There’s a good piece in the New Yorker. I think I wouldn’t go as far as the writer on some of these statements, but agree strongly that viewers are taking away the wrong idea: they’re not worried about fixing a broken system, they’re worried about the two individuals in the documentary.
I think that mindset is fairly understandable. When a documentary humanizes someone like this, it’s easy to become attached. Steven Avery is not a particularly likable individual, but he’s there, on screen, clearly a human person. You see what the police see when they look at him and his family, you see the class warfare that’s apparent just from everyone’s interviews. It’s a poor white family, who are the wrong sort of people.
The question is, what responsibility do documentarians have to create a broader perspective? Wouldn’t we feel played if they jumped to big picture statements that “this is happening all the time” and “the system has to be scrapped and rebuilt”? Some major societal changes have come from small scale investigations that put bigger issues into the public eye: Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” was supposed to be a study of the exploitation of immigrants, but it led to changes in health protocol nationwide. Nellie Bly’s piece about living in a mental institution led to massive changes in the legal system. But the expansion of “this is something that is happening right here, in front of my eyes” to “this is a national issue that must be addressed” was done by the readers, not the authors.
I think documentaries are probably more discussed than other pieces that cause societal debate, because they remain in the national consciousness much longer. An article that gets linked to on everyone’s page makes its effect, by the time a response is written, everyone’s already forgotten about it, and whatever damage it was going to do is damage done. This is the strategy currently being employed by our political candidates - Trump, and to a lesser extent Cruz, continue to drop dramatic statements and incendiary remarks at every opportunity. The backlash is immediate. But by the time the media gets around to having response pieces by cooler-headed experts, the campaigns have already moved on to other things.
Contrast that with say, the response to the Kony 2012 video. The video exploded, was met with extremely positive feedback, and led to a lot of national debate on the subjects. Then the video was picked apart in ways both fair and unfair. But once the tide turned, it stayed turned. Commentary snidely dismissing the video was everywhere. Being anti-Kony 2012 became the new “hey, have you seen Kony 2012? We don’t care enough about what’s happening in central Africa!” To side with the filmmakers in any way was considered passé. It somehow gave not caring about something the moral high ground, because we are responsive far more than we are rational. No wonder poor Jason Russell had a mental break. I probably would have, too.
I feel like we, as a society, can’t hold two different thoughts in our head. Either trying to catch Joseph Kony was good, and people who didn’t care about it are bad, or else trying to catch Kony was bad, and people who thought we should catch him were simpleminded. By the time the Kony 2012 “Cover The Night” event happened - only a month and a half later! - the movement was dead and buried. But people didn’t develop a nuanced understanding of the situation, they only developed the sense that one should have a nuanced understanding of the situation.
I thought that was one of the things that dragged the first season of Serial down, towards the end. Sarah Koenig and her producers started by breaking down a case and discussing the limits of memory, and the way remembering something wrongly can have ripple effects. But when the series caught fire, she had to respond to the firehose stream of debate about the series. By the end of the season, the conversation was so strongly “do you think Adnad did it, Y/N?” that Koenig’s focus shifted, until it ended up entirely on that subject as well. Since she didn’t have an answer to that question other than “I still have doubts - and not just the 'reasonable doubt’ kind, real doubts,” the series sputtered out. The defining argument from the series became whether or not a Best Buy in Baltimore had ever had pay phones or not.
This is what documentaries do in modern society - they spark a conversation, but in the end, it seems we need to pick sides and dismiss the other side’s arguments out of hand, even though before we interacted with the subject we were on neither side and were perfectly happy be there. The documentary films we remember most are the ones that we utterly dismiss: Bowling For Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, Food Inc., Super Size Me, etc. We remember the ones we turned on far more than the ones we loved.