Posted in Uncategorized by Vikram on September 28, 2012

It’s doubtful that anyone would postulate that a word could be more powerful than an image of similar connotation, at least emotionally.  Were I to show you a picture of a child dying, it would almost certainly provoke a stronger emotional reaction to you than if I handed you a piece of paper that said “200 children died of starvation in Eritrea today”.

This conception of human reactivity is the basis for the documentary genre of film.  In it, images are substituted for words, facts, and context.  Individual, “human interest” stories are positioned such that they are representative of a whole, whether this whole is an ethnic group, a illness, an idea, a type of person at a time and place, or almost anything else.  Images of majestic beauty or unparalleled destruction are paired with dramatic music to create an emotional context of the director’s choice.

In other words, a documentary adds nothing of substantive value to a discourse.  Certainly, they provoke the viewer by eliciting an emotional response to carefully constructed stimuli, but this elicitation cannot be considered a valued component of meaningful discourse.

For example, “Did you see those images of the destruction that that open pit mine caused?” is not an argument against said mine.  It is immaterial, as any image can be construed to create nearly any argument.  What would be material in an argument against the mine is “that mine caused the death of 500 coniferous trees leading to the reduction of animal habitat, greenspace and 3 different species of squirrel.”

“So?” you might say, “Get off your high horse! Documentaries aren’t about providing a categorical discourse on a subject, they exist to elucidate an issue, and make people think about it!”

And that’s great, but I would suggest that the problem isn’t with documentaries; it’s a problem with how we desire how we should learn.  That is to say, we learn for the wrong reasons.  We learn through documentaries as a byproduct of being entertained or being taken on an emotional roller coaster ride.  The problem with this is twofold.

Firstly, as stated, education can be heavily biased, and nearly always vastly incomplete if it is relying on a narrative that seeks to entertain, rather than provide a complete discourse on the subject at hand.  This is an improper basis from which to enter a discourse.  This is of course presuming that the viewer just acts on their initial reaction, and does not actually continue to learn about the subject at hand from unbiased sources.  Still, the viewer would begin this search with a initially biased viewpoint, and be predisposed to judge factual information selectively.

Secondly, having invested emotionally heavily within a documentary, the viewer is not of sound mind to carefully examine the truthfulness or accuracy of statements and points of view.  Instead, the viewer merely reacts, their rationale clouded with emotion.

Perhaps I am generalizing here.  Some documentaries are much more sensational than others.  Others provide little in the way of overt agendas, and merely provide footage and information from subjects presented in an objective manner (though some would argue that this “no-agenda” format is impossible as all documentaries have agendas, whether directors are aware of them or not, and in fact, that the more subtle agendas are the more dangerous).  Whatever the case, the problems I highlighted above are obviously more egregious in some documentaries than others.  And indeed, there are times when documentaries can be useful, such as for the following reasons:

  • Difficult to grasp events or distinctions.  For example, how does a mudslide move differently that an avalanche?
  • Complex relationships requiring graphs, charts or diagrams.
  • Light, informative documents that do not revolve around an issue in the public discourse (e.g. a documentary about life in Thailand)

So, my thesis here is not so much that documentaries are harmful as it is that we have to re-establish how discourse and education are sought by individuals.  If we seek to be entertained, then we should be entertained.  If we seek to educated, then we should be educated.  Ideally, the two should not mix, especially when entering substantive, informed debates.  Entertainment and emotion are reaction, not a byproduct of considered, rational thought.  Indeed, the worst in humankind is evident in the rhetoric of zealots worldwide who base their fundamental beliefs on reaction stemming from an assortment of emotions or narratives constructed by the media or innumerable sectarian organizations.


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