Pick of the Day : Critique of Documentaries

D's Art Takes_Art Blog_Pick of the Day_by Divvya Nirula

In today’s Pick of the Day, for D’s Art Takes, I Divvya Nirula present my take on – “Critique of Documentaries”.

To Report or Not To Report IS the Question

For some time we have been following the growing trend of nature documentaries that have become popular. Documentaries are something that I have always been partial to – primarily because they have aide research quicker. The factual deconstruction is something that I  enjoy. They seem to be a brand unto themselves cutting across age groups and appealing to a vast audience. They are fast, snappy, compelling and they cannot be categorised in the way films can be. Owing to the insertions of real time filmed sections, they have an unpredictable air.

However, watching some grainy footage from a film, I do remember thinking – do they teach making that stuff in film school?

In case the documentaries are staged, the production part of filming has intrigued me. The arrangement of the lights and the effect that it has on the subject; or the sound that is not digitally mastered; or some footage that is allowed to run through and is cut abruptly. This must be the equivalent of the ‘acting’ done by the actors.

Who Made the Early Documentaries?

Some deeper research revealed that the term ‘documentary’ was actually coined by John Grierson.  John was a Scottish born filmmaker, and he used that term to describe non-fiction film. Globally speaking, during the 1930’s & 1940’s – the documentary becomes a tool for valuable propaganda for governments. The Nazi government in Germany, America and Britain, especially used this medium during WWII. There was a vast footage of the war that was released during the 40s that provided a lot of information.

Briefly, the first of these films (pre-1900’s) were called “actuality films”. This was because they captured short snippets of “actual” events, such as a boat pulling up to the dock or workers leaving a factory. Effectively, the first movies ever made were documentaries, also called newsreels.

Cut to the 1960s to 1990s when television becomes important and an outlet for documentary filmmaking, putting more of an emphasis on journalistic and educational programs.

The Onset of Channels

After the Cold War and the world saw a significant development in all fields of art, the world came closer. Though the effects of the Cold War would remain in the realms of politics for years to come, there was sense of broadening of horizons and an inter-cultural exchange.

There was a thirst for knowledge that technology could now easily assist and support. There were people who have been working in these streams for years who were ready to film and produce. Companies like National Geographic, History Chanel, Biographies. Netflix, Curiosity Stream, Hulu, Amazon would see a steady rise in terms of viewership’s and subscriptions. In other words there was a demand to support the supply. A demand for something more than pure print and media journalism.

On Nanook’s Trail, Who was Nanook of the North ?

In 1922 Robert Flaherty made Nanook of the North. The film follows a charismatic real character, an Eskimo named Nanook, in a distant land. Though in truth filmmaker Robert Flaherty admitted to few changes, and having staged a some scenes in the charming tale of the kindly and brave man.

“We are in a Golden Age of documentary filmmaking. There has never been as great storytelling in nonfiction film as there is today.” said producer Dan Cogan. And the numbers definitely come out in full support of him. In the last few years, ‘actuality films’ are earning more, costing more, and show cased more in mainstream theatres.

Further Cogan says – “Netflix played an extraordinary role in making this possible. That algorithm will take you to documentaries even if you don’t ask it to look for documentaries.” Proving that the demand market was burgeoning.

Did You Really Think?

This upward trend made me question the veracity of this genre. Undoubtedly, at the heart of it the intent is to show case and bring stories that are of great cultural and historical value. In truth, when  and where economics are involved, the colour of the water changes.

Just the way movies use a hundred tricks – Chris Palmer has authored books on the tricks used in nature filming, citing that sweets are used to trap insects and often close-ups are shot in zoos and wildlife parks.

Practically speaking – that animals do not and cannot behave on cue is a given, they are hardly  going to operate on a producers whistle  or give in to the demands of modern film making.

“After two days when you’ve got nothing and you’ve got 24 hours left and the money’s running out, you get kind of desperate”, said one of the camera men.

 The question is our curiosity and how far are we willing to go for entertainment. On one hand people are advocating Animal Rights, condoning circus culture, against the captivation and abuse of exotic wild animal; Yet they are feeding into yet another industry subliminally, how is that better?

It does shake our faith in the stalwarts in the field, some who we have watched ourselves passionately in the wonder years. There is a small voice that is raising a moral question. Today we are not discussing if it is ok to ascribe human characteristics to animals, but about catering to an audience who is definitely hungry for thrills.

 The Legalities of Documentaries

There was a revelation in 2011. The BBC was forced to admit shooting scenes featuring a polar bear and her cubs in Frozen Planet in a zoo in the Netherlands. And not in an Arctic environment. The same year, the Human Planet series showed a wolf hunting a young camel. They later admitted that because the filmmakers couldn’t find a wild wolf, they used a semi-domesticated animal brought to the location on a lead.

Should one empathise with our cameraman who is trying to wrap up his job, the animals (their privacy) or take up the cause for education? It’s a tight squeeze. I guess that’s why the ‘no animals were harmed during the filming’ disclaimers have been put in place. They are at least adhering to the Protection of Wildlife Act.

The 1972 Act in India states – …to provide for the protection of wild animals, birds and plants and for matters connected therewith or ancillary or incidental thereto with a view to ensuring the ecological and environmental security of the country.

Our Take on Documentaries

There is definitely a thrill in witnessing miracle, be it in the animal kingdom or in nature itself – such is its compelling nature. To suddenly observe a rarely seen bird or even observing the behaviour of racoon, suddenly appear on a tree –is exciting. Anyone who has observed nature would know that it would take months and days to actually capture an event. Let alone with perfect lighting and astonishing close-ups.

So does this mean we are all complicit? Or are we going to turn Nelson’s eye and keep up on the binge watching.  


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