Documentary Must Win

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(Photo by Peggy Sutton)

Last semester was my fourth teaching Documentary Production at Brooklyn College. My students ended up creating a bunch of really cool films on an incredibly diverse range of topics that reflected who they are — everything from the two homegrown fashion designers from Bed-Stuy to the challenges facing a young immigrant from Myanmar (the filmmaker’s brother), to a profile of a trans guitarist that explores the intersection between queer identity and punk music.

One of the biggest challenges with teaching today’s crop of up-and-coming filmmakers, however, is driving home the huge difference between reality TV, promotional/branded content, and the wide variety of YouTube videos that more or less fit into one of those two categories on the one hand, and actual documentary films on the other. It’s partly about technique. I have to practically shout at them, “Jump cuts or dissolves between pieces of an interview are lame and lazy, this is what b-roll is for, people!” Other common 101-type lessons are, “If a story doesn’t need to include you, it probably shouldn’t,” “A cute blooper, or a person introducing themselves in a cute way, is not an original way to begin your doc,” “Using on-screen titles to explain stuff is not visual storytelling,” and, “If you’re selling what you’re showing, it’s not a documentary.” These bad habits are ones that they see out there in that world and just adopt, because they’ve so internalized them as the way things are done that they think they’re the way things should be done. I consider it one of my personal missions in life to teach them that those two things are not the same.

But the difference between “reality” videos and documentary is also about content, and that, I think, is the more significant problem. It’s the difference between learning how to craft a story of out fact that intends to tell the truth, and creating something that purports to be real but is mostly fabricated.

This can be a difficult distinction to comprehend, especially when you’re learning how our modern media sausage is made. One of the first things I was told in film school was, “Film is a lie.” What this means is that, because of editing, every film or video you ever see — everything but raw footage — is a construction. It’s a creative work that somebody put together to communicate something, and, with the exception of experimental video, video art, and sometimes music videos, that something is usually a story of some kind. As human beings, we’re suckers for stories. We generally expect the building blocks of drama — action, characters, obstacles, conflict — in order to be entertained, and we like a beginning, middle and end that includes a dramatic arc for the main character to be satisfied. That we expect all this is not necessarily a bad thing, and you have to at least know about it to be an effective storyteller. It does not mean, however, that that’s all a story can or should do. Sure, you could tell a version of the hero’s journey over and over again — I mean, that’s basically what Hollywood is in the business of doing, because it’s the easiest way to make money — but you can also tells stories that use these basic rules to take people somewhere they didn’t expect. You can have an anti-hero (gasp), or more than one main character. You can (really!) have an unhappy ending, or an open-ended one that provokes the audience, and makes them keep thinking rather than turn off their brains. Just because the easiest answer, the crowd-pleaser, the lowest common denominator, often works, doesn’t mean you have to take that road. In other words, all of these “lies” don’t lie equally, and to say that they do is false equivalency. Most pieces of media tell a story that somebody chose to tell, and therefore have a perspective or a bias, but trying to tell a truthful story matters.

I think that, in these disturbing times especially, this is important. The concepts of truth and reality are something about which the whole country, and possibly the world, is more and more confused these days. I didn’t consider it all that much in the months leading up to the election, or even immediately after it, not just because I was too busy drinking large quantities of alcohol and trying to pretend it didn’t happen, but because I’ve hardly seen anything of what’s on reality television or YouTube. I had never seen The Apprentice, which is part of what made Trump’s win so unfathomable, but I’m talking about something more than that. Yes, I occasionally see stuff that people post to YouTube thanks to my Facebook feed, or things my students have posted, or when I’m in the room when Damon is streaming people playing synthesizers (there are a lot more videos of that than you might think), and I know what YouTubers and Let’s Play videos are, but I don’t “watch” YouTube. I do watch Top Chef and Project Runway and some of their spin-offs (Masters, All-Stars, Junior, etc), but that’s pretty much it for reality TV. I’ll admit that, back when I had cable television, I would occasionally put on Bravo when there was nothing else, and so I would sometimes start watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, or The Millionaire Matchmaker. They were horrible shows, and I knew it, but they really were like car crashes: cheap, messy, loud drama that’s hard to look away from. Now that my household is fully on-demand, I don’t see anything any more just because it’s on and I get sucked in. I have to consciously choose what I watch, and that has changed my habits a lot — and I’m not unhappy about it. It nice to not feel like you both have fewer brain cells and need a shower after putting down the remote. But this puts me way outside the mainstream of America. My friends and I talk about Stranger Things, Transparent and Orange Is The New Black (Project Runway will come up sometimes, but that’s an outlier). My work colleagues talk about Game of Thrones and Westworld (duh, they’re still mostly guys). When we visit my in-laws in Florida, though, the shows that come up in conversation are Dancing with the Stars and Shark Tank. The “characters” they want to talk about aren’t Arya Stark and Walter White, they’re Mark Cuban and that Indy Car driver who won DWTS and is back this season to defend his title.

The impact of this goes far beyond just dinner table conversation. When we were making Flat Daddy, we traveled around the country meeting and interviewing a ton of people, and it was surprising how many of them seemed like they should have their own show. This wasn’t just because they were attractive or funny or had moving things to say. Many of them seemed fully aware that their banter and trash-talk, and even some of their confessionals, were prime-time-/streaming-ready, because they learned how to talk about themselves, how to create drama, how to be “personalities,” from reality TV. With some people, it took a while to get past that, to get them to be their actual selves on camera — not just the version of themselves that they thought belonged on camera — and talk honestly about what they’d been through and what they thought and felt. We generally did manage it, through spending lots of time with them. But I think now, nearly ten years on, this way of being that has been engendered by reality TV and YouTube, where everyone can have an audience, has gotten much more ingrained in our national psyche. The young people my students feature in their films (often including themselves) are very savvy about not just how to act on camera, but about the stories that they need to construct about themselves to get views. They often already have thousands of Instagram followers and their own YouTube channels, and there is a clear belief, evidenced in their behavior, that if you talk enough about yourself and present yourself on social media as if you are a thing — a successful designer, singer, actor, model, dancer, or designer-singer-actor-model-dancer — it makes you that thing. In other words, if you can sell it, you can live it. And often, in today’s world, where everyone has a camera, where celebrity is so unattached to ability, and where the line between famous and not is so porous and breachable, they’re basically right. And when fame and image and the ability to sell a message makes you into some sort of “talent” rather than the other way around, that’s when our view of the world and what has value gets drastically skewed. Things that should be taken seriously — love, in The Bachelor, The Millionaire Matchmaker and their ilk; a successful career in The Apprentice or Shark Tank — become entertainment. Things that we used to do to make our lives worth living are now being acted out just to make them watchable.

Of course it’s not just reality TV that has blurred these lines, it’s also TV and internet news, thanks to its rapid degradation of the division between info and -tainment and -mercial. Again, I believe we need news stories that are compelling to watch. It’s okay to take what happens in the real world and give it a shape and meaning in order to engage people, because if you can’t interest your audience in what’s going on, you’re just creating a filmstrip, a compliance video, something that people have to watch because it’s good for them, and you’ve already lost the battle to raise their awareness. So given that, the question then becomes, how much can you do to make the real into a story without making it no longer real? And by extension, how far is it okay for the media to go to make a story that may not be newsworthy into a news story, just to attract eyeballs or ratings or ads?

My point is that the more interests that get involved in making media that are not about presenting what’s real or truthful in an engaging way, and that bury that goal beneath another — promoting a viewpoint or product or person, or just plain making money — that’s when we start to get into trouble. Add to that that a large portion of America now thinks of reality not as something you seek to discover and understand better but as something you make true by believing it, and it’s no wonder that we’re having more and more trouble separating reality video from reality, and news from propaganda and advertising. Some combination of not being able to tell the difference and not wanting to know is making people believe the version of reality that makes them happy, even if they have to be heavily in denial to do so. Could it be possible that the bachelor is really in love with the girl he’s only known for two months and spent zero time alone with without a camera? Do the Real Housewives, or any of these celebrities who are “rich, but still just like us,” really live fascinating, glamorous lives? Is it okay for Sean Spicer to lie in a press conference, or for Kelly Ann Conway to promote Ivanka Trump’s brand on a news program, when both of these people are supposed to be speaking for the President of the United States? Any person who really considers these questions for two seconds would have to answer “no,” but people prefer to just accept the fantasy rather than look beneath it. Then they never have to comprehend the world’s complexity, because this version has been written out for them in really simple terms — good, bad, love, hate, win, lose, us, them, everything black and white. It’s easier to accept the answer that is just handed to us and reinforces everything we already want to believe than to actually try and understand and fix what’s wrong. And when we adjust our expectations to that, when we start expecting things to always turn out the way that’s most obvious, almost as if it’s been constructed to please us (because it has), it’s no wonder that we have the president we do.

There is a different way to tell stories from this. It’s the way that shapes reality without breaking it down. Good fiction does this when writers draw from life to create characters and situations that feel valid. But documentary, at its best, is the essence of telling a true and truthful story. It seeks to show the world the way it is, and in doing so, to edify and enlighten and provoke. Real reality is surprising. It’s often inconvenient or uncomfortable, and it doesn’t sound like a slogan. It just doesn’t.

It used to feel like these two versions of things, reality and “reality,” could co-exist, because it was just about television. But in 2017, we know better. Especially with public funding for the arts and sciences under siege — and hey, let’s just go ahead and say art and science in general given everything that’s being done to the NEA, NEH, CPB, IMLS, Department of Education, Department of Energy, EPA, NIH, CDC, NPS, etc etc etc etc etc etc — this is a war, and it’s one that documentary has to win. The question is, do we want to live in a reality video future, where media dumbs us down and scares us so that we can be spoon fed comforting “branded content” and “alternative facts” like baby food, and not care about anyone other than people exactly like us? Or do we we want to live in one where media shows us a wider world, makes us think critically and care about it, and question why it is the way it is and if we can make it better?

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