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The Inconvenient Truth About Documentaries

One of my favorite TV shows is How It's Made on the Science Channel. No actors. No plots. No game-show contestants. Episodes jump from one manufacturing plant to another while rapt viewers see, well, how things are made: pinball machines, saddles, packing peanuts … you name it. It's strangely mesmerizing and about as close as I can get to watching an honest-to-goodness documentary these days.

Merriam-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary includes the word objective in its definition of documentary, implying that a documentary should be fair, reasonable and dispassionate. But ever since Michael Moore fired a broadside at General Motors with his 1989 film Roger & Me, few documentary filmmakers have even claimed to be objective. They are advocates, not journalists. They want to show us a world fraught with danger, from broken healthcare (Sicko) and global warming (An Inconvenient Truth, Arctic Tale) to artery-clogging fast food (Super Size Me). And despite making valid arguments in defense of creation science, Ben Stein's Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed clearly takes sides in the debate over Intelligent Design.

Is that all bad? Not really, unless we make the mistake of accepting these docs as objective journalism. They're more like issues-based reality shows. They tell compelling, important stories. Still, some have a point of view that, left unaccounted for, can also twist and mislead viewers … especially our kids.

Therefore, with documentaries more popular than ever, we should teach children a few tricks of the trade:

Interviews - Cast a critical eye on both the questions and the people being interviewed. Are the questions fair? Are the interviewees qualified experts? In comedian Bill Maher's film Religulous (more a profane tantrum against religion than a serious documentary) Maher talks with lots of people, from a guy who plays Jesus at a Florida theme park, to someone who claims to be Christ incarnate. But he avoids interviewing prominent clergy, scholars and apologists, concentrating on laymen from the religious fringe chosen to reinforce negative stereotypes.

Also, take a moment to study how folks are interviewed. Moore has popularized the "ambush interview," where a prepped filmmaker peppers an unsuspecting subject with questions, sometimes literally chasing him down the street. Compelling cinema? Yes. Fair? No.

Editing - A documentary's power is enhanced during the editing process. Subjects can come off smelling like a rose or stinking like a feedlot, and audiences have no idea what was left out. Does the film include an interviewee's best bits or worst? Did the original discussion last 10 minutes or an hour? Are the remarks in context? Was a pregnant pause spliced in for effect? We have to wonder.

Video clips - When Religulous includes clips from a 1950s-era religious epic, it's suggesting that Christianity is hokey and dated. When it uses a scene from a Bible-based cartoon, it's implying that such stories are childish. And when it juxtaposes verses from the Bible and Quran with images of violence, warfare and a mushroom cloud—well, the inference is pretty clear. Images are powerful teachers. What are they teaching?

The facts - Cinematic flourishes won't mean much if a film doesn't have some statistics to support its premise. But stats can mislead, and many documentarians cherry-pick their facts. When Morgan Spurlock gained nearly 25 pounds eating a month's worth of McDonald's food in Super Size Me, several scholars tried to replicate Spurlock's work. None were able to do so. One study reported that its participants lost weight.

Meanwhile, Michael Moore's critics have written papers and articles outlining where he massages facts or twists truth. A Slate columnist wrote of Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, "To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability."

The best defense against these persuasive bits of cinema is—as always—well-rounded knowledge. Ask questions. What are these films trying to tell me? Are they objective? Research the topics with your teen. Keep an eye on a film's persuasive techniques, and refuse to be swayed by a filmmaker's passion or intimidated by his/her style. Think for yourself, and teach children to do the same.

Of course, if How It's Made ever does an episode on how documentaries are made, don't miss it.

Published September 2008