In praise of documentaries

If, like me, you are a fan of the documentary format, then you really are spoilt for choice. The BBC, HBO, PBS AND YouTube are such wonderful sources of the genre. Looking online, I found these rather unsatisfactory definitions of documentary:

A film or television or radio programme that provides a factual report on a particular subject. Oxford

A movie or television program that tells the facts about actual people and events. Merriam Webster

According to the latter definition, David Attenborough hasn’t been making documentaries for over half a century. And does the use of words like facts and factual really apply to Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, Michael Moore’s entire oeuvre or indeed Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation Kazakhstan?

While it is true that if you look at the biggest-grossing films of the last twenty years, you will not find any documentaries, they have become increasingly successful at the box office. Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine, March of the Penguins, An Inconvenient Truth and Super Size Me have all enjoyed some success.

Documentaries have come in for a number of criticisms. The most damaging are those about their relationship with the truth. There have been famous cases of manipulation and staging. In nature documentaries Close-up shots may actually be of zoo animals, or rented animals in a pen. IN 2011 it emerged that BBC’s Frozen Planet had included footage of a captive polar bear cub at a Holland zoo. What must surely be the most notorious incident occurred in Disney’s 1958 White Wilderness, which was given an Oscar. They bough some lemming for 25 cents each and forced them to jump. The camera angles cleverly covered up any involvement by the filmmakers. Not content with that, they also pushed a polar bear down a steep snow-covered hillside in order to get a few laughs.

There is also the question of bias. I find the films a bit too much, although there are some memorable scenes. Who can forget him being offered a gun for opening a bank account in Bowling for Columbine? The Netflix true crime docuseries, Making a Murderer is said to have left out important incriminating evidence against Steven Avery out. In this sense I like Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans, a controversial documentary about Arnold and Jesse Friedman, father and son, who were accused of child molestation during the 1980s. Although Jarecki believed that the two were innocent, he chose to present the material in an objective manner.

Another common criticism is that of dumbing down. It’s a difficult line between popularising and vulgarising. There are times when I feel a bit patronised. For example if you watch Discovery, which I am not wont to do, they spend most of the time telling you telling you you’ve just seen or what’s coming up next. It is very irritating. And if you have only one hour, it is difficult to avoid oversimplification. These days sprawling series like Jacob Brownoski’s Ascent of Man or Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation seem to be less prevalent. Nevertheless for the discerning viewer I think there are excellent documentary series. And, thanks to YouTube, many classic can be seen online.

I know there are some wonderful nature documentaries, but I have to say that I am more drawn to the ones involving humans. I do have some favourites. Ken Burns makes some spectacular programmes. He does not cater for the short attention span. His biographies of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mark Twain really bring their subjects to life. And his three-part history of prohibition illuminates the madness of the short-lived eighteenth amendment. Then we have Adam Curtis. His documentaries include The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares, The Trap, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace and Bitter Lake. I have just seen his latest, HyperNormalisation, which is about “how we got to this strange time of great uncertainty and confusion where those who are supposed to be in power are paralysed and have no idea what to do”.  I love the way he gets you to engage with some off-the-wall ideas and I don’t where he finds the archive footage, but he is a singular talent. I could have mentioned Louis Theroux or the BBC’s wonderful Storyville series. There is just so much great stuff out there.

One thing I have realised while doing this post is the documentaries that I haven’t seen. These include Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line or a number of Ken Burns works. Luckily, I have You Tube, although I’m not sure where I’ll be able to find the time. I will finish with a list of my favourites. Here they are in alphabetical order:

Capturing the Friedmans



Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Making of a Murderer

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

Tales of the Grim Sleeper

The Century of the Self

The Jinx

Waltz with Bashir

When We Were Kings



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