What’s Wrong With Simply Observing The World?

As a practitioner of documentary, I see the answer to this question as less about what’s wrong with ‘simply observing’ the world and more about the implausibility of ‘simply observing’, whether that’s in relation to documentary practice and consumption, or how an individual views the world on more general terms. This is because of the biases created through the existing social structures that surround a person, shaping and building upon their beliefs and values and hence impacting how they view the events that occur around them. For a person to spectate and not pass judgement in anyway would be remarkable, since people are not passively consuming the world around them but interacting with it and actively seeking and applying meanings to things, just as they do with documentary.

Documentary has the difficult task of representing reality and truth, however this does not constitute ‘simply observing’. The biases of the filmmaker will make its way into the content, since everything from shot length to use of sound will impact the emotional tone of a film and its consequent impact on the viewer. The poetic devices of a film, stemming from the directional and stylistic choices of the practitioner, will always produce bias. An un-opinionated depiction of reality does not exist, since you can’t remove the filmmaker from the film, and poetry and truth are not divorced concepts. Daybreak Express (Pennebaker 1953) demonstrates this, its simple composition of shots showing a journey on a suburban train depicts the truth of such an event, however there is intent in the images. Each depicts something the filmmaker finds beautiful, and there seems to be a resounding message about the beauty of the bustling city and the train network. When such an intentionally observational film cannot be described as ‘simply observational’, it becomes clear the level of difficulty there is in creating such a film due to the impact of the filmmaker’s intent. The society a film is produced in likely informs this intent as well, since “…film, like all cultural forms, is a bearer of ideology and… even films that aspire to change are produced through and within the dominant structures of belief” (Waugh 2011). This means that whether a film aims to ‘simply observe’ or to ‘aspire change’, it cannot escape the boundaries set by the society its made in and the meanings that then come with it, causing it to become more than just observational.

This concept of aspiring to generate change is where the initial question of ‘what’s wrong with simply observing the world?’ comes into discussion, since the culmination of poetry in documentary and the depiction of truth is likely to result in some sort of message being conveyed, likely a call for change. So what’s wrong with simply observing as a documentary practitioner? Aside from it being implausible, it could be morally wrong to even attempt to ‘simply observe’ depending on the filmmaker and their own individual role in society. Bill Nichols states that “the politics of documentary film production address the ways in which this work helps give tangible expression to the values and beliefs that build, or contest, specific forms of social belonging, or community, at a given time or place” (2010), however these ‘specific forms of social belonging’ can make the depiction of truth an ethically turbulent ordeal, since for a filmmaker to make a documentary observing those of a different status to himself, it might be seen as condescending or unrealistic, since his voice is not the voice of the peoples being depicted. This was certainly the case in the 1935 documentary Housing Problems (1935), where individuals living in slums were given the opportunity to describe their living conditions in piece-to-camera style interviews, however their dialogue is scripted and their cause is being fought for by someone who cannot understand it as an individual removed from the actual issue. Nichols states about Housing Problems that “the urge to represent the worker romantically or poetically, within an ethics of social concern and charitable empathy, denied the worker a sense of equal status with the filmmaker” (2010), suggesting that perhaps a more moral way to go about the creation of this documentary would be for the filmmakers to involve themselves more rather than to simply observe those involved in the issue, answering in part why it could be wrong to simply observe the world as a documentary filmmaker.

The concept of documentary practitioners involving themselves more with their subjects and their cause in order to create more truthful, less observation documentaries is supported by Thomas Waugh, who suggests that “…new lightweight cameras encouraged filmmakers to go beyond their traditional observational modes toward modes of participation and even of collaboration, intervention, and social catalysis”, a nice example of this being the short film It Works (1999), where the viewer is introduced to the struggles of daily life for a disabled child by being shown explicitly in first person the effects of this disability. For example, the viewer is exposed to a shot which depicts the length of time taken by this child to type a basic sentence. This level of involvement not only gives a very clear idea of what the filmmaker is attempting to express, but it is morally grounded in comparison to a film where a non-disabled person might be talking on behalf of the child instead, bringing in a layer of disconnect and perhaps a sense of inferiority around the disability, since the subject is being denied their own chance at expressing themselves. Not only is it kinder in this instance to be involved rather than observational, but it makes sense considering the content of the film and stirs stronger emotions from the viewer, making it difficult for them to ‘simply observe’.

It is difficult to simply observe the world, there is too much bias that evolves from existing in a society with set values and beliefs, and this is something that effects the practice of documentary filmmaking. There are also moral and stylistic considerations to be made when attempting to depict truth in documentary, however ultimately poetic devices and reality are intertwined ideas making it difficult to present one without the other, and sometimes involving oneself in the events of a film can be the more truthful and ethical practice, making it wrong to simply observe anyway.


Nichols, Bill, 2010, “How Have Documentaries Addressed Social and Political Issues”, Introduction to Documentary, Second Edition, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, pp.212–252

Waugh, Thomas, 2011, “Why Documentary Filmmakers Keep Trying to Change the World, or Why People Changing the World Keep Making Documentaries”, The Right to Play Oneself: Looking Back on Documentary Film [Visible Evidence Series, Volume 23], University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, pp. 24– 41


Daybreak Express 1953, short documentary, Dir. D.A. Pennebaker

Housing Problems 1935, short documentary, Dir. John Grierson

It Works 1999, short documentary, Dir. Fridolin Schoenwise


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