Wednesday, January 20, 2016


I sent a PJ media piece on documentaries around to a small email group, because the article awakened me to the fact that I still trust documentaries in general years after I have left school, for no reason I can explain except inertia.  As the discussion unfolded, I realised that this had weakened over the decades, likely attributable to Michael Moore's work.  I haven't seen more than section of it, but they irritated me in their childishness.  Yet I still think documentaries have some objectivity that other forms lack.  After some back-and-forth my son Ben, who is a filmmaker and has actually seen many of these documentaries over the years, sent this reply.  It is almost entirely unedited. Have fun.  He reads my blog eventually, about every week, so any comments you leave may not be answered immediately.

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 Meetc. We remember the ones we turned on far more than the ones we loved.


james said...

Maybe we remember the "ones we turned on" because lies alarm us?

SJ said...

You know, I remember all the documentaries I heard about, but didn't like.

And then I remember Waiting for Superman. Which talked about problems, but didn't offer easy solutions.

(Amusingly, that is the only documentary I've seen in theater.)

On the broader front, though, even that movie used most of the tricks mentioned in that article.

It used the personal stories of a few people to get the audience to care about the Problem. The poor mother in the big city, who entered her daughter into the drawing for a charter school. The principal of a High School on the West Coast, who talks about how the school system used to be designed to send only the best-and-brightest to college...but now everyone wants to go there.

There was also a short section about a new Superintendent of Schools in DC. That section looked too-simplistic. I'm sure there were more details to that story. But it made a great vignette of The-System-Rejects-The-Reformer.

The director knew he was telling a story, not simply presenting facts. He cleverly intercut sequences from old Superman TV episodes, to make his point that most of the people in the System were...waiting for Superman.

Or at least, waiting for a fix that would swoop in out of the sky.

Sam L. said...

I have seen one documentary that covered something I knew about, had no (NO) narration, and showed things as they happened. I found it straightforward and honest. The film is Missile, by Zipporah Films.

RichardJohnson said...

My attitude towards documentaries is similar to my opinion of TV news. It is easier to give a slanted, incomplete view of things in visual media than in print media. As it is not written down, it is more difficult to go back and investigate than in print media. As it is visual, it takes less intellectual effort to look at TV news or a documentary than to read an article. Perfect propaganda for the LIV.

I turned off documentaries years ago. I recall seeing a doc on the Sandinistas several weeks before their 1979 victory, courtesy of my NYC artist cousin. While I had no love for Somoza, it was obvious that the piece was propaganda for the Sandinistas- which I told my cousin. [Who works in film, BTW.]

I suspect that my skepticism towards using film as a way to assimilate information was affected by having seen Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will and Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin when in college. The ability of film to create convincing propaganda was right there. OTOH, I believe that The Sorrow and the Pity, which I also saw in college, gave a fairly accurate picture of Vichy France.

I never saw a Michael Moore documentary, except for his one on Roger Smith of GM. I did read one of his books where he said that in contrast to those dastardly politicians, Michael Moore was for teachers. In the same book Moore described high school as "totalitarian." That is not exactly supportive of teachers, who have a big hand in creating that "totalitarian" atmosphere. Moore also related how he made life very difficult for his high school principal. Moore also recounted that as a neighbor the principal was kind and helpful, such as providing hot chocolate for hockey playing kids. I'm sure that one can find the same double-speak from Moore in his documentaries. I just prefer analyzing print to analyzing visual stuff.

Retriever said...

I think that many documentaries suffer from the History Channel Effect. So dumbed down that one is more put off by that than bythe obvious axe to grind. It's a bit like listening to a manipulative evangelical preacher hammering on a theme in a sermon. Even if one actually agrees with him or her, even if they are faithful to the text, when they repeat the message, when they use simple minded examples, when they patronise as if the listeners were children, one is put off.

I was trained as a journalist in college, at a self-consciously serious college paper. We idealistically, naively tried to uncover the truth, and to report what was actually happening, whether we liked it or not. We tried to record what people said, NOT trying to discredit this reactionary jerk or that socialist hypocrite or whomever. As a young would-be journalist, my heroes were the muckrakers, and people like Woodward and Bernstein. We thought it tragic that "The Jungle" only affected food laws instead of helping the working poor. But we saw our own job as delivering an account of what we saw and heard so that our readers, most far more intelligent and experienced than we callow youths were, could draw their own conclusions. The excitement came from getting out there, finding the story, bringing it to our readers to see if they were interested (note my nom de plume to this day).

I still think that this is what documentary film makers should be doing. To show respect to their subjects they should take a long time to get to know them, record them, and (insofar as possible, because we are all sinners, all prejudiced, limited, and blind in particular ways) present them to the audience telling their own story for the audience to draw their own conclusions. I wish that documentary film could be the way that young crusaders could change the world. I was struck that when I showed my son (devout but searching for a mission in life) "The Mission", a film that I watched with friends who were Jesuit novices when it first came out, that made a deep impression on us, he liked it. But when I showed him the documentary "Living on One Dollar a Day" about four initially clueless American college students who went to Guatemala and tried to actually live as the people whose lives they were documenting instead of merely being voyeurs, he couldn't be torn away from it. Talked of nothing else all week. The boys were his age, which helped. But the main thing was, it was REAL, and the cultural issues were ones he could relate to, and the questions about who is rich and who is poor, and how do your choices affect others. A wonderful film. I honestly expected to dislike it, expected it to be typical posturing PC idiots, but the kids were honest, likeable, and grew from the experience. And showed respect for the people they were with.

Having said all that, as a mom I have often bullied my recalcitrant males into watching certain grossly propagandistic documentaries when my nagging about healthy eating has had no effect. I remember rejoicing when one particularly revolting film about how hot dogs are made succeeded in putting them off this disgusting food for at least a year.

Christopher B said...

The ultimate measure of bias in journalism isn't how stories are reported. It's what stories are reported.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

CB - also true. There is some recent book or movie about the nefarious Koch Brothers and their desire to influence the American public toward their ideas by using their money. But while the Kochs are not precisely bit players, they are way down the list behind other people's and foundations' money. It would be rather like doing an expose on Olympic skiing and having 75% of the film be about New Hampshire, with special emphasis on Bode Miller's knuckleheaded family. It wouldn't be wrong, precisely but it would likely not illuminate.

Sam L. said...

I saw part of Moore's piece on Roger Smith, turned it off because it turned me off. Supposed to be funny; wasn't for me.