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When is Fiction as Good as Fact? Comparing the Influence of Documentary and Historical Reenactment Films on Engagement, Affect, Issue Interest, and Learning

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This study advances documentary film effects research by comparing the influence of a political documentary with a historical reenactment film on narrative engagement, affect, learning, and interest. Using the Rwandan genocide as a context of study,
  When is Fiction as Good as Fact?Comparing the Influence of Documentaryand Historical Reenactment Filmson Engagement, Affect, Issue Interest,and Learning Heather L. LaMarre School of Journalism and Mass CommunicationUniversity of Minnesota Kristen D. Landreville School of CommunicationThe Ohio State University This study advances documentary film effects research by comparing theinfluence of a political documentary with a historical reenactment film onnarrative engagement, affect, learning, and interest. Using the Rwandangenocide as a context of study, a documentary film,  The Triumph of Evil  , andthe historical reenactment fictional film,  Hotel Rwanda , were examined. Resultsrevealed significant differences between documentary and historical reenact-ment film exposure for affective responses and issue knowledge gain. However,increased issue interest and narrative engagement were not significantly Heather L. LaMarre  (Ph.D., The Ohio State University, 2009) is an assistant professor in theSchool of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota. Her researchexamines the social-psychological processes and effects of strategic communications andcampaigns in news and entertainment media. Kristen D. Landreville  (M.A., University of Florida, 2006) is a doctoral candidate in theSchool of Communication at The Ohio State University. Her research interests include the pro-cesses and effects of political entertainment use with a focus on emotion and discussion.Correspondence should be addressed to Heather L. LaMarre, School of Journalism andMass Communication, University of Minnesota, 111 Murphy Hall, 206 Church Street SE,Minneapolis, MN 55455. E-mail: Mass Communication and Society,  12:537–555 Copyright # Mass Communication & Society Divisionof the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass CommunicationISSN: 1520-5436 print = 1532-7825 onlineDOI: 10.1080/15205430903237915 537  different for the two stimulus groups, suggesting that dramatic fictionalreenactments of socio-political events lead to increased issue interest as muchor more than the live footage and factual account of events offered in a docu-mentary. The results of this study are discussed in terms of their importancefor key democratic outcome variables (e.g., knowledge and participation),along with suggestions for future documentary film research. Communication scholars have long shown an interest in how entertainmentmedia influences emotional arousal, learning, and engagement (e.g., Raney,2004; Shapiro & Chock, 2003; Zillmann, 2006). Often this line of researchconcerns itself with the motivations and gratifications of watching fictionalentertainment media (e.g., Nabi, Stitt, Halford, & Finnerty, 2006).However, recent work by Pouliot and Cowen (2007) has begun to explorethese relationships in documentary film, finding significant differencesbetween fictional and factual narratives in terms of perceived realism, enjoy-ment, and engagement. Although Pouliot and Cowen offered an interestinganalysis of such differences, the theoretical focus of this work remainslimited to traditional entertainment media theory (e.g., enjoyment, usesand gratifications). Because many documentaries cover key public policyand socio-political issues (e.g., foreign issues, climate change, socialmovements), reexamining the influence of documentary and historicalreenactment film from a socio-political lens provides a new understandingof the role documentaries play as an alternative outlet for politicalinformation.As such, this study combines key entertainment theory with politicalcommunication theory to extend what researchers know about documentaryand reenactment film effects from a political entertainment viewpoint. Bycomparing the influence of these two film formats on key democraticoutcomes, we provide a better understanding of the role that documentaryand historical reenactment films play in educating and engaging the electo-rate. Specifically, this study examines the differences between the historicalreenactment fictional film  Hotel Rwanda  and the PBS Frontline documen-tary  The Triumph of Evil  . This work is moving beyond extant literatureand bridging gaps between entertainment and political communicationtheory by examining several underlying communicative processes and theirinfluence on political knowledge and issue interest.What follows is a review of current research regarding known differencesbetween documentary and historical reenactment films. This summary isfollowed by the results of an experiment designed to test the hypothesesoffered herein, a discussion of the results in terms of political documentaries’role in educating and engaging the electorate, and suggestions for futuredocumentary effects research. 538  LAMARRE AND LANDREVILLE  FORMAL DIFFERENCES BETWEEN DOCUMENTARYAND FICTIONAL FILM Before examining the differential effects between documentary and dramaticfictional reenactment film, it is necessary to review existing literature regard-ing known differences between these two media messages. Within the docu-mentary and fictional film literature, there are established differences of visual and auditory features (Eitzen, 1995; Huston & Wright, 1983; Wright &Huston, 1983). For example, common features of film include close shots,rapid pace of editing, a frequent moving camera, studio-created sounds,and dramatic music, whereas common features of documentaries are theopposite—long shots, slow pace of editing, immobile or seldom travelingcameras, location sounds, and background noises (Pouliot & Cowen,2007). To date, much of the research regarding such differences reliesheavily on the premise that documentaries and fictional dramatic filmsadhere to these format differences, and pay little attention to the growinghybrids between documentaries and dramatic films (e.g.,  Sicko, March of the Penguins , and  Super Size Me ).Newer evidence suggests that these formal features are only tendenciesand are not hard and fast distinctions. Renov (1993a) argues that documen-taries can contain fictive elements such as musical accompaniment, narra-tion, close shots, telephoto or wide-angle lenses that distort space, or highor low camera angles. In fact, Renov (1993a, p. 3) suggested that the twodomains ‘‘inhabit’’ one another and that narrative is the fundamental condi-tion that binds the two film types. Simply put, storytelling is the essentialelement of both genres. Nevertheless, documentaries are based in nonfictionand films are based in fiction, and the fundamental tendencies of documen-taries (i.e., to record, reveal, or preserve; to persuade or promote; to analyze;to express) are not as present or dominant in fictional films (Renov, 1993b).It would be hard to argue that the  main  focus of a fictional film is ‘‘pleasur-able learning,’’ as is the case with many documentaries (Renov, 1993b, p. 35). Perceived Realism of Documentaries and Fictional Films Beyond structural differences, research has found that documentaries andfictional films activate different expectations and are not processed in thesame way (Pouliot & Cowen, 2007). Pouliot and Cowen had participantsview one of six 2-minute stimuli: a fictional film or documentary about(a) AIDS, (b) Gandhi, or (c) a wedding. In terms of perceived externalrealism (i.e., degree of similarity between the message and reality), all of the documentaries were interpreted as more factually realistic than fictionalfilms about the same content (Pouliot & Cowen, 2007), reaffirming the idea DOCUMENTARY AND HISTORICAL REENACTMENT FILM  539  that documentaries have a tendency to record, reveal, or preserve. Shapiroand Chock (2003) suggested that documentaries are perceived as morefactual than reenactments (even when covering the same content) becausefictional films include more unusual and dramatic scenes, which areperceived as less real. This would suggest that documentaries hold morecredibility with audiences, although this hypothesis has not tested beentested empirically. Interest and perceived reality.  On a similar note, interest for a docu-mentary seems to depend on a high degree of external reality, but for afictional film seems to depend on the lack of similarity to reality (Pouliot& Cowen, 2007). This distinction might be attributed to one’s pre-exposureexpectations, which would explain theoretically why the perceived factualnarrative (i.e., documentary) would require a higher degree of externalrealism than the fictional version. Simply put, if audiences expect a docu-mentary to include a factual account of events, low external realism wouldviolate their expectation and call the film’s validity into question. On theother hand, a film that is only based on a true story would not be held tothe same standard with audiences expecting a certain level of drama and asomewhat unrealistic interpretation of events. Influences of Affect on Issue Interest and Learning This study focuses on negative affect due to its ability to increase attention,interest, and learning. Research in both emotion psychology (e.g., Frijda,Kuipers, & ter Schure, 1989) and political science (Marcus, Neuman, &MacKuen, 2000) has shown that negative affect leads to stronger behavioraland action tendencies (e.g., learning about issues) than positive affect. Assuch, we chose to focus on how guilt and disgust influence interest, learning,and engagement. These two emotions are especially relevant to the studybecause of the nature of the stimuli—a documentary and historical reenact-ment film about the international humanitarian failure to stop the 1994Rwandan genocide. Guilt is an expected negative emotion for the audienceto experience for several conceptual reasons. For one, guilt is a form of sadness because the person feels irrevocable loss and helplessness and thatperson internalizes the accountability of the loss (Lazarus, 1991). Guilt isultimately different than sadness because sadness does not have a referentfor blame, whereas the self is a referent for blame in feeling guilt (Lazarus,1991). In the case of the Rwandan genocide, guilt should play a role in howthe audience reacts to the stimuli; that is, people will feel guilty that they andtheir government did not do more to stop the genocide. 540  LAMARRE AND LANDREVILLE  The second emotion that is likely to play a role in interest is disgust.Disgust is a kind of aversion that has been conceptualized as possessingsimilar high-energy levels and functions as enthusiasm (Marcus et al.,2000). Both disgust and enthusiasm incite the desire to do something; in par-ticular, for disgust, we want to take action to deflect, undermine, or destroythe aversive target (Marcus et al., 2000). Marcus et al. described feelings of disgust as a type of stable disapproval in addition to a type of negative emo-tion. In the case of the film stimuli, disgust is likely to be evoked because of the normative, and nearly universal, disapproval of failing to stop genocide.Also, the graphic visual images in the films (e.g., slain dead bodies, burnedchurches, bloody machetes) may contribute to feelings of disgust.Moreover, a perceived negative event is considered threatening andunique, thus inciting interest and attention to the event (Marcus et al.,2000). Therefore, more interest and learning should result from a narrativethat arouses higher levels of negative emotions because more attention ispaid to the event. Because literature shows higher levels of perceived realismandfact-based storytelling are associated with documentaries (e.g., Pouliot &Cowen, 2007), it makes sense to expect the documentary audience tohave stronger emotional reactions to the narrative. Thus, we hypothesizethat the documentary group will report significantly higher levels of negativeaffective arousal and that negative affect will be a positive predictor of issue interest and knowledge. Stated more formally,H1: The documentary group will report significantly higher levels of negative emotional arousal (i.e., guilt and disgust) than the historicalreenactment group.H2: Negative emotional arousal (i.e., guilt and disgust) will positivelypredict issue interest and learning. Engagement, Issue Interest, and Learning When people are relatively uncritical and engaged with a text, they may be transported   into a narrative world (Green & Brock, 2000). Engagement the-ories posit that narratives, whether fictional or factual, can transport peopleinto the story and lead to higher levels of issue interest and learning (Green,Brock, & Kaufman, 2004; Wirth, 2006). In relation to perceived reality, nar-rative engagement has been shown to be positively correlated with perceivedreality (Green, 2004; Wilson & Busselle, 2004; Zhang, Hmielowski, &Busselle, 2007). Specifically, the more real a narrative is perceived, the moreabsorbed and engaged the audience becomes. Therefore, when comparing afictional film to a documentary, the documentary should encouragemore narrative engagement because documentaries are typically perceived DOCUMENTARY AND HISTORICAL REENACTMENT FILM  541
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