of 2.5, ‘roughly comparable to battery acid’, Wilkerson tells us in his intense but flatly spoken commentary. A storm takes the geese by surprise and they land on the lake. In the morning 342 geese are dead. They are blistered with lesions, their oesophagi and tracheas corroded, and their livers bloated with toxic quantities of heavy metals. Wilkerson recounts that representatives for ARCO, the company that now owns the mine, assured the townspeople that the water was actually safe; the geese died ‘because of something they ate’, not from exposure to the lake water. Wilkerson concludes this section of his stunning film with an observation:
As the geese help to demonstrate, history, in this case, cannot be so easily expurgated [as the company’s original name: Anaconda]. In an act reminiscent of a mass suicide, the geese hurled themselves into the open wound in the heart of the town. Perhaps using the only manner they knew, these creatures were trying to tell us something because it seemed to have escaped our notice. They were directing us to the scene of a crime.
The facts do not, as Wilkerson’s sardonic tone suggests, speak for themselves: they must be seen and heard, and thence interpreted, an act that fissures into multiple directions depending on the purposes and goals of the interpreter. ARCO interprets the death of 342 geese as a case of a bad dietary choice; Wilkerson interprets it as a ‘mass suicide’ meant to be understood as the silent testimony of witnesses to a crime. The event, however, can only be seen as accidental death, testimony or anything else within the interpretive frame provided for it. Cast back by discourse into the external world, facts take up a place outside discourse and are made to do so in a way that allows their reincarnation as evidence to overlay perfectly the fact to which it corresponds.
An Injury to One
(2002): in an act reminiscent of a mass suicide, the geese hurled themselves into the open wound in the heart of the town
The indexical quality of the photographic image is ideally suited to this purpose. A perfect tautology appears to come into being between fact, object or event, on the one hand, and evidence, on the other, so that reference to a piece of evidence marries signified and referent in a single stroke. As the story of the geese suggests, the fact or event does not come into being as evidence; this status accrues later, when it is recruited to a discourse – ‘bad food’ or ‘mass suicide’ for the geese, for example – these labels become affixed to that which simple was. And they seem to stick because of an indexical bond between image and referent, that which exists outside the discursive chain.
Sometimes facts speak but in ways not intended by the speaker or film-maker. The viewer, too, may convert fact to evidence, sometimes in ways that run against the grain of their initial recruitment. In Marlon Riggs’s powerful documentary about being black and gay in America, Tongues Untied (1989), he cross-cuts between a protest march in Selma, Alabama, in the 1960s and a gay pride parade in New York city in the 80s. For Riggs the parallel is evidence of a continuous lineage of protest and struggle for civil liberties and individual rights. But there is a tremendous difference in the two pieces of footage if we examine them not as part of Riggs’s stunning visual testament but as visible evidence of two distinct historical moments.
In the Selma march what is most striking is the rich diversity of the marchers themselves: younger and older African Americans, younger and older whites, male and female, primarily but not entirely well-dressed, religious leaders and lay people, all marching to confront a racist society with their visible, demonstrable protest. The two most prominent banners read, ‘We March with Selma’ and ‘We Shall Overcome’. The gay pride march footage features a contingent of young black men, with two bare-chested black males carrying a banner that reads, ‘Black Men Loving Black Men Is A Revolutionary Act’. The goal of mobilising a broad, inclusive range of people to confront racism and champion civil rights has yielded to the proclamation of difference, the affirmation of an identity and politics that seeks to embrace the like-minded and gain the public recognition of others. The spectrum of ages, classes and races incorporated into and patently visible in the Selma march has disappeared. Belonging and activism is now predicated on a specific combination of race, gender and sexual orientation. The male and female, mostly younger but occasionally older onlookers, along with a number of primarily white police officers lining the route of the gay pride parade, are a far more diverse group than the marchers themselves. The unity of purpose of an earlier time has yielded to the identity politics of a later one, or so an interpreter could argue just as forcefully as Riggs can argue for a line of continuity.
Careful consideration of this act of converting fact to evidence occurs in R. G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History
, written in 1946, and dedicated to the idea of history as a scientific undertaking.2
During an extended discursion of ‘historical evidence’, Collingwood debunks the view that history amounts to citing the testimony of credible authorities whose remarks can be cut and pasted together to provide the requisite history. This outdated method relies on facts drawn from earlier, authoritative accounts – and whose status as evidence can go unquestioned for that reason – that now form the backbone of a new narrative. By contrast, Collingwood argues that good history writing requires making inferences that are always based on questions directed towards a careful examination of the facts themselves. They can only come to serve as valid evidence when freshly taken up into the author’s own interpretative discourse. The historian must pose questions that infer what really happened rather than adopt the views of others. Wilkerson’s comment about the geese, ‘Perhaps using the only manner they knew, these creatures were trying to tell us something because it seemed to have escaped our notice’, becomes a standing assumption of critical enquiry: facts and events exist, but their conversion into evidence depends on the analytic powers of the interpreter, be he historian or film-maker.
But in the middle of this call for a methodologically rigorous history, Collingwood suddenly takes a surprising turn. A sub-heading entitled ‘Who Killed John Doe?’ announces the detour. Contrary to the strictly expository style of all the previous sections, Collingwood now adopts a semi-fictional voice. The section begins, ‘When John Doe was found, early one Sunday morning, lying across his desk with a dagger through his back, no one expected that the question of who did it would be settled by means of testimony.’ Here is a case where Collingwood can demonstrate the necessity of inferential analysis that, when done properly, will lead to a clear-cut solution.
Using Collingwood’s own dictum that ‘everything in the world is potential evidence for any subject whatever’,3
and that we should focus not on the content of statements but on the fact that they are made4
– in other words, that our analysis must not accept what others represent the case to be but must ask, ‘What light is thrown on the subject in which I am interested by the fact that this person made this statement?’ – we can ask: ‘Why does Collingwood tell this who-done-it story in the middle of his
disquisition on history? Clearly, it serves as an example, if not allegory, for good historical investigation. It serves Collingwood’s goal of giving the impression that history writing can become a science, capable of determining what really happened in an unambiguous manner through an independent examination of the facts and testimony. Inferences lead to knowledge and knowledge leads to the one and only logical solution: the rector did it. Ambiguity is dispelled thanks to the hard, inferential work of the historian labouring in the vineyards of the local, empirically verifiable event. Not all rectors should now be suspected of murder, nor should all murders be attributed to rectors, but in this concrete case, with these facts and statements and with this set of questions to transform facts and statements into evidence, the rector’s guilt can be cleanly determined.
By presenting a Sherlock Holmes-like murder mystery Collingwood can arrive at a specific solution to a concrete question. The solution lacks generalising power: it tells us nothing about the behaviour of rectors, or the causes of murder, in general. His example offers a definite conclusion, based on asking questions whose answers generate evidence: a footprint in the wet soil of the lawn becomes admitted as evidence as soon as we ask a question such as: who might have crossed the lawn that fateful night but only after the rain fell?
Though instructive, Collingwood’s choice of a murder mystery as metaphor reduces his method to factual determinations that cannot account for historical complexity. He neglects to add to his assertion ‘everything in the world is potential evidence for any subject whatever’ and for a wide range of interpretations. The murder mystery involves facts, questions, evidence and interpretation of a different order from those involved when we ask what brought about the transformation of communism into totalitarianism, why capitalism undergoes cycles of growth and recession, why genocide occurred in Rwanda in the 1990s, or what influence populism has had on American politics. Questions such as these propel us into a realm rather remote from the indisputable evidence, clear-cut verification procedures and singular conclusions that Collingwood naturalises as the common stuff of history through his exemplary fiction.
Collingwood, in fact, builds his conception of proper historiography on the Aristotelian notion of ‘inartistic proofs’, evidence, that is, that exists outside, or can readily be made to appear to reside outside, the discursive chain. Examples include laws, witnesses, contracts, oaths, and confessions obtained by torture (a practice reserved, in Aristotle’s time, for slaves, since citizens would give their own testimony artistically, that is, with benefit of the rhetorical arts). This is the evidence that can most easily be ‘thrown out’ of the discourse as fact in order to be reeled back in as evidence. Science, like murder mysteries, works with objective facts; the form a precise account of them takes is of minor consequence. Form, for Collingwood, is little more than a question of style; the proof is in facts that serve as evidence. Careful interpretation leads us down a straight and narrow path to the truth, not into a labyrinth of competing interests and interpretations whose relative merits may be decided more by power, or at least rhetoric, than by logic.
Although seemingly the most irrefutable of evidence, inartistic proofs were of minor concern to Aristotle. The ‘artistic proofs’ that were the heart and soul of rhetorical discourse concerned him much more. Though frequently necessary, inartistic proofs still have to be incorporated into a discourse where they would become convincing. Alone, the inartistic proofs might be necessary but hardly sufficient. Only when such proofs took on their second life as evidence inside a body of signification – discourse – did it become possible for a convincing argument to em...