Redefining Documentary

Redefining Documentary: Jakobson’s Paradigm

Charlotte Govaert



While literary theorists have long abandoned the idea of defining their art with ontological, epistemological or teleological finality, documentary theorists are still struggling to provide a statement that describes the nature of their study object. This paper aims to contribute to the debate regarding the problematic of defining documentary by reintroducing Jakobson’s communication paradigm, which offers a structuralist approach to documentary. Proposed in 1956 but largely overlooked in the area of film studies, the model stipulates that meaning is not fixed but fluid and lies in the interaction between the six functions of the communication process: sender, text, receiver, context, contact and code.


The paper arrives at the proposed reinsertion of Jakobson’s model in the area of documentary theory after a critical interrogation of present genre conceptualizations. Typically, these theorizations emphasize documentary’s particular relationship to the real. Other definitions frame documentary as interpretations rather than representations of reality. Documentaries ‘reflect and report on the “the real” [sic] through the use of the recorded images and sounds of actuality’ (Corner 1996: 2); they require ‘a representation or argument about the historical world’ (Nichols 1991: 18). In New Documentary, Stella Bruzzi critiques approaches that foreground referentiality altogether. Documentary, she argues, is ‘a negotiation between reality on the one hand and image, interpretation and bias on the other’ (Bruzzi 2006: 6). It is this compromise or collision that constitutes documentary film.


By stressing the interaction between some of the elements of the communication process, Bruzzi is indebted to Jakobson, a literary theorist who worked on poetry and linguistics as well as communication. His paradigm stipulates that meaning is constructed through an intricate web of relations between the six elements of the communication process, which may be suppressed but are never absent. Understanding these relationships and how they interact at each individual reading is a useful approach to defining documentary, as this presentation aims to demonstrate. A discussion of Jakobson’s paradigm and its implications for documentary theory is followed by an analysis of Silver City (Govaert 2008), which serves as an illustration of the proposed theory at a practical level. The documentary is about two of the approximately 1 million Polish citizens that immigrated into the UK after their country joined the EU.



For ten years, Charlotte Govaert worked as a producer and director of factual programming on public television in the Netherlands. In September, she submitted her doctoral thesis, a reception study entitled Cueing the Viewer: How Reflexive Elements in Documentary Film Engage Audiences in Issues of Representation. A Jakobsonian reconceptualisation of documentary was proposed as part of her PhD project.


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