Emotional truths in documentary making

Aitken, Mark. 2019. Emotional truths in documentary making. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

The abundance of documentary making and instability of ‘truths’ in the current ‘post-truth’ era suggests a need to reconsider past and present epistemological claims by non-fiction. Burdens of documentary ‘truth’ were shed in favour of subjective ‘truths’ advocated by film makers and subjects. Objective truth was relocated outside the form. Documentary ‘truths’ are defined as performative but we should accept the possibility of ‘untrue’ performance. Audience interpretation of performative ‘truths’ also proves to be relative to belief and emotions. This unstable plurality of ‘truths’ calls for renewed trust in film makers, subjects and audiences.

My proposition offers coherence to a ten-year body of work where I sought to understand trauma in subjects. I emphasise overlooked film maker/subject dynamics and posit this as a location for developing trust. ‘Emotional truths’ may result from feeling the subject’s trauma while acknowledging filters of pain on memory. The process requires a creative exchange based on an empathetic, non-hierarchical encounter. I examine how these ‘truths’ are constructed through ‘performative collaboration’ and how they manifest in the work - following consensus between subject and film maker. Apart from my own practice, I cite similar, contrasting, past and recent examples of ‘emotional truths’ while being critical of films and film makers refusing empathy towards subjects.

Catharsis may occur variably for the subject, film maker and audience as trauma is re-contextualised through performed emotions in the film. Ideally, ‘emotional truths’ might be experienced by the audience as they feel rather than merely gain knowledge about trauma.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):



Emotional, truths, documentary making, Landzmann, Oppenheimer, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Bruzzi

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Media, Communications and Cultural Studies


30 November 2019

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

04 Dec 2019 10:28

Last Modified:

07 Sep 2022 17:15



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