Documentaries love them or hate them; they are everywhere and often being discussed. Especially within the last year or so, Netflix seems to be releasing documentaries like there's no tomorrow. Even if you avoid watching them, you can’t avoid the conversations about them. For a long-time documentary fan this is great, and I often avidly await the release of the latest one people are getting excited for. However, whilst often great educational sources and entertaining, they are not without their issues. It would be great to say that you can absorb and relay the information from these films without any further thought, however if this was the case, we wouldn’t see every newspaper doing “fact checking” articles on the most recent releases. Therefore, in a slightly different style of article from the last two, I want to discuss documentaries, the information they present, the difficulties with them, and my approach to consuming them.
First off, this article really only addresses a certain type of documentary. There isn’t much to debate with those that simply show off wonders of the world like the films featuring David Attenborough. These documentaries simply showcase amazing photography and allow the public a glimpse at the natural world. However, when documentaries are centred around more complex and potentially controversial issues, such as health, ethics, sustainability, and political situations, how they are presented and how you approach the information becomes a little more nuanced.
The problems often stem from the fact that the documentary makers will always have a stance that they want to push whilst also attempting to make something entertaining/engaging. It is difficult for a 1.5-hour film to delve into the complexities of health science or sustainability without becoming a lecture. Instead it is much easier to present one side of an argument in a dramatised and perhaps embellished manner. Therefore, to raise certain issues and bring these topics to the public, documentaries take a hard stance and make a shocking/emotional film. This often results in the film being called controversial and every newspaper starts releasing articles "fact checking" the film (ironically many of these newspapers need fact checking themselves on a daily basis). I may reference SeaSpiracy throughout as it is a recent documentary that has hit mainstream news because of potential controversy around the information presented (however this isn't a review or a critique of that film).
There are pros and cons to this dramatised style of documentary. On the one hand, they are successful in bringing light to important issues and gain media attention. With Seaspiracy for example, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the majority of people didn't know that by-catch is one of the main causes of shark deaths. People don't hesitate to sign petitions against killing sharks for fin soup yet are unaware that commercial fishing is responsible for killing sharks. Therefore, the film successfully brought this to the publics attention with shocking footage and facts, got people talking about the issue, and potentially thinking about how they can help.
On the other hand, it is definitely fair to say that often these documentaries present the more extreme side of the statistics to push their narrative. The makers will most likely have an agenda that they are wanting to push and persuade people of and therefore are likely to embellish and cherry pick information to ensure that their side of the issue is emphasised. This can easily lead to confusion and misunderstanding of a topic. It is rare for complex issues to be cut and dry and the cherry picked information rarely reflects the breadth of an issue.
Documentaries also impact individuals differently depending on whether or not they already have an opinion/stance on the topic. People enjoy watching things that reaffirm their beliefs. I am no exception, I avidly awaited the release of Seaspiracy and as someone who is passionate about sustainability, climate change and ethics, I knew that the film would align with a lot of my thoughts. This is not necessarily a good thing because whilst I enjoy the films, it is easy to sometimes overlook inaccuracies or issues and even get defensive when the documentary is challenged. Yet it is crucial that we are able to take a step back regardless of whether you agree or disagree with a documentary and analyse it critically.
Alternatively, if a person is neutral on a topic and someone or a film presents information in an enthusiastic manner, it can be quite easy to persuade people. This is where the embellishment of facts in documentaries can be troublesome. As mentioned, films emphasise and dramatise issues to ensure engagement. There is both a responsibility on the film makers to present honest information but also responsibility on the viewers not to take everything they say as gospel. However, it isn't necessarily fair to assume that everyone is as invested in the topic or has the time to delve into fact checking and primary research. If anything, googling can make things more confusing as the aforementioned newspapers can be just as loose with facts. Yet if the documentaries presented the nuanced debate or stats, the general public would likely not watch the film. It is a delicate balance and not one that is easy to get right.
Therefore, here is how I think documentaries should be approached. In Seaspiracy's case, filming the scale of the industrial fishing industry, the ethical considerations surrounding fish consumption, and the environmental damage is useful for bringing these issues to the public light. Additionally, showcasing the important work of organisations such as Sea Shepherd gives them great publicity and again brings them into the mainstream. However, I think that often the statistics and numbers presented shouldn't be taken as set in stone. Also, it is worth noting that snippets of interviews presented in documentaries don't always reflect the entire conversation and can very easily be manipulated or edited to fit the films narrative. Again, using Seaspiracy as an example, the conversation regarding dolphin safe tuna accreditation highlights the difficulties of enforcing regulations. However, the film does also make various NGOs look incompetent or as if they deliberately avoid important issues. Yet, it makes sense for a lot of charities to focus on things such as plastic straws and plastic cups because these are small changes that the general public can easily do whereas convincing everyone to stop eating fish and combat industrial fishing waste is a much larger and longer term goal. These long-term goals should certainly feature on their websites and be discussed, however it isn't difficult to understand why they don't always focus on them. It is easy to leave these documentaries with a very negative view of organisations that don’t necessarily deserve it. Whilst many may not be getting everything 100% right, it does them an injustice to paint them as an enemy, when often they do a lot of good.
It is certainly good to enjoy documentaries and watch them as a way familiarise yourself with current issues, however it is important to take some the presented "facts" with a pinch of salt. It is important not to consider yourself well-versed in a topic after watching one documentary made by people who already have a firm stance. If the documentary succeeds in igniting interest and passion for a subject, then further reading from both sides of an argument is needed. The documentary should act as a starting point not as the main source of someone’s education. And just to clarify, this is not an attack on Seaspiracy, I enjoyed the documentary and do believe it is an important film to watch, I just don’t want people to assume that because it is recommended to them that they should believe every word presented. It has many good points but also tends to embellish facts, paint NGOs in a bad light, and perhaps focus too heavily on the makers agenda rather than the complexity of the issues. It was mainly chosen as an example due to its recent release and media attention.
If you have made it this far, thank you! It has definitely been quite a ramble-heavy post and different from the previous ones. It is not a topic on which I can draw a hard conclusion. These documentaries on important issues are a double-edged sword. They bring these issues into the public eye, gain media attention and get people talking/thinking. However, the embellishments of facts or inaccuracies often present as a result of making an engaging and entertaining film over a 100% accurate account of a situation can lead to misunderstandings. I hope you have found this interesting, and I would be very curious to know people's views on these types of documentaries and how you approach them. Do you just enjoy them from a film perspective, or do they send you down a fact checking rabbit hole?
As always, I welcome any feedback and don't forget to find me on social media:
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