The contrast between propaganda and documentary films

The Table below reports an example of the contrasts that can be drawn between propaganda and documentary films. The table gives a preliminary range of analytic and interpretive categories, which helps develop alertness to the clues as to how and why a film is trying to influence viewers.

The differences between the two types may at times be blurred. Propaganda may now be more subtle and masked with the credibility and supposed educational purpose of the documentary; propaganda may lie concealed in the unarticulated assumptions and worldview that are embedded in a particular film. Some documentaries mimic the action genre in feature films by concentrating on the bizarre and the emotive to sway the audience to a particular interpretation, while remaining relatively superficial when discussing the important issues (this is also evident in some current affairs television programs). This ideas in the table can be applied to social documentaries, as well as to political campaigns, issues discussed on current affairs programs, and advertising.

Table 1 Some perceived differences between propaganda and documentary films


Propaganda films

Documentary films

General purpose of the film-maker

Seeks to present material with the intention of promoting a particular ideology. The content is not necessarily factual and historical.

Claims to present factual and historical materials from a critical perspective to promote a more informed public.

Relationship with ideology

Tries to promote belief in, and commitment to, a particular cause or ideology.

Through trying to promote the idea of being well informed about issues, it may attempt to expose ideologies and evaluate them from a particular value stance or perspective.

Relationship with what viewers might believe

Proposes particular values and principles to believe in.

Identifies what people believe about particular issues; increases the range of what viewers might believe, but does not usually prompt them to believe.

Relationship with critical dialogue

Tries to avoid critical dialogue, but will give arguments for its own ideology as well as criticism of opponents.

Tries to open issues up for debate and critical dialogue.

Relationship with authority

Is usually produced by authorities to reinforce their power and social control; film is an agent of cultural hegemony; strongly supports the authority base; may be authoritarian and self-righteous in tone.

Often (but not always) produced not by the authorities in the field; may call authorities into question or towards accountability. Usually open and non-authoritarian in tone.

Level of objectivity and impartiality

Not objective or impartial, but may try to give the impression that it is.

Tries to be objective and impartial but may reflect a particular value stance or bias that is often acknowledged; may acknowledge its intention in advocacy of a cause.

Concern for unanimity and uniformity

Intends to promote both unanimity and uniformity

Usually more concerned with a plurality of views; may seek to promote more consensus; may seek the best and most accurate interpretation available.

Level of advocacy

Strongly advocates a particular view.

May advocate a particular view; this is usually acknowledged (e.g. care for the environment).

Concern for rational persuasion

Tries to be very persuasive but may not bother with rational argument or logic.

Concerned with rational persuasion; may aim at promoting change in thinking and attitudes based on an appeal to evidence, reason and common values.

Appeal to the emotions

Strong appeal to the emotions.

Usually more concerned with rational persuasion but may highlight emotive issues; may seek emotional identification from the viewers in support of people treated unjustly, and/or in support of the values being advocated.

Proposing of identity

Proposes a group identity over and against that of other groups, often with a feeling of superiority and self-righteousness; clearly identifies other groups to be feared and watched; may prompt suspicion of, and action against, other groups.

Often tries to acknowledge and explore different identities and related conflicts but is not concerned with promoting any particular identity; tends to presume that any sense of identity needs to be well informed with some capacity for critical thinking.

Appeal to nationalism, ethnic identity, fear of other groups.

Often appeals strongly to nationalism and tries to reinforce it; similarly, appeals to ethnic identity and fear (and even dislike or hatred) of rival groups.

Usually no appeal to nationalism or ethnic identity; may seek to expose the influence of nationalism, racism, ethnic elitism, fear of particular groups etc; usually appeals to the values in cultural or ethnic plurality, equality and intercultural communication.

Concluding comment on the educational significance of documentary film

It is interesting to note that film study in its own right has now become a recognised and important part of many Australian universities' programs in Arts at undergraduate, postgraduate and research levels. In addition, some film study appears in units within disciplines such as English, History, Sociology and Law. It is time that more serious attention was given to film study by those concerned with values and religious education. At present, the film studies academics seem to have a better appreciation of the spiritual and moral significance of film and television than educators. For example, a prominent text on documentary film studies noted that:

The pleasure and appeal of documentary film lies in its ability to make us see timely issues in need of attention, literally. We see views of the world, and what they put before us are social issues and cultural values, current problems and possible solutions, actual situations and specific ways of representing them. The linkage between documentary and the historical world is the most distinctive feature of this tradition [It] contributes to the formation of popular memory. It proposes perspectives on and interpretations of historical issues, processes and events Documentaries show us situations and events that are recognisably part of a realm of shared experience; [they] provoke or encourage response, shape attitudes and assumptions [They] have a powerful, pervasive impact. (Nichols, B. 1991Representing Reality:  Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Indiana University Press, Bloomington)

This does not sound all that different from moral education. Hence the importance of film study for educators. Also, if film and television remain a central part of young people's alternative, informal, experiential education, then their school's formal education should give it special attention. In this way school education can help them learn how to derive more sense and value from this significant part of their informal education.