Videotaped Confessions and the Genre of Documentary

20 Pages Posted: 8 Feb 2020

See all articles by Jessica M. Silbey

Jessica M. Silbey

Northeastern University - School of Law; Northeastern University - Center for Law, Innovation and Creativity


This essay begins the exploration of two contemporary and related film trends: the recent popular enthusiasm over the previously arty documentary film and the mandatory filming of custodial interrogations and confessions.

The history and criticism of documentary film, indeed contemporary movie-going, understands the documentary genre as political and social advocacy (recent examples are Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11 and Errol Morris's Fog of War). Judges, advocates, and legislatures, however, assume that films of custodial interrogations and confessions reveal a truth and lack a distorting point of view. As this Article explains, the trend at law, although aimed at furthering venerable criminal justice principles, holds a fairly naïve view of film's indexical relationship to the lived world and abjures consideration of the contemporary trend in cinema.

Understanding the documentary as truth-revealing is a mistake, a mistake which can frustrate (if not undermine) the criminal justice goals of the legislation.

Whatever may explain the convergence of filmmaking in the precinct house and a penchant for mainstream documentary movie-going, the trends are shaping contemporary expectations about film in contradictory ways. Investigating these trends together exposes competing norms regarding film as a legal tool and as a knowledge producing discourse. It also situates the criminal justice trend in the context of a long history of filmmaking and critical spectatorship. In light of the growing use of film as a policing mechanism, better understanding of film as both an art and a legal tool is in order.

Keywords: evidence, film, law and popular culture, documentary, law and film, law and literature, intellectual property

JEL Classification: K14, K10, K41

Suggested Citation

Silbey, Jessica M., Videotaped Confessions and the Genre of Documentary. Fordham Intellectual Property, Media and Entertainment Law Journal, Vol. 16, p. 789, 2006. Available at SSRN:

Jessica M. Silbey (Contact Author)

Northeastern University - School of Law ( email )

416 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
United States

Northeastern University - Center for Law, Innovation and Creativity

416 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
United States

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