Documenting Law: Reality & Representation on Trial

39 Lincoln Law Review 1 (2011-2012)

31 Pages Posted: 24 Aug 2010 Last revised: 2 Jul 2012

Date Written: April 21, 2010


Documentary films frequently address issues of social and political injustice; thus, however indirectly, implicating law as their subject. Documentary film and legal processes also frequently share formal similarities as they both seek to reconstruct actual events through representational techniques. Thus, notions of the truth are deeply overdetermined in documentary films about law. To many spectators, such documentaries may appear as truth-seeking systems (documentary film) depicting a truth-seeking system (law). Thus, it may be particularly useful to analyze the impressions law lay-spectators gain (or confirm) from these films since, given the truth claims of documentaries, spectators may more fully trust images of law in them than in fiction film. Documentaries engage different strategies in ignoring, negotiating, or acknowledging the overdetermined sources of reality they contain. First, many documentaries mount a competing narrative of truth, contesting the ability of legal processes to adequately find the truth (a dynamic this article dubs “Film vs. Law”). Alternatively, documentaries may contest law’s truth claims without fully supplanting them with their own purportedly superior access to truth (“Film and Law”). These films both critique the truth claims of the legal process while acknowledging the inevitably open-ended and provisional nature of the events they reference. Finally, documentaries may underline the shared representational techniques of law and film to reveal the vexed nature of accessing reality or truth in both realms (“Film = Law”). These three documentary strategies are defined in part by the stylistic choices the films make, and by the on- and off-screen performance of the filmmaker’s relationship with his or her subject. Yet regardless of a particular documentary film style, the notion that the truth of depicted events is accessible is an inescapable element of the documentary narrative.

Keywords: Law & Film, Law & Literature, Law & Society, Cultural Studies, Film Studies

Suggested Citation

Bond, Cynthia D., Documenting Law: Reality & Representation on Trial (April 21, 2010). 39 Lincoln Law Review 1 (2011-2012). Available at SSRN:

Cynthia D. Bond (Contact Author)

UIC John Marshall Law School ( email )

300 S. State St.
Chicago, IL 60604
United States

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