The associational system of film editing goes all the back to the great Russian masters of montage such as Eisenstein and Pudovkin. Such was the power of these and other directors working at the time of the origin of cinema in Soviet Russia that the dramatic narrative films of these directors tend to have the immediacy of a documentary even more so than most of the documentaries that are made today Associational film editing shun using uncomplicated and undemanding images in favor of a process of juxtapositioning images or sound that often only obliquely comments on the thematic concerns. This line of attack infiltrates the political consciousness of the viewer so to engage in subconscious coercion of an intellectual engagement with the subject matter that applies subjective reasoning to even the most objective of imagery.
Dziga Vertov’s silent Soviet masterpiece A Man With a Movie Camera is one of the most exceptional associational film editing. A Man with a Movie Camera is nothing less than textbook lesson for all future film craftsmen in the ways that the camera and editing can be utilized to manipulate a moviegoer’s perception of reality through the use of both editing and special effects.
Extending the use of associational techniques to the political spectrum involves the introduction of rhetoric. Many documentaries only implicitly engage in political statements by virtue of trying to maintain a certain objectivity toward the subject, though the struggle is often done in vain as latent political ideologies manage to sneak through. Still other documentaries make no attempt at retaining their objectivity and are fully and explicitly political statements. The rhetorical approach uses an variety of practices to indulge in making their political agenda manifest. There are basically four elements common to all rhetorical documentaries: persuasion, presenting opinion instead of making claims to the factual accuracy; facts that are supplemented by an appeal to the emotions; and the desire to effect a change in the perspective of the audience. The manner in which the documentarian can influence the opinion of a viewer includes several devices. One of the most effective is to position the film itself as a more trustworthy resource for information than the mainstream media. The best ways to go about this include using evidence that the mainstream media suppress or ignore, or more directly appealing to the emotions of the viewer.
A definitive example of a rhetorical documentary is the film made by award-winning documentarian Errol Morris that explicitly intends prove that an innocent man was unjustly convicted, The Thin Blue Line. Morris petitions directly the political vision of his audience, specifically their views on capital punishment, by manipulating both their capacity to reason and feel by filming those who were actually involved in the story he is telling instead of merely relying dramatic recreations, though he does utilize that technique as well. One particularly successful choice for maneuvering the viewer toward feeling outrage at the injustice purportedly directed toward the protagonist involvings place the interview with the main character at the beginning of the movie so that it seems as if the rest of those in the film are contradicting the premise.
What happens in a documentary film that doesn’t in dramatic film is that a contract is established between the audience and the filmmaker. Because the documentary presupposes a higher level of authenticity, the expectation on the part of the audience is that they will become spectators to a revelation. Even though the audience is at least subconsciously aware that scenes are edited and otherwise manipulated through the same cinematic effects as a dramatic film, it becomes much easier to overlook these flourishes. The documentary also arrives with a certain static staid quality attached to it. In other words, even the most exciting documentary doesn’t arrive with expectations of non-stop action. The serious stature of documentary works to elevate it immediately into the sphere of authenticity. Except that, of course, even a static image with no manipulative effects attached is subject to personal interpretation. The more associational effects are used, the more likely that interpretation is subject to socio-political re-interpretations.