Making sense of the world: Why we love documentary movies despite information overload
“So we had a movie and the filmmakers came and talked about the film process to kids who were about 10 to 12 years old and told them…
‘Well, we filmed some of the scenes again.’
The kids went crazy!
‘YOU CAN’T! It’s a documentary!’”
Their amusing reaction was not so surprising to Mai Damgaard Rasmussen, the chief coordinator of the Food Film Festival and DocLounge Aarhus.
Leaving her background in short films behind, the lifelong film enthusiast entered the documentary world in 2011 when she joined DocLounge, a Scandinavian documentary film network, event organizer and distributor. Drawing on her experience, she explains that although the audience is becoming more critical, documentaries are still overwhelmingly seen as an objective, scarcely edited depiction of the truth. A tool for people to make sense of the world.
Documentaries, the next big thing?
In recent years, the film making industry has seen a rapid growth of the documentary genre. Documentaries have gained the attention of producers, critics and viewers alike, especially in Europe and in the United States.
The number of documentaries produced in the UK had risen over the years — from four in 2001, to 86 in 2015. In 2016, documentaries made up 16 percent of the Cannes Film Festival slate compared to about 8 percent in 2008. Six major documentary movies, that were released to theaters in the United States in 2017, all earned at least $1.5 million at the box office within the first few months.
What inspired this trend? And why do people keep coming back for more of this otherwise niche format?
Some ascribe the trend to the boom of online streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu or HBO Go that offer a wide range of documentary movies at no extra cost, available from the comfort of our living rooms. Others point out the recent success of several large-screen documentaries selling out at cinemas, simply because of their higher quality and level of entertainment compared to their predecessors. But maybe there is one more thing that people look for, one more reason.
In the abundance of information we receive every day, from the news and social media, when the world seems to grow smaller each day and we are bombarded with stories from places we have never been, it becomes a challenge to make sense of it all. Could documentaries help?
Maybe but it won’t be simple.
Dealing with information overload
Information overload is not a new phenomenon. It has long been associated with technological developments and inventions that changed and sped up the way we share information — from the printing press to the internet and beyond. It is a situation when the sheer amount of available, potentially useful information begins to hinder our decisions instead of making them easier.
These days we are facing information overload everywhere we go. Whether we are buying bread at the supermarket, choosing a new camera online or looking for flight tickets to our next holiday destination, we are presented with too many choices to make a fully informed decision. We cannot compare the qualities of every single option on our own. It would take too much time, too much effort, and ultimately would not be worth the trouble. Thankfully, since many of us have faced the same dilemma before us, there are tools and processes that help us decide.
In the case of purchases, both online and offline, we have plenty of options. Search engines that compare products for us, reviews from customers describing their own hands-on experience, customer care helplines — even the more traditional living and breathing shop assistants!
When it comes to receiving news, there are few apps or agents that could help us sort through and make sense of the virtually endless amount of news stories spanning politics, economy, the environment, sports, culture and more, both local and global, and help us go beyond the headlines.
Faced with so-called news overload, our minds take the lead and launch one of the two emergency processes — withdrawing or filtering.
Living in a functioning society, we can only afford to ignore the news for so long. That is why our minds resort to filtering. They filter out information that seems irrelevant and focus on what brings us value and requires as little effort as possible.
That is why some people pay for access to respected news sources. Not only they provide trustworthy information thanks to their fact-checking capacity, editorial decisions keep it organized and easy to digest. Compared to the erratic abundance of news seen on social media, traditional media outlets present their audience with a carefully crafted package of news, lifting a burden off the readers’ shoulders.
However, as Michaela Weingartova, the programme coordinator of the International Documentary Film Festival Ji.hlava points out, not everyone trusts traditional media anymore. And for those poeple, documentary movies may present an alternative.
Having started her documentary career by volunteering at the Danish CPH:DOX festival in 2011, she has since gained experience in almost every area and regularly interacted with the audience. She believes that documentary movies offer the audience something that the fast news cycle is missing.
“News stories and information are flying by at a high speed and in large amounts, but they tend to be shallow and very few of us have the time to fact-check everything we see,” she remarks and adds: “Documentaries are long-form, they create a sense of authenticity because we see ‘real’ people and situations, we have more time to follow the theme, issue or story, and there is more space for our own interpretation.”
Damgaard Rasmussen agrees that there is an urge for authenticity and contextual understanding of facts among the audience, a need to go beyond the headlines, and documentary movies are a very effective format for that. “You can see it, you can hear it, you have time to think about it.”
Sometimes that’s all it takes and all that we are missing — time to think.
“We don’t have time to read about everything. We can’t keep up with all the things that interest us anymore,” she adds. “People realize that it’s hard to read news and really understand all the things, the whole history around it.” She is not the only one who thinks so as proven by the emergence of social media detox programs or the growing ‘slow news’ movement.
According to Rasmussen, documentary movies provide us with a much needed shortcut to understanding the world around us. They do us a similar service as search engines while shopping and traditional media while consuming news, they choose information that’s relevant and valuable and organize it for us into a single final product.
Objective or not: Does it matter?
Documentaries have long been perceived as objective, real-time reflections of a raw, truthful reality, not only by the school children in Rasmussen’s story but by many adult viewers as well.
“The majority of the audience, especially when the film is about something from very far away, they still take it at face value,” Damgaard Rasmussen confirms. That is one of the paradoxes of documentary movies, one that may have supported the recent growth of their popularity.
“There are many people who believe in objectivity and a single truth and those may be the ones who trust documentaries more than mainstream media at the moment,” Weingartova shares her thoughts and raises more questions. “But what is truth? What is objective? Is it possible to find the one truthful story? All of our lives are subjective because we perceive the world according to our own experiences, believes and expectations. Documentary-makers are people too.”
Unlike journalists, documentary film makers are not bound by any strict rules or professional guidelines. How do they look at the issue of objectivity themselves?
Weingartova believes that they don’t see it as an issue. “The choice of a topic itself is subjective, where they point the camera, what they film, what they decide to use in the end and how they arrange it, all subjective decisions.” However, if they misuse the facts, they should be prepared for a backlash.
The case of a Netflix documentary called ‘Root Cause’ which linked root canals to cancer and other serious illnesses, undermining dental care practices, is an example of that. It presented scientifically unfounded information and was called out on it by several dentist associations. Netflix took the movie down from its platform soon after.
While misinformation in documentaries is usually called out, once noticed, the audience should always use critical thinking while watching them.
As Weingartova mentioned, we all live in our own subjective worlds. We should appreciate the value documentaries bring — that is an experience we would otherwise never live through, a new point of view, something to think about. The audio visual format captures our attention and sparks strong emotions, sometimes even action, when the audience begins to question what they see and look for answers thanks to a deeper understanding of a single point of view.
Let’s talk about it!
That is where the value of documentary film festivals and public screenings stands out. Their main mission is to help people understand what they see, put it into context and balance their own impressions and perceptions with those of others in the audience. Most documentary film festivals, including those that Rasmussen and Weingartova attended or organized such as CPH:DOX, DocLounge, Ji.hlava or One World, pride themselves on the value of post-screening debates.
Debates give the audience a chance to confront the movie, their own musings and doubts, as soon as the credits roll and the lights turn back on. They usually host movie makers, producers, main characters or experts. They also inspire active critical thinking and let the audience contrast their own experience with a person sitting next to them — be it during the official debate or in a more casual setting, over a cup of coffee or while queueing for tickets.
It’s good news that the documentary industry is reaching higher numbers and becoming more mature. As Weingartova observes, documentaries now receive more funding and movie makers adopt the language of commercial movies, making them more attractive to a wider audience.
Still, Rasmussen stresses the importance of debates, both for viewers and filmmakers, and points out yet another paradox: “You think it is easy to reach the audience thanks to the streaming services but it is not, you want a debate around the film when you make it.” She recalls a recent experience from CPH:DOX where she attended an after-movie debate which took place between the producer and the interviewer in front of the audience but the viewers were not allowed to ask their own questions. “It felt as if there was a wall between us.”
The issue is that as documentaries become more profitable, more funding goes into their production and less is left for screenings and supporting activities. They might be gaining more viewers and attention but at the same time, losing their value.
Since the very beginning, movies have been first and foremost a form of entertainment. People have watched them to switch off and relax after a long, busy day. These days many things in life are automated and done for us. Our devices from cars to phones to fridges are becoming smarter, taking care of many daily tasks that we no longer need to worry about.
Maybe it is time that we use this capacity for thinking about and learning from films instead of just watching them, that we consider going to a film screening from time to time instead of just pressing play on Netflix in our pyjamas, that we engage in a respectful debate that is so rare to find on social media.
Documentary movies have a lot to offer but if we really want them to help us make sense of the world, we need to be ready to think.
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Written for my Analytical Journalism class at the Danish School of Media and Journalism in May 2019, as part of the Erasmus Mundus MA in Journalism, Media and Globalisation.