Propaganda in Documentary Film: The Positive, The Negative, And the Ethical Considerations

by Abigail Bubiak

Propaganda in Documentary Film: The Positive, The Negative, And the Ethical Considerations

     Walking down almost any street in any city in 2011, it is inevitable that one will see various advertisements, billboards, signs and posters from every angle, blinking the latest trends and prices, the hottest models, and the biggest deals. Big spenders and window-shoppers alike are more than used to the bombardment – it is an everyday occurrence. More and more frequently, it seems, public announcements encourage the general public to be wary of what they see and hear in the media – advertisements, flashy billboards and repetitive messages aren’t always what we need to hear, but rather benefit the big companies and retail stores, who might be persuading us towards unhealthy messages instead of positive ones in order to make a profit. These types of manipulative ploys are familiar to us; however, I would argue that the exact same tactics are being used (and have been used for years) to persuade and manipulate people through documentary films – entities many viewers accept as true without thinking simply because of the expectations of the genre – through the use of propaganda. Unlike the familiar warnings to the public regarding manipulative clothing advertisements, this type of manipulation can be less obvious. In this post, I will discuss the history of propaganda and how it is being used in documentary films specifically, by analyzing the films Man With a Movie Camera (1929), Triumph of the Will (1935), Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993), and Gasland (2010). In addition, I will discuss the issues surrounding propaganda use, such as the difference between positive and negative types of propaganda, and the ethical responsibilities of the filmmaker when including propaganda within his or her films.

     The simplest description of propaganda is “any technique that attempts to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, or behaviour of a group in order to benefit the sponsor” (Donn, n.d.). Such persuasive messages can be put in magazines, television commercials, the news, films (such as documentaries), and broadcasted over the radio. The use of propaganda can be traced back to Ancient Greece, but its usage has significantly increased in the last few centuries as a result of the greater use of communication due to technological advances, such as the invention of the printing press, radio – and perhaps the most effective – television and the Internet ("What is propaganda?"). Television has visual components in addition to the audio components, which made communicating around the world significantly easier; seeing someone from long distances apart talk to you as if in front of you increases the effectiveness of propaganda – it is much harder to ignore the visuals of a television commercial than a static poster as you walk down the street ("What is propaganda?"). Film, being an offshoot of the television category, also successfully incorporates both audio and visual techniques to spread propagandistic ideas. When used in documentary film, such manipulative ideas are expressed as if they are true; viewers are attempted to be persuaded either for or against a cause, or to change public opinion; they are urged to change their opinions by believing the persuasively presented new opinions of that of the sponsor – “the propagandist attempts to alter the opinions of his subjects or viewers by convincing them of the validity of their own” ("What is propaganda?"). Because the public nowadays is so aware of the bombardment from the media, designers of propaganda don’t just put one propagandistic message into a commercial or film, they put multiple messages into each piece using a variety of different propaganda techniques that appeal to viewers’ senses either visually, emotionally, mentally or audibly (Donn).

     Arguably, there are twelve types of propaganda devices used to persuade and manipulate viewers: ‘name-calling’, ‘glittering generalities’, ‘transfer’, ‘testimonial’, ‘plain folks’, ‘bandwagon’, ‘card stacking’, ‘repetition’, ‘emotional words’, ‘false analogy’, ‘either/or fallacy’, and ‘faulty cause and effect’ ("Recognizing propaganda techniques," 2011). ‘Name-calling’ is a technique whereby a negative label is given to a person (or thing) in order to make them sound unreasonable; rather than explain why their opinion is better, they attempt to beat down their opponent with negative associations ("Recognizing propaganda techniques," 2011). This would be an example of propaganda that works on a mental level. The propaganda device, ‘glittering generalities’, uses words such as “good”, “fair” and “best” that have no real meaning to promote their cause; these words and general statements can’t be proved or disproved, making this an effective propaganda tool ("Recognizing propaganda techniques," 2011). ‘Transfer’ is a technique where the qualities of a person, usually a well-known one, are associated with a particular product to promote it (if they are considered good) or demote it (if they are seen as a negative figure); an example of this would be if Michael Jackson were to promote a certain brand of cereal in order to make people want to buy it (Oak, 2011). Similarly, the ‘testimonial’ technique promotes its cause by using the words of an “expert” or someone famous to promote a product or idea (Oak, 2011). Another technique, ‘plain folks’, depicts real people similar to the normal, ordinary bulk of the population, doing ordinary activities; the plain folks support the cause, so you should too! ("Recognizing propaganda techniques," 2011). The ‘bandwagon’ technique tries to persuade people to join the cause or buy the product because everyone else is doing it, quite similar to the ‘plain folks’ tactic (Oak, 2011). ‘Repetition’ is when the name of a product is repeated multiple times within a particular advertisement, either through dialogue or voice-over or even through the appeal of a musical jingle (Oak, 2011). The use of ‘emotional words’ in the media attempts to create positive emotions within the audience by using emotionally-heavy or indicative words such as “paradise” or “luxury” which evoke particular responses or connections in the viewers, which they then associate with the product or idea being pushed (Oak, 2011). ‘False analogy’ describes a process whereby two dissimilar things are compared as if the same, regardless of whether or not there is evidence to support such a comparison ("Recognizing propaganda techniques," 2011). The ‘either/or fallacy’ is also known as “black-and-white thinking” – the audience is only given two available choices to pick from and they can either support it or not, with no compromise in the middle ("Recognizing propaganda techniques," 2011). ‘Faulty cause and effect’ is a technique stating that “because B follows A, A must cause B” whether there is significant evidence to back this claim up or not ("Recognizing propaganda techniques," 2011). Lastly, ‘Card stacking’ is when key words, ideas, or unflattering statistics are left out of a commercial or film in order to slant the odds in their favour; in a way this is like outright lying, but it should be noted that advertisers are not under any obligation to give the entire truth ("Recognizing propaganda techniques," 2011).

     However, whilst advertisers may not be expected to give the whole truth to the public, that is exactly one of the main claims of documentaries – the audience relies on the honesty of the filmmaker to provide the truest representation of reality; while some aspects may be partially skewed to allow for filming requirements or time constraints, documentary filmmakers engage with the audience in a promise to uphold a sense of veracity. And yet many documentaries do employ the propagandistic tactic of ‘card stacking’ in addition to many of the other aforementioned techniques.

     The film, Man With a Movie Camera (1929) by director Dziga Vertov not only incorporates the use of ‘card stacking’ within the film, but also ‘transfer’, ‘plain folks’, ‘bandwagon’, ‘name-calling’, and ‘glittering generalities’. The film, which was created for the government of Ukraine, focused on a day in the life of the Soviet Union, emphasizing communist ideals, and was designed to help convince the Soviet public to welcome technology use due to their lagging behind the west in the industry (Lorefice, 2005). In addition to the above propaganda techniques, Vertov used quick cutting and montage, superimposition, animation, and split screen in an attempt to sway the audience through emotion rather than reason – the basis of what propaganda is all about (Lorefice, 2005). According to the Kuleshov Effect, experimentation with editing and cutting back and forth between various images can create associations within the viewers – editing is what creates the emotion and meaning within the film, and can lead to how the audience interprets the message being shared and the relationships between the juxtaposed shots. Vertov’s film Man With a Movie Camera takes full advantage of this; the entirety of the film is composed of various short shots compiled into various forms of montage (metric, rhythmic, tonal, overtonal and intellectual) to create a pavlovian response within the audience. Vertov’s use of varying shot lengths and juxtaposition of chosen imagery essentially guides the audience to come to predetermined conclusions, thereby persuading and manipulating viewers in a very revolutionary way from a propagandistic standpoint during this time period. The use of montage here creates a “collectivist message,” one that states that the use of technology (such as the camera itself) is good, not negative, that every worker has a place in society; it sends a message that stands against selfishness, and represents a wholly communist outlook on life (Lorefice, 2005). The entirety of the film focuses on the idea of ‘plain folks,’ documenting the daily lives of the workers, the townspeople, the shopkeepers, and all the other Soviet citizens, all of which outwardly support and take part in the use of technology, portraying its success. Taking advantage of the ‘bandwagon’ technique as well, all of these plain folks are using the technology with a great deal of enjoyment, and in the spirit of ‘card stacking,’ none of the negative sides to life in the Soviet Union – such as the somber reality of being unemployed, or the downsides to technology – are mentioned (Alexander, 2011). Vertov, who was very much a fan of Lenin and his ideals, includes a section of montage wherein the camera settles on the Ukrainian Communist Club and a picture of Lenin, swiftly juxtaposing this with the next image of a church, the camera sweeping upwards; this provides the implication that Lenin is a “God-like figure” to the Soviet people and is a good example of the ‘transfer’ technique (Alexander, 2011). The propaganda within Man With a Movie Camera is practically bursting out of its seams; it can be argued that the film is one big advertisement of modernity and the idea of Communism, through its multitudes of “banners, texts, street signs, graphic inscriptions, [and] posters, all revealing radical internalization of political ideologies and offering a glimpse of the newly emerging consumer society” (Alexander, 2011).

    In addition to Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929), there are countless other documentary films that include propagandistic techniques to persuade and manipulate in one way or another. Some are employed by governments to persuade the public to believe in certain political ideals, whereas others might be trying to convince the public about a social, environmental, or personal issue. Is there a difference, though, between positive and negative propaganda? One might argue that there are negative aspects of propaganda – particularly the power of huge companies, or entire governments, to manipulate malleable audiences or entire countries into believing ideals that turn out to be negative instead of positive. An example of this could be the documentary film Triumph of the Will (1935) directed by Leni Riefenstahl. The film used the propaganda techniques ‘transfer’, ‘bandwagon’, ‘card stacking’, ‘testimonial’ and ‘plain folks’ in order to promote fascism and the National Socialist Party, showing Hitler and his ideals in the best possible light ("Propaganda and nation," 2011). The film sways the viewers through an appeal to their feelings and beliefs, using a strong sense of patriotism to move them to believe in the ideals being portrayed. Hitler was associated with the sky, the animals, the earth, the church, the national flag and the military – the camera angles, editing, lighting and most powerful of all, the music, were all developed to appeal to the audience’s emotional senses ("Propaganda and nation," 2011). Knowing what we know today – the effects of Hitler’s regime and Nazism – this film is a terrifying one that successfully sways its audience to support fascist ideals; the very fact that a totalitarian regime such as the like of Hitler’s can employ propaganda to such effect could arguably be an example of the negative side of propaganda. On the positive side, then, it could be argued that films that attempt to sway people into action for the greater good of everyone represent the positive aspects of the power of propaganda. Films such as Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993) by director Alanis Obomsawin, and Gasland (2010) by director Josh Fox are examples of activist documentaries, intended to make viewers act and to enact a desire for social change. Kanehsatake (1993) focuses on the Yoka Crisis and provides a very powerful tool to enlighten audiences as to the goings on during this period in Canada’s history. This film does an amazing job at utilizing the technique of ‘plain folks’ by allowing viewers to learn each person’s name and personal story, which in turn allows the audience to create an emotional affinity with the victims and thus push us towards the want for social change and justice. Appealing to our emotions, by the end of the film viewers have a greater understanding of the gap between the image of Canada we know (that of an accepting nation) and the actuality of the happenings during the Yoka Crisis. Similarly, Gasland (2010) utilizes the technique of ‘plain folks’ to familiarize us with particular individuals and families who are affected by the large oil companies who practice the process of “fracking” on their land; we hear their stories, we see their hardships, and we become privy to their private fears and problems. Director Josh Fox also takes advantage of the tactics of ‘fear’, ‘transfer’, and ‘repetition’, as well as emotional music and the use of a familiar, conversational voice-over to create a connection with the audience, and to employ the power of emotion to persuade viewers to act for the greater good.    

     While it certainly seems that there is both a positive and negative side to propaganda, I would argue that it is not as clear-cut as that. This is because the sponsors of the propaganda – the communists in Man With a Movie Camera (1929), the fascists in Triumph of the Will (1935), the First Nations people in Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993), and the sick townspeople in Gasland (2010), all believe that their side is right; they believe that what they are saying is the truth. It just happens to be one version of the truth. Canadians would look at Triumph of the Will (1935) and classify it as negative propaganda, but the fascists at the time would just think of it as spreading their ideas of the truth, what they feel is a realistic representation of how life should be. Vertov certainly believed that his film was about the truth – he was determined to show what he called “Kinopravda” (film-truth) within his documentary, so despite using ‘card stacking’ and other manipulative propaganda techniques, he was genuinely attempting to portray the truth as he believed it (Sunderland, 2011). So perhaps then, propaganda is neither positive not negative, or perhaps it can be a bit of both, depending on who is viewing it and what side they are supporting.

“People often think of propaganda as something negative, as in a con or a lie. But propaganda really doesn’t have anything to do with negative or positive. It’s a technique. In a war, … you use propaganda to encourage your own side. …No matter what you call it, it’s still propaganda, and its purpose is unchanged.”(Donn)

     Whilst propaganda has a negative connotation in western culture, it doesn’t always have to end in disaster or deception for evil means; as shown above, propaganda can be a useful tool for promoting positive change, such as clean drinking water and an awareness of our world and how it works, which will allow for positive growth in the future. Lenin understood the power of the camera’s ability to sway an audience through the language of film, since the majority of the population could not read (Lorefice, 2005). It was, to him, the best way to educate and empower the population in the ways of Communism, and led to leaders recognizing the power of film to influence social and political attitudes; “Of all the arts,” says Lenin, “for us, the cinema is the most important” ("Propaganda and nation," 2011).

     Due to the effectiveness of visual images, music, voice-over and propagandistic technique combined, film was extremely important in getting ideas across back then and will be continue to be important today and in the future. Nothing is exempt from this persuasive form of communication, not even documentary films. Audiences should remain aware that there is not merely one form of truth, and therefore documentaries do require an active viewer who is willing to question what they see with logic and reason, much like any other form of media. Propaganda has evolved to take advantage of so many various techniques and sneaky emotional traps that while it may not be obvious at first, everything has a deeper message to be found. For documentary filmmakers themselves, the trick will be maintaining their “ethics of persuasion,” which include questions of means and ends, deception, truth-telling and integrity within their work (Marlin, 2002). If filmmakers can maintain their integrity and ethics when incorporating propaganda into their work, propaganda and the expectations of the audiences of documentary films can thrive alongside one another successfully for many more years to come.




Alexander, E. (2011). Thoughts on man with a movie camera, russia, communism and propaganda. Cinematic Modernism, Retrieved from movie-camera-russia-communism-propaganda/

Donn, M. (n.d.). Propaganda techniques. Retrieved from

Lorefice, M. (2005). Chelovek s kinoapparatom (the man with a movie camera,  ukraine/soviet - 1929). Raging Bull Movie Reviews, Retrieved from

Marlin, R. (2002). Propaganda and the ethics of persuasion. (pp. 1-326). Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, Ltd.

Oak, M. (2011). Types of propaganda techniques.; Intelligent Life on the Web, Retrieved from

(2011). Propaganda and nation. JRank Film Reference, Retrieved from

(2011). Recognizing propaganda techniques and errors of faulty logic. Cuesta College San Luis Obispo County Community College District Academic Support, Retrieved from

Sunderland, M. (2011). Man with a movie camera. Cinemaroll, Retrieved from

What is propaganda?. Oracle ThinkQuest Education Foundation, Retrieved from


Abigail Bubiak
Abigail Bubiak


Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.