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FACT: Documentary Doesn’t Mean Fact, Anymore.

How have documentaries evolved from transparent to opaque and how does that effect society?

WAKE UP! Documentary doesn’t necessarily equal facts, at least not anymore. Welcome to the era where documentaries are beginning to dominate as the public’s source of news, information and thought. A recent study found only 6% of Americans feel they have a “great deal of trust in the press.” So with the combination of our lack of trust in news, documentary cinematic and emotional appeal and streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix – documentaries and their views have sky rocketed and drastically evolved over the last two decades.

Documentaries are reaching audiences never before seen. They’re shaping culture and society and now have the power to influence people to change their vote, donate to that cause, consider that person innocent, consider that other person guilty, boycott animal products, boycott this company and aid in propaganda for another. I mean, the list goes on. Point being: documentaries are POWERFUL and shape society far more than research, academia and society itself has fully come to understand or explore.

The Future of High Quality Documentaries Reaching a World Audience

What’s grinding my gears in all this, is the general public’s lack of acknowledgment that a documentary is, point blank, someone’s perception. Again, documentaries are someone’s subjective perception. Even more important, documentaries are someone’s subjective perception that’s created with the intention of reaching a goal. A goal that requires a lot of funding, a crew that costs money and a streaming service that wants a piece of the pie as well. All in all, the goals or intent generally being making money and leaving an audience with a lasting impression.

Consider this: What’s the goal of reality tv? Make money and entertain, maybe even influence, people. What’s the goal of a major motion-picture? Make money and entertain people, maybe even influence, people.

Let’s consider major common developmental aspects of documentaries, reality tv and major motion-pictures. Creating these films all require similar resources, albeit maybe to different extents. They all require a director, producer, editor, camera operator, lighting director, marketing and an executed launch for success. Whether it’s for fiction or nonfiction all require a skillful set of people to create the end product. All these aspects creating a product that isn’t as spontaneous as we’ve foolishly thought.

Documentaries aren’t that far off from reality tv – they’re highly manipulated. Documentaries still require a script, an editor and interviews that are generally aimed at providing more evidence to whatever theme the documentary is focused on achieving. Natural assumptions about the simplistic nature of a documentary – such as chronology can no longer be taken as what seems common sense. As a viewer, you can no longer assume chronology in documentaries.

Other less obvious tools of manipulations include; reenactments, high quality cinematography, stylized lighting, over composure all intended to help cultivate the desired, meaningful and emotional experience for their audience and holy shit – they’re good at it.

“The Innocent Man” on Netflix combines reenactments, quality cinematography and music to create the ultimate experience for the viewer.

For example, take “The Jinx” from HBO where film makers exploited and recorded Robert Durst into what appeared to be like a confession in the finale. Durst was consequently arrested the day after the release of the finale doc series and this left the journalistic community sick because it was ethically a wrong relationship for a journalist and a subject.

The Queasy Finale of “The Jinx”

What’s concerning about all this, is how drastic documentaries reaches are becoming with profound effects and little to no rhetoric on the ethics behind it and most certainly, little to no regulation on it regardless of the increasing use as docs as a source of news.

There’s no committee or agency that regulates the authentic of claims made. There’s no rigorous peer editing that without sufficient support would render the doc unprofessional such as in academia. Nor is there any requirement to cite their sources which blurs the lines of reporting of “facts” and conveys bias.

It is true that documentary is not journalism, so maybe it shouldn’t be held to the same ethical standards as that of journalism but I argue that documentary is capturing society so quickly because it encompasses creativity and expression in a way that journalism cannot which is why we see a lot of journalists work as documentarians as well. Because of the artistic nature of documentaries, I don’t argue that it’s all up to filmmakers to change the course in the assumption of docs as reality.

As Lisa Leeman argues “we filmmakers have some reckoning to do, regarding our ‘contract’ with the audiences,” and I do believe filmmakers need to be held to a higher standard if creating products for an audience operating under the assumption as, “nonfiction.” Doc filmmakers are now teetering on the idea of annotating their documentaries such as Penny Lane has in NUTS!”  This is hopefully setting a precedent that citing docs you want to be deemed fully non-fiction and transparent will have to go but it also runs the risk of taking away the opportunity and unique niche documentaries fill for us – an emotional and enlightening experience. 

Nonfiction filmmaker Penny Lane

However, my frustration is also with the audience. I can’t help but think that is not fully the filmmakers responsibility. Since when, as a society, have we allowed ourselves to become such mindless sheep to the influence of an opinion? A perception? A obviously cultivated and designed medium to elicit a specific response from the viewer (us)? 

If we’re at a historic low on the public’s trust in media, then why is that so many people put so much blind trust into documentaries? Perhaps, from a lack of understanding of the mechanisms behind documentaries combined with the lack of trust in other news forms of media/press has resulted in the rise in acceptance of documentaries as a better way to receive their news. Or perhaps, because they’re more in line with their perceptions so they’re easier to relate to along with a cinematic appeal. 

We’re so quick to jump down the throats of anyone who mindlessly follows or believes a comment Trump made without fact checking. Yet we’ve crossed into complete hypocrisy because if we watch a cinematic documentary with a viewpoint that aligns similar to our perceptions and beliefs we deem it to be the absolute truth. Further, will use that medium to base further beliefs, shame, discredit and even legal prosecutions on.

Robert Durst appears in criminal court after being arrested the day after “The Jinx” finale aired.

I don’t think it takes a journalism degree to realize and accept that media is the ULTIMATE influencer and it creeps into all aspects of our lives quietly shaping us with or without our knowledge. The key here is to understand that media does have a goal, media does cost money to produce and in order to spend money to create media – media must reach its’ goal and that goal – is to influence you. 

So please, next time you watch a documentary on Netflix, Hulu or whatever streaming service you chose – do yourself and our culture a favor and fact check it before you deem it the truth. 

To learn more about ethics and documentaries check out the study “Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work”

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