Documentary Disconnect (Pt. 1)

Evidently, I’m failing as a film student. PBS released a list of the 100 greatest documentaries of all time voted by readers and I have only seen 16. No need to rub your eyes — yes, that says sixteen. Mind you, I’ve seen over 90 of AFI’s Greatest Films list and there are many documentaries not included in PBS’ list, so I’m not dropping out of my program at school entirely.

This list caused me to ponder my general resistance to documentary filmmaking. I will openly admit: I have issues with documentaries. I have dug to the core of my reasoning to uncover two basic elements of my indifference. Please note, I have blogged in the past about documentary-style filmmaking and programming … and I believe I was honest in my evaluation of these pieces (such as those featured in the PBS Film Festival). The following assessment is merely a testament of why I haven’t scurried to see Food, Inc. (2008) just yet. 

1.) Construction of “Reality”

Take a look at the word “document” at the root of documentary. If I am holding a document in my hand, I feel as though there is evidence or tangible proof to rely on. Such is the case of documentaries, each scene is composed of evidential proof that someone, somewhere, said something. Documents can be altered — ever heard of WhiteOut? Nifty tool. As with documentaries and all filmic representations, editing is at the core to provoke thought and convey a deeper message. I’m not trying to say documentaries are dangerous… March of the Penguins (2005) isn’t really on the top of my list to look out for a political agenda, but I do feel documentaries can be weapons of propaganda (Triumph of the Will made the PBS list, by the way). Documentaries are constructions of “reality.” Scenes, shots, mise en scene, and cinematography can all be skewed to communicate a message. Maybe I don’t want to face “reality”, or maybe I have a fear of “reality”, but in the end, I don’t like someone telling me how to feel about “reality.”

2.) Penchant for Escapism

Mainstream Hollywood cinema has propaganda, too. However, I feel its “based on a true story” disclaimer is my warning to proceed with little caution because it’s fiction! I have a penchant for escapism in my heart. Sitting down with my popcorn and fountain drink is the cue for my brain to shut off and get lost in the narrative of the film. As a film student, this is the hardest part for me to ignore because I constantly have to confront the underlying meaning of films. This is why I watch The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) late at night to allow my inherent film watching habits to emerge — though I did find myself thinking about Bertolt Brecht a few times too many. Documentaries, to me, are a bombardment of information which requires me to think. So, essentially, the whole indifference is owed to personal preference of escapism.

In my next blog, I will be talking about a couple of the films featured on PBS’ list of documentaries that I have seen. I will try to resist using both Bob Dylan documentaries, but I’m not making any promises… there are only 16 films for me to choose from.


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