Argumentative Practices in Documentary Films: The Linking of Verbal and Visual Arguments

Christoph Sauer

Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, Netherlands, The Letteren, CIW


Argumentative practices in documentary films:

the linking of verbal and visual arguments

According to Bill Nichols’ definition of documentary as a form of social

representation, documentaries “give a sense of what we understand reality itself to have been, of what it is now, or of what it may become. These films also convey truths if we decide they do. We must assess their claims and assertions, their perspectives and arguments in relation to the world as we know it and decide whether they are worthy of our belief. Documentaries of social representation offer us new views of our common world to explore and understand”. From now on, I focus on the practice of argumentation in modern documentaries and TV films, being interested in the way these documentaries urge the viewers to assess their claims, assertions and

arguments. Very often, documentaries show experts in different settings who present their views of a specific problem or argue for specific solutions. Normally, also experts from the other side are shown, so that TV or film viewers are enabled to compare good and bad arguments. It depends also on the voice-over and other verbal sources whether the viewers hear enough arguments, claims and assertions in order to assess them or to reject them. But viewers do not only hear the arguments, they also see them in visual representations. Typical sequences in documentaries with expert settings show the experts in ‘talking head’ style, but by turns also pictures that more

or less present parts of the same line of argumentation, e.g. desasters, places, landscapes, machines, accidents, scientific laboratories, libraries etc. In short: states, actions, and events. Some of these visual representations refer clearly to the argumentative line’s content, some others not. They portray the interview setting or represent the context of science, in short: the actors in their professional context. It turns out then that the way the verbal and visual arguments are linked influences the

assessment of the claims or its rejection. Since in documentaries the power of arguments parly depends on anecdotical or statistical evidence, the visualization of statistics or the picturing of anecdotes may play a decisive role too.

The basis of my contribution is a corpus analysis of some sequences from

different documentaries that present experts and their argumentations. I make use of the model of ‘information linking’ that is proposed by Theo van Leeuwen in his book Introducing Social Semiotics (2005). That means that the multimodal quality of documentaries, in general, and their argumentative strings, in particular, has to be analyzed in terms of verbal linking, visual linking as well as verbal-visual linking. What is more, sound and music also have to be approached in order to accentuate specific elements of that linking process. The combination of visual states or events, verbal arguments, sound effects and musical structures is expected to bring about the power of argumentation, rather than verbal arguments alone. It is thus multimodality that is asked for.

Session: Paper session
Interaction 1
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 05