When we watch a documentary film I imagine most of us suppose it to be portraying factual information, not fiction. That, after all, is what would differentiate a documentary from other genres like drama or entertainment.
With this assumption in mind I have often wondered how broadcasters, filmmakers, festivals and prizegivers could be screening and celebrating ‘documentaries’ that purvey demonstrable untruths.
As luck would have it, with the International Film Festival being in town here in Edinburgh just now, I was able to get my answer from an industry expert.
It goes like this. When a company/organisation is pitched a documentary they don’t see it as their business to be acting as arbiters of truth. If the thing has good production values and they believe the public would have a real interest in seeing it, then they’ll consider it eligible for support. My expert gave an example: we can suppose that there are scores of biographies of a famous figure like President Kennedy, and that each one has a particular take on its subject; we can readily imagine that the different authors may consider others to be plain wrong in various particulars. These disagreements wouldn’t be the business of someone commissioning or showing the film to pronounce on.
So, I asked, more pointedly, what about a film that portrays a bunch of mercenary terrorists as humanitarian heroes and thereby completely misrepresents the truth about them to the public? Well, she thought for a bit about this. Probably, she reflected, it could be appropriate to make clear when a documentary was offering one perspective on a situation that other people may have alternative perspectives on. She seemed to allow that this kind of acknowledgement would probably not need to be particularly overt or conspicuous. In other words, even if those involved in promoting the film know it to be controversial in some quarters, that is not a fact to be flagged as a warning. Indeed, it might well be used as an extra dash of spice in the promotion material.
The conversation left me somewhat enlightened and morewhat depressed. I think of how sometimes a documentary is presented to the public as providing a compelling dossier of evidence in support of a case for or against this or that hero or villain. People are led to believe the case has been made. Yet, in reality, they have been deceived.
So the organisations that want to use documentaries for deceptive ends can get away with it. I am therefore sure they’ll carry on getting their Oscars and their Amnesty Media Awards so long as their story chimes with the interests of the sponsors.
Meanwhile, the rest of us will just have to work that bit harder to disseminate more honest understandings of what is really going on behind the screens.