How does a documentary capture what’s true? This may be the genre’s fundamental challenge: to give an accurate take on the events and persons it covers, accounting not only for the perspective of its subjects, but also its makers. So how do documentaries using new media, such as those on sites like Magnum and MediaStorm, meet this challenge? And what difference does an audience's interaction make, when viewers can post responses on the same site and so create an ever-evolving document, full of additional perspectives?
At first, we might see these mounting perspectives—the subjects’, the creators’, the audience’s—as undermining a documentary’s claim to truth. With so many viewpoints, many of them conflicting or partial or oblique, who can say what's true? The documentary seems to collapse into a big perspectival mess. Yet this mess may be the documentary’s best means of capturing its subject. Our experience, especially when there’s more than one of us, seldom unifies into a singular viewpoint, so a documentary that embraces the relative, varied, multifaceted nature of our perspectives may better convey the truth (or truths) of its subject.
Take The Marlboro Marine, a documentary by LA Times’ photographer Luis Sinco. Sinco took a photo of Marine Lance Corporal James Blake Miller during the United State’s 2004 assault on Fallouja, and it immediately became an iconic image of the war. Sinco’s documentary chronicles Miller’s difficult return to civilian life. In one sense, the documentary reveals the stories behind the photo, giving us the multiple perspectives inherent in that single shot: We hear Miller’s description of how the war continues to affect him, and Sinco describes taking the photograph and his subsequent relationship with Miller. We also get visual glimpses into the experience of Miller’s fiancée and eventual ex-wife.
In the comments, however, we encounter not two or three, but scores of perspectives: those of American soldiers who serve in the war, another of a Vietnam veteran describing the impact of combat on him forty years later, another of a widow whose husband committed suicide after returning from Vietnam. These comments add to the complexity of the documentary, enriching it and opening it up. In the end, we see The Marlboro Man is not a static work, but—from the iconic photo that inspired it to the comments it will continue to inspire—a continuum, an accrual, a documentary collective.