Fact or Fiction? The truth about Documentaries.

December 6, 2018

 

Documentaries are funny things aren't they? Forms of constructed entertainment, with a narrative either written or created by filmmakers in a similar way that one might do for a work of fiction, carefully edited, colour graded and presented for maximum entertainment, just like any other film or television programme you're likely to come across, and yet... everyone seems to just take their information as Gospel. That seems a little bit screwed up, doesn't it?

 

I mean, even David Attenborough deliberately cuts out climate change because viewers might find it "depressing"... think on that one.

 

I remember having a conversation with someone once about films and the way they reflect the society of the time. This person believed that films made absolutely no attempt to appear realistic or reflect the world around them, and they "proved" their point by stating; "they're films, not documentaries".

 

There are a whole heap of flaws with that (I mean, films are literally reflections of the world, by nature of existing in, well, the world, and it's not even hard to see that that's true. You can't look at any blockbuster post-9/11 and not see references to it, while even something as fantastical as Lord of the Rings or Star Wars still have references to things like environmentalism, fascism etc.), but what I want to really focus on is the idea that, for some reason, this person - and many others I have come across both before and since - seem to think that fiction and fact are represented by movies and documentaries.

 

Let's be totally clear here, documentaries aren't fact.

 

I get why people might fall into this trap. A lot of documentaries present themselves as fact. Documentaries are, by nature, documenting something, and often times the thing they're documenting is an event - a piece of history or the work of a single person etc. - and so they're built from a place of truth. But they're still creative works, made by someone with an agenda, however unbiased they try to be.

 

A documentary about how the Earth is flat doesn't mean that the Earth is flat, it's just documenting the theories behind the thinking (crazy thinking, I might add). Those theories exist, so the jumping off point of the documentary is a level of truth, but I could make a documentary about the theory that we're all actually made of cheese string, doesn't mean we're all made of cheese string, does it?

 

I think what this is is a bleed over from the fake news, believe the headline mentality of so many people today. There's an issue conflating a belief with fact, we see it with Brexit ("I believe Brexit will make the UK better off" isn't the same as "Economists predict Brexit will be damaging to the UK economy" because one is someone saying they believe something with no evidence and the other is a direct reference to something real that has actually happened), we see it with the media, we see it all the time.

 

But the fact is documentaries are creative works, designed and built for entertainment purposes. Sometimes those purposes might also align with wanting to educate, but you can't trust the information you're receiving is total truth. That's absurd. And of course you can't, because why would it be? Someone has decided how to present this to you.

 

I'm working on a documentary at the moment that is documenting something I'm pretty sure never actually happened. I'm not making this documentary because I think this is something people need to know or because I think that there's any truth in the subject, I'm making it because I think it will look really cool and it'll be an interesting an entertaining project to both create and to watch.

 

It's really important to understand that when you watch a documentary you're not watching someone tell you the truth, you're watching someone's creative vision, just the same as when you watch a Marvel movie or one of the Friday the 13th's. I mean, murder does actually happen, but I think I'm pretty safe in saying a group of teenagers have never, ever been slaughtered in such a massive number by a machete wielding, hockey mask wearing zombie killer.

 

So, next time you watch a documentary try to remember that it's a work of creative art. I think the world would be a much better place if we all tried to keep that kind of critical thinking in mind.

 

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© Alex Secker 2018