Monday, 22 September 2008

I love documentaries

I love documentaries. Like a million other people, I have a lot to thank them for. So let me just say again, I love documentaries.

Growing up, Thursday nights were always a treat. That's when my mother did the weekly shopping and we were allowed a can of fizzy drink with our tea (evening meal, for those unfamiliar with the colloquial). Cool. But even more importantly, it was a terrific night on the telly. Tomorrow's World followed by Top of the Pops. These science and music (respectively) programmes represented all three of the BBC's holy trinity. They informed, educated and entertained me. I loved them and watched religiously for around 10-15 years.

Having thought about it, and speaking generally, I have been informed, educated and entertained by TV and radio for as long as I can remember. I've also been appalled, infuriated and disgusted (the BBC's alter mission statement) but being blunt, the majority of what I know comes from television. More than school, parents, newspapers, books and probably university.

I'd prefer to have gained my understanding of the world through the orthodox study of art, music, literature and science - in fact, television may've prevented me from doing this - but the truth is, most of what I know comes from TV. I chip into conversations with sentences that begin, "Yeah, I saw this programme once, right, and that said..." I don't often say the same about books.

So, yes. Broadcasting has had an enormous impact on my brain. And in terms of being educated by it, this is primarily through documentaries.

I've just made a documentary. I'm very proud of it. It's called My DDR T-Shirt. Although it's not an exemplary piece of filmmaking, I did adhere to some basic documentary principles. Essentially, I wanted to be fair - fair to the interviewees, fair to the subject and now that I am selling a few copies of the DVD, I want to be fair to the audience. In a way, I was lucky. I had no financiers to keep happy and no TV slot fill. I could make my film according to my whim. I was accountable only to myself and the self-imposed principles of fairness.

In these multi-channel days, making documentaries has become more complicated - and they are suffering. Really suffering. They've lost confidence in themselves and the audience and resort to intelligence-insulting mechanisms to keep us tuned in.

Let me explain...

Keep flicking through your TV channels until you find a documentary. Let's say you find one about a construction team and they're building an enormous bridge. The construction process - the organisation, the co-ordination of skills and specialist hardware - could be interesting. However, this potentially 30 minute programme is more likely to be 50 minutes long and broken into 4 parts (at least) for commercial breaks. And in the countdown to a commercial break, there'll be all kinds of tantalising clips of what's to follow. And more often than not there'll be a cliff hanger.

I think cliff hangers originate from the weekly cinema dramas of the early days - the Saturday matinées, the westerns, the Flash Gordons etc. At the end of the episode, the hero is dangling from a cliff and the audience have to 'come back next week' to find out what happens. It's just mechanism of the entertainment industry and as old as cinema itself. There's a certain commercial need for cliff hangers. I'm not unrealistic and I don't mind them being used for dramas, Flash Gordon or Westerns. I just have a problem with use in documentaries.

Documentaries are supposed to be about education. I want to learn something. I don't want to see edited grimaces of the bridge construction manager as the narrator dramatises the risk of a twisted cable. "If this cable gives way, the 1000 ton bridge segment could fall and trigger a deadly chain reaction."

It's the fear of the flick. The programme makers tailor their half-interesting product to half-interested channel-hoppers. It's an admission that their programme isn't good enough to keep people tuned in. It's a dishonesty and, if not a lie, a gross exaggeration. And before we get sniffy about the output of obscure satellite and digital channels, these techniques have become standard for many.

Award-winning journalist and respected filmmaker Jon Ronson recently made Reverend Death, a documentary about an American reverend who assisted suicide. It was a good subject, the reverend was an interesting character, Ronson went to a lot of trouble to get to know him and it was screened on the UK's Channel 4. As each commercial break loomed, the last minute of the programme became a trailer for the sections to come. We saw edited clips that appear to show the plot thickening. By the time the previewed section arrives, you've already seen the footage several times - and what's more, you realise that the clip isn't quite as intriguing as you were invited to think. Channel 4's '9/11 Faker' is another example.

It's dishonest. It's trickery. It hides a lack substance and it degrades the programme.

As a regular documentary watcher, I only used to worry about what angle the narrator was coming from. Was the programme maker twisting the issue? Was he or she editing the footage to make a point? Were the interviewees credible? Is there a political agenda? All these things are still important, but now, they're secondary to whether the programme is what it claims to be. Is the filmmaker prodding my inquisitive nature to keep me tuned in? Does the filmmaker have anything to tell me or am I being exploited?

All this amounts to a crisis for me. Trusting a filmmaker has always required care but doubting the documentary as a medium, as a source of information, as a way to learn, is new. And it makes me very, very sad.

So look out next time you're watching telly. Do you end the programme with a sense of having learned something? Or do you have a sense, like I increasingly do, that you've been ever so slightly conned?

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