Jill Godmilow – Group 1

By in Discussion on November 22, 2014

Angelica Amaya
David Berezin
Charlotte Prager
Ellen Reynolds

WWJD? (What Would Jill Do?)

Filmmaker Jill Godmilow has made some bold statements about documentaries, especially their shortcomings in compelling audiences to act on the social issues that they present. In the spirit of documentary films, our group molded our response to Jill Godmilow’s presentation “Staying Out of the Torture Room: The Post-Realist Documentary” as a short documentary, where we used Jill’s own words to create questions. We interviewed people in New York City and Philadelphia, and we asked them for their own opinions about what a documentary should be.

How real is the reality shown by documentary film?

In “Kill the Documentary, as We Know It,” Godmilow critiques the role of truth in documentaries. She writes that documentaries “all are able to say, and do say, implicitly, about themselves, ‘Here is reality—and when you’ve seen this – and you should see it—you’ll have understood something you need to know.’ That is, they all claim the pedigree of the real and all the attributes and privileges of ‘the real’” (Godmilow 4).
We questioned our interview subjects about the role of truth in documentaries. Our interviewees believed that documentaries have an obligation to be truthful, certainly more so than fiction films. But they acknowledged that we’re always seeing documentaries through the filmmaker’s point-of-view. They also acknowledged that documentary filmmakers could manipulate their films to trick audiences.

Should documentaries be entertaining?

A documentary’s claim to be truthful differentiates it from a fiction film, but like a fiction film, a documentary has an obligation to entertain its audience. In “What’s Wrong With the Liberal Documentary,” Godmilow writes that the documentary “is trapped in the same matrix of obligations as the fiction film: to entertain its audience, to produce fascination with its materials, to achieve closure, and to satisfy.” (91).
We asked our interview subjects if documentaries should be entertaining. They believed that documentaries should be entertaining to keep audiences interested. One interview subject cited a story, strong visuals, and special effects as ways to make documentaries entertaining. In another interview, we learned that the filmmakers of “Pumping Iron” dramatized parts of that documentary to make it more entertaining.

If a documentary is about violence, or a certain type of violence, should that violence be shown on the screen?

In “What’s Wrong With the Liberal Documentary,” Godmilow criticizes documentaries for their “pornography of the real,” which “involves the highly suspect, psychic pleasure of viewing the moving picture real… a powerful pornographic interest in real people and real death, as well as the destruction and suffering of ‘others,’ commodified in film” (95-96).
We discovered that viewers feel that documentaries should be conservative when it comes to displaying violence. However, one interviewee could not deny the effectiveness of the violence in the documentary “The Cove,” which shocks the audience with the gruesome sounds and images of dolphins being slaughtered.

Have you ever felt compelled or inspired to change your behavior or take action after seeing a documentary?

In “What’s Wrong With the Liberal Documentary,” Godmilow describes how documentaries fail to compel audiences to act on social issues. She writes: “We leave the theater filled with our best feelings about ourselves. The next day we go about the same business in the same way. This produces desire for a better and fairer world, but not the useful self-knowledge required to change anything” (Godmilow 92).
While documentaries didn’t convince all our interview subjects to make changes in their daily lives, some of them did make significant lifestyle changes because of watching a documentary. One of our interview subjects watched “Super Size Me,” and as a result of that film, he hasn’t eaten at McDonald’s for years. Another interview subject told us that she changed her diet after watching the documentary “Food, Inc.”

Why a video?

We thought it prudent and appropriate to address questions or problems posed by Godmilow, related to the ethics of choices made before and during production, by engaging in the activity of production. This provided a way to wrestle with finding a personal relationship to the issues. For example, the simple act of selecting interview subjects calls to mind our own biases, as does the ever-present ability for documentary makers to craft an argument through selective editing.

Godmilow requires careful attention by ethical makers to such choices; thus, engaging in the experience gave us a way to think better about this, and many other related points, than we might have about it had we stayed “comfortable” with our texts. We made a slight reference to this within the edited video by dramatically drawing attention to the music, then removing it as a means to address the quotation that follows: “Watch the music! What’s it doing? Who’s it conning?” (Godmilow 5). We think it will seem impossible to engage in the process of making and evaluating documentary films in the future without reflecting on “WWJD?”, thanks to our approach to filtering her ideas.


We found points of agreement between Godmilow and our interview subjects. For example, our interviewees believed that filmmakers didn’t need to portray graphic violence on screen and thus subject viewers to what Godmilow calls the “pornography of the real.” But there were also disagreements between Godmilow and our interviewees.
Godmilow criticized documentaries for their “pedigree of the real”—that is, their claim to present reality—but our interview subjects valued documentaries for being truthful and giving them the opportunity to learn about a new subject. However, they acknowledged that the filmmaker’s bias and the need to entertain could distort a documentary’s truthfulness.
Godmilow also accused documentaries of failing to compel people to take action on the social issues that they presented. While documentaries didn’t always compel our interview subjects to act on social issues, they did change the way our interviewees thought, and they even motivated some of our interviewees to change their lifestyles.

Works Cited

Godmilow, Jill. “Kill the Documentary, as We Know It.” Journal of Film and Video
Summer/Fall, 2002: 1-9.

Godmilow, Jill. “What’s Wrong With the Liberal Documentary.” Peace Review
Mar 1999: 91-98.

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