Every film is a documentary (Bill Nichols)


As truth is to lies, so fact is to fiction, at least in the world of documentary. It is a dubious assertion, but as Wilde would say, perfectly phrased. Working from Nichol’s proposition that ‘every film is a documentary’ (Nichols 2001:1), two fairly recent films will illustrate the suggestion that truth, as expressed through the ontologically-ambiguous photographic image, is a rhetorical construct emerging from an ironic contradiction between intention and reception, between the represented and its representation. The two films being exploited for this paper are, themselves, simply a scaffold on which to hang some observations on the nature of deception in art, the complicity of the audience in the creation of meaning and the general operations of irony. The films in question are The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006).

At first glance these two films seem to have nothing in common. But appearances can be deceiving. They in fact have striking thematic similarities. Both films depict Jews in rather iconic form. There are allusions to prostitution, suggestions of homo-eroticism and a focus on ablutions – especially hand-washing – in each of these films. Both films present images and scenes designed to shock the audience, although in Gibson’s film total nudity is never displayed. Both films depict crucifixion and evangelism. And, this being the point of the paper, both films practice deception. There are of course some marked differences between the films. In some ways The Passion and Borat are opposite sides of the same coin. The Passion depicts a Jew, played by a gentile as the central character, and is directed by an alleged anti-Semite. Borat depicts an anti-Semite, played by a Jew, as the central character, and is directed by another Jew. Another important difference is that in their respective deceptions, The Passionpretends to tell the truth but actually presents a lie, whereas Borat pretends to tell a lie but actually presents the truth.




The Passion (L), Borat (R)


To make their various rhetorical points, the respective directors Mel Gibson and Larry Charles are prone to exaggeration. Gibson, for example, at the death of Christ depicts an earthquake that doesn’t just rend the veil of the temple in twain (Mark 15.38); it actually rends the entire temple. Similarly, in taking the naked wrestling scene from the hotel room to a convention floor, perhaps Charles also stretches credibility somewhat. But we can suppose these things to be poetic license – which brings us to the question of fiction. As many theorists point out, the distinction between documentary and fiction has become increasingly blurred. Scorsese, for example, sees no ‘difference between fiction and non-fiction’ (Donato 2007: 1). All documentary is a fabrication, a manipulation, even in its most observational and apparently objective recording of actuality. From its beginnings with Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), where ethnography is salvaged by taking the rifle away from the Eskimo and making him use a harpoon (Nichols 2001: 175), to the creative chronologies of Michael Moore, documentaries are all rhetorically manipulative, either through form or content.

Bill Nichols statement, that every film is a documentary, requires some clarification.Borat is usually neologised as a ‘mockumentary’ or pseudo documentary. That is, it apparently exploits stylistic elements of documentary to make its various points but is in fact a hoax. However, this is only partly true. Yes, it does perpetrate a hoax on a number of the participants, but it never attempts to deceive the audience. Although the central characters and the framing device of making a documentary film for Kazakhstan are fabrications, the film is actually a real documentary, what Bill Nichols calls a documentary of ‘social representation’, one that makes ‘the stuff of social reality visible and audible’ (Nichols 2001:1). Apart from the central characters, the film records real people – as distinct from actors, who as Tom Stoppard explains are ‘the opposite of people’ (Stoppard 1971:63) – engaged in what they believe are real situations, and in the process documents some salient features of the American socio-cultural landscape. These participants are not pretending. In some instances they are clearly not even aware that they are on camera. Apparently, when released, Borat came a close second for the 2006 New York Film Critics Circle award for non-fiction (Awards Watch 2006).

The generic designation ‘documentary of social representation’ is distinguished from what Nichols calls ‘documentaries of wish-fulfillment … what we normally call fictions. These films … make the stuff of the imagination concrete – visible and audible’ (Nichols 2001:1). Although The Passion of the Christ pretends to document the ‘gospel truth’, to present a faithful recounting of the last hours of Christ, the film is a fiction. Nevertheless, it was certainly treated by churches worldwide and by many audience members as though it were a documentary – not in style but in substance. According to Gibson, The Passion is ‘meant to just tell the truth’ (Corliss & Israely 2003). In support of its apparent fidelity to the historical events, the previous Pope allegedly said, ‘It is as it was’ (Wooden 2004). This was quickly denied by Vatican ‘sources’, who pointed out the obvious truth that the Pope is not a film critic. Whether it was just a clever marketing ploy or actually true, as Gibson asserts in an interview with Bill O’Reilly (O’Reilly 2004), the statement, carrying with it the aura of infallibility, was quickly part of the rhetorical hype, the commercial crusade associated with the film, a film not being marketed as a movie but as a religious experience. The various studio taglines for the film are strident in their evangelizing message and in the inherent importance of the subject – ‘By his wounds we were healed’ and ‘One man changed the world forever’ emphasize the historical/religious content over the artifice of performance and film-making (see a collection of taglines for the film at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0335345/taglines). Only one tagline, ‘The movie, behind the greatest event in the history of the world’ suggests the world of art, although here the ambiguous preposition, ‘behind’, seems to suggest a hidden camera documenting the proceedings.

Nevertheless, this film is based on one the grandest narratives of them all. And in a process of transference from its source, it assumes that same mantle of greatness. Its dialogue presented in authentic Aramaic, Hebrew and Latin, the film asserts itself as a ‘faithful’ version of its source, the Gospels themselves – the word of God. Well, the announced source is heteroglossic. Remember Vladimir’s lines from Waiting for Godot: ‘… one of the thieves was saved … how is it of the four Evangelists only one speaks of a thief being saved. The four were there – or thereabouts – and only one speaks of a thief being saved … Why believe him rather than the others?’ (Beckett 1955: 4-5). Vladimir supplies his own answer: it’s the only version people know. Similarly, Mel’s Gospel is not just a selection from various religious texts, some of which are non-canonical writings of Catholic tradition, it is also a palimpsest of received images, part of the general lore, including other films and musicals. Thus we find Gibson conforming to the generic expectations associated with Jesus films: the central character, a traditional icon of the Nazarene, Pilate, the ethical philosopher making pragmatic decisions against his conscience, Herod, the gay or bisexual hedonist, Caiaphas, a poster boy for the worldwide Jewish conspiracy, and of course the usual collection of proto-Christians – Peter, the rough-hewn rock of the Church, the sensitive James and the two Marys, here dressed somewhat like nuns.

The film, then, is a re-inscription, an adaptation, according to received generic expectations. It’s all a reverential, referential depiction with documentary-like subtitles that, as written text from the announced source, actually present the authorial word of God. To reinforce its authenticity, Gibson actually suggested that the Holy Ghost was working through him on this film (http://www.religioustolerance.org/chrgibson1.htm), just as, doctrinally, it also did with the actual Gospel writers. Whether the Holy Spirit was just concerned with the writing or with the whole shoot isn’t clear. Although we do know that Caviezel in the shooting of the crucifixion scene was apparently struck by lightning (http://chasingthefrog.com/reelfaces/passion.php) – an incident that, had it resulted in serious consequences, would have been deemed an act of God for insurance purposes. Perhaps, unlike the Pope, God is a film critic.

The claims to authenticity are only partly associated with the not unimpeachable source material. The primary claim of fidelity to truth, and this is Gibson’s innovative addition to the genre of Jesus films, is the brutal ‘shock and awe’ of the pseudo-realistic torture scenes. Here the film relies on the indexical relation between image and actuality to assert its truth. When asked why it was necessary to make the torture and crucifixion so brutally graphic, Gibson said, ‘Well… I think anything less would have been to diminish the truth of it. And if you tell someone about great suffering and hardship that is one thing, but if you show them, really show them in an unflinching manner just how horrible his suffering and pain was… then you pull your audience in even deeper and that makes the message of his sacrifice even more resonant’ (Heard 2004). In fact, in a savage review entitled ‘Drenched in the Blood of Christ’, Mark Kermode of the Observerindicated that the brutality tended to call forth the monster movie mantra ‘it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie,’ thus distancing the audience not drawing them in, and thereby asserting the ontology of the film as fiction rather than confirming its objective depiction of truth (Kermode, 2004).

The tendency for some audience members, particularly devout Christians, to find the extreme violence depicted in the film as truthful, accurate and realistic is a response analyzed by Stephen Prince, who sees in it a transference from style to content (Prince 2006: 1). He notes that the film in fact relies heavily on digitization, a fact that the marketers of the film and the producer/director have de-emphasized, stressing instead ‘the rhetoric of faith and truth rather than cinematic artifice’ (Prince 2006:3). The digital effects used in this film, which include ‘matte paintings, greenscreen work, wire removal, miniature models and animatronics’ (Prince, 2006: 4), are contemporary techniques that are now accepted by the film-literate audience as norms of a realistic style. These effects used throughout the film are well-designed and technically-sophisticated, in other words they are cleverly disguised deceptions that tend not to be seen as stylistic elements. For those who are not completely put off, like Kermode, whose suspension of disbelief was consciously unwilled, these unnoticed stylizations tend to be applied to the fictional content making it seem more authentic. Prince notes that in particular, the film is viewed as realistic because it is being compared to previous Jesus films whose level of technical artifice was less sophisticated (Prince, 2006:8).

One bit of digitization in the film is fascinating. At the brief, very corporeal resurrection of Christ, the only visible manifestation of His torture is the hole we see in His right hand. According to reception theory, we, the audience, fill in the gaps and indeterminacies of a narrative, making it coherent according to our own prior knowledge. This particular digital gap is highly indeterminate. The hole functions like that of a donut or let’s say, as an homage to Gibson, a bagel. The bit missing from the latter is what defines it as being different from a generic bun. Whereas a hot cross bun is a regular bun with a signifier added, a bagel is really defined by an absence. Similarly, the hole in the hand is an absence of presence. Let’s call it an empty signifier, one that refers to nothing of substance. This sign, this stigma – which means a mark made by something with a point – is presented in such a way that it provides a focal point for the affirmation of faith, the incarnation – the presence of logos, The Word (God). Defined by what surrounds it, the hole is an absence given presence by being surrounded by the body of Christ, or here his iconic image in Jim Caviezel.

This hole, this gap, this sign is a chink in the metaphysical dimension of the film. It is also, perhaps, in its incompleteness, evidence of a lie. If we accept the idea that, in order to be so, a lie has to be intentional, then what we have is a lie by omission. If the most committed and self-deceived propagandist (and Gibson appears to be precisely that) intentionally omits the contradictory evidence, he, therefore, lies. We have learned that in Saussurean linguistics, and bagels, all we have is difference. As a sign, the hole doesn’t actually give us the light of truth. In its twofold manifestation, the integrated sign here actually signifies a transcendental signified, or to be precise, the bit of His thigh that you can see through it. To use Burkean rhetorical analysis, the film, in its ‘scene:act’ ratio, asserts the corporeality of the Christ-image rather than its spiritual significance (Burke, 1962). The ‘scene’ of this film is the blood-spattered body of Christ depicted like a Jackson Pollack canvas (cf. Prince 2006: 5). The ‘act’ is the spiritual sacrifice it contains and which is represented in the resurrection. As Burke says, describing this ratio, ‘the proportion would be: scene is to act as implicit is to explicit. One could not deduce the details of the action from the details of the setting, but one could deduce the quality of the action from the quality of the setting’ (Burke, 1962: 7). Here, one sees that Gibson has reversed the ratio. His film makes explicit only the ‘scene’, the setting, the body of Christ. The ‘act’ is represented by a hole at the end of the film. The gap here, then, is multi-dimensional. It exists between the film’s presentation of corporeality versus spirituality, between its construction of fiction and its pretence to fact, between its digital deceptions and its supposed authenticity. All the authenticating devices of the film are there to support only a pretence to truth. But pretence is the nature of mimesis anyway. So, really, the film as a mimetic representation (a fiction, a lie) is being true to its nature. It is, then, actually a true lie.

I have suggested two types of irony at work with this film. The first consists of that impulse when faced with a univocal, grandiose text, one that is pretentious in its pretense, to bring in the complementary, contradictory impulse to form a more complete truth. The second irony is revealed in the fact that representational art exists on two levels, as the thing represented and as the representation itself. If we were to fill the gap in Gibson’s film, making the hole whole, it would be with an image of the auteur himself (perhaps the DUI mugshot made famous by being coupled with his well-documented anti-Semitic outburst). There we would see Mel Gibson as demi-urge, immanent in all aspects of his work, inserting himself into his creation, and pronouncing it good. Whether The Passion is self-deceptive or a calculated mendacity is another question. It certainly deceives itself with its presumptions about its own greatness.

If irony consists in the bringing in of the complementary impulse, then you will notice that The Passion encourages it, whereas Boratactually presents its own ironic refutation. WhatThe Passion does with its sense of gravitas and importance is inveigle the audience, making them complicit in a profound lie. Borat does the same thing with a wink. Both films are deceptions. But when it comes to the audience, the fraudulent claims to truth that we see disguised in The Passion are flaunted in Borat.Within its ‘documentary frame’ Borat is structured according to the genre of the picaresque – the buffoon whose attempts to acquire ‘cultural learnings of America’ lead to the holy grail of Pamela Lee Anderson as the apex of American culture. The documentary frame, itself, is set up with bogus titles and staged, cheap-looking television video that has an archival feel. There are other devices, ‘hand-held traveling shots, available lighting, off-the cuff-interviews, and the fabrication of dated screen grains’ (Doherty 2003: 2) that Larry Charles uses in order to recreate a documentary style. Similarly, as with Rob Reiner’s mock documentary This is Spinal Tap, there are cinema verité scenes that create the sense of fly-on-the-wall recording rather than staged interpretation. Sometimes he uses a hidden camera, as in the subway scene with the escaped chicken or in some of the street scenes, with Borat chasing a pedestrian, for example, that create the illusion of authentic documentary. Elsewhere, scenes are staged which are obviously presented to the gullible participants as being shot for a documentary, presumably for Khazakhstan. And of course the whole opening and closing village scenes were presented to the villagers as something other than what they really were, as the subsequent threatened law suits indicate. But it is in some of the episodes, themselves, scenes involving religious fundamentalists, American rednecks, fraternity boys and gun shop owners that the authentic truth of American culture emerges and the film becomes a documentary recording not for Kazakhstan but for the whole world. The irony of this film emerges not just in its self-reflexivity, in its playing with film conventions and its own ontology, but also in its satiric content. As Northrop Frye reminds us, ‘satire is militant irony’ (Frye 1969: 223).

Both these films are deceptions. In Borat deception is depicted; in The Passion the depiction is the deception. The difference between Borat and The Passion is the difference between a hoax and a fraud.


The Passion (L), Borat (R)



Awards Watch (2006). New York Film Critics Circle Awards 2006, December 11, 2006http://www.moviecitynews.com/awards/2007/critic_awards/nyfcc.htm

Samuel Beckett (1956). Waiting for Godot (London: Faber & Faber)

Kenneth Burke (1962). A Grammar of Motives (Berkeley: University of California Press)

Richard Corliss & Jeff Israely (2003). “The Passion of Mel Gibson”, Time, Sunday,January 19, 2003

Raffaele Donato (2007). “Docufictions: An Interview with Martin Scorsese on Documentary Film”, Film History, Vol. 19

Thomas Doherty (2003). “The Sincerest Form of Flattery: A Brief History of the Mockumentary”, Cineaste (Fall 2003) Vol. 28,4

Northrop Frye (1969). Anatomy of Criticism (New York: Atheneum)

Bill O’Reilly (2004). “Gibson on ‘The Passion’ ”, Fox News, February 24, 2004http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,112436,00.html

Christopher Heard (2004). “Christ on the Screen”,http://www.thegate.ca/interviews/christ-on-screen.php

Mark Kermode (2004). “Drenched in the Blood of Christ”, The Observer, Sunday, February 29.

Bill Nichols (2001). Introduction to Documentary (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press)

Stephen Prince (2006). “Beholding Blood Sacrifice in The passion of the Christ: How Real Is Movie Violence?”, Film Quarterly Vol. 59, 4

Tom Stoppard (1971). Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (New York: Grove Press)

Cindy Wooden (2004). “Pope never commented on Gibson’s ‘Passion’ film, says papal secretary”, Catholic News Servicehttp://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/20040119.htm