Don’t Tell Me What To Think! (Or Why I Avoid Opinionated Documentaries)

dear-zachary-poster-fullsize.jpgOn the podcast this month, I mentioned I’d seen Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father, a documentary by a friend of a man who had been killed, produced as a ‘letter’ to the victim’s son.

It’s one of the most powerful documentaries I’ve ever seen: the story about the tragedy of a man’s life cut short having a profound emotional impact on me. (In layman’s terms – I cried like a baby)

Interestingly, it also does something I derided The Cove for a few months ago. Namely, it encourages its audience to visit a website and campaign for one of the issues raised over the course of the film.

However, the difference in documentary style means I have no real problem with Dear Zachary‘s invitation, while The Cove‘s revealed that this was not a film in the artistic sense of the medium, but merely a very well made marketing product.

However, The Cove is not the only documentary which has forgone creative integrity in favour of its message. There seems to have been a recent shift to very popular documentary films that do precisely this: Movies with passionate narrators such as Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock or Al Gore.

All of these personalities argue one side of an argument to the viewer, telling them why they should believe something, rather than showing them footage and allowing them to process events in their own minds. As such, while they may work politically, they can’t help but lose something artistically along the way.

Documentary movies should, I believe, show audiences real events and allow those things to speak for themselves as we continually ask questions about our own reactions to what we are seeing.

Perhaps it’s a bit like reading a study guide for Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet rather than going to see the play for yourself. It’s not that the guide may necessarily say anything wrong, it’s just that in not choosing to wrestle with the material at hand, you’re losing out on forming opinions on the characters, story and themes for yourself. And in so doing, prevent the material from actually impacting you and your intellect in a much more profound manner.

Being able to quote someone else’s opinion is one thing. Allowing it to take root, and become part of your own values and morality is quite another.

Opinionated, idealogical documentaries may inspire viewers to research further into the issues at hand – for which I must congratulate them. However, I feel this is despite, rather than because, of their form.

In presenting such a one-sided opinion of the issues they deal with, the viewer to question what they are seeing. Given that most of the documentaries I’ve quoted are made by liberal-minded people, it seems somewhat ironic that these ‘free-thinkers’ are discouraging their viewers from doing precisely that.

Documentaries, and more generally, films have an incredible power to them: The ability to transport us to places and societies we would never otherwise get to see. It’s my opinion that the medium is at its best when it encourages people to have conversations. In merely presenting one side of an argument, documentaries are failing to do what they are supposed to do: document.


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