“I realize that I’m generalizing here, but as is often the case when I generalize, I don’t care.”
People keep asking me what I hate documentaries. Over the years I’ve launched into a few monologues on the subject, hijacked conversations, even barely avoided grabbing my audience by the lapels. Most people take my hatred in stride, but a few seem confused by the vehemence with which I approach the subject. Maybe I’m crazy (okay, that’s not really a ‘maybe’), but I’m not crazy enough to waste my time treating your average documentary as gritty, fair-minded journalism
I’m going to put this down in written form so that, in the future, I can simply refer curious conversationalists here and save myself the trouble of going full rabid social activist amongst nice company.
The fundamental misconception about documentaries is that they are an alternative to conventional forms of journalism, instead of semi-educational narrative propaganda. The great majority of documentaries from across the spectrum are not envisioned or created as alternatives to hard news, and should not be viewed that way. Documentaries are by and large their own breed of entertainment, with their own rules and their own code of professional ethics.
It’s probably useful to think of docs the same way we think of creative non-fiction: vibrant, artistic, emotive, but neither comprehensive nor completely fair to their source material. In trying to tell a story that will capture an audience, the director trims, shortens, shades, and manipulates into a single, digestible narrative. The end product is often ‘truthy’ but not actually truth. The problem is that we as consumers confuse the genre of that end product and expect it to be hard journalism, which it is not.
We forget, I think, that the person who holds the microphone, or the camera, or the pen also controls what we hear, see, and (to a great degree) understand about a given situation. Real journalists understand the responsibility bestowed by this power and do their level best to create balanced coverage, rather than, say, Triumph of the Will. But we no longer live in an age of real journalists, but instead of activists promenading as impartial observers. This trend has transformed written media in the last decade, but it has always been the critical ingredient of documentary.
No offense, but there’s a reason that most of society’s important information is stored in written form. The written word is faster, easier, can be scanned more efficiently, and contains less superfluous information than video. Granted, video makes a far better record of past events precisely because it contains so much information, but it is still limited to a single perspective. We never see what is behind the camera, just as we never see what happened five minutes before the camera was turned on. This is the first of the two major limitations of video.
The second is that people have an even shorter attention span for watching video dialogue than they do in real life conversation. This means that, to hold an audience’s interest, directors have to cut dialogue down to manageable chunks while often discarding the clarifications and nuance essential to the subject’s statement. Video is glorious when people are shouting, screaming, fighting, running. It is ideal for wars and explosions, riots and demonstrations, car crashes and swimsuit competitions. It is not suited for capturing the boring mundane details that are the staples of everyday life, or the nuances in argument that define complicated issues. These things neither thrill, anger, move, nor entertain audiences, which is, after all, the purpose of film.
Documentaries are not primarily meant to inform their audience, but instead to entertain them. This statement contrasts with the stated purpose of many videographers, who claim to be “raising awareness,” or “standing witness,” or “providing a voice,” but it is still the hard logic of the matter. Just as it is difficult to mix advocacy and journalism without creating a perversion of the latter, it is profoundly difficult to make a documentary that has mainstream appeal and remains grounded in reality.
I suspect this is because many directors find their futures tied to the commercial success of their films in a way that few journalists can understand. A writer may create hundreds of articles a year, whereas a filmmaker may put out two to three documentaries in the same timespan. Each of those films is consequently extremely important to the reputation of the creator, as well as to the financial stability of the production company involved. If a few films in a row are not successful at reaching a wide audience, the next one may not get funded and the filmmaker may drop off the face of the map. A conventional journalist employed at a conventional news organization does not live or die by the popularity of his product in the same manner.
This pressure motivates the filmmaker to tell a story; a story that has to borrow from the tropes of Hollywood in order to compete with its silver-screen rivals. The local newspaper never competes with Fifty Shades of Gray the way that most documentaries are required to compete with superhero movies or revenge thrillers (all three are categories on Netflix after all). The pressure is intense and the rules of engagement are non-existent. It was in this fiery cauldron that Michael Moore was baptized into infamy, and his extreme example has been imitated to greater or lesser degrees ever since.
Most people prefer stories with clear heroes and villains, and documentaries often attempt to portray those narratives through cut-editing and selective quotations. Most people prefer to be shocked, awed, or outraged, rather than informed, and documentaries are made or sunk by their ability to elicit these emotions. Some do a better job than others at informing as well, but it is usually a secondary consideration to the doc’s ability to entertain.
In summary, the director of a documentary knows we don’t really want the truth. What we really want in a documentary is a fantastic story to tell our friends over coffee, and a slight, therepeutic moral twinge as we consider the plight of the Eurasian pigmy dolphin or child soldiers or rainforests or women trapeze artists or Africa.
If people would treat documentaries as conversation-starters, or pieces of art, I would have much less hatred in my soul for the medium. That’s really what they began as, and I’m not sure where in the annals of history they were corrupted into substitutes for actual journalism. Try to think of documentaries not as journalism, but as beautiful pretty things to laugh at and cry over, to help you explore exotic locales and vicariously sample alien careers and hobbies. Think of them as baubles to make you more ‘world-aware,’ to provide fodder for the water-cooler, and perhaps a few philosophical questions late at night.
But remember that the camera always lies, that the ‘beautiful pretty thing’ is probably zirconium, and that if you quote a doc in my general vicinity, you better not have any lapels for me to latch on to.