Is This The End Of The Line For The Impartial Documentary?

It’s amazing that at least six years into the golden era of advocacy documentary filmmaking, a major newspaper with a thriving arts and culture section should feel the need to ask this question, but apparently there are some journalists and filmmakers who think any documentary film that does not try to be ‘objective’ somehow fails to deserve to even be categorized as ‘documentary.’

As the distributor of over fifty documentary films (can you believe that?!? Disinformation has been busy since our first DVD release in 2004…), here at The Disinformation Company we feel that the advocacy films we release are disseminating information and opinion to counter the mainstream and establishment views on the issues at hand (usually our filmmakers are reacting against a government or corporate whitewash). The advent of cheap video cameras and editing software has made it possible for some very bad docs to be made (believe me, we see a lot of them), but they’re still documentaries. So to us, the issue is quality, not category. Well here’s the Guardian article, but please feel free to comment your views:

This year, the normally clubby atmosphere of Sheffield’s documentarists’ convention has been shaken by a genuine row. The intensity of the debate at the Campaigning Documentaries: The Thin Line Between Passion and Propaganda session reflects the seriousness of what’s at stake. It’s not just the future of the genre that hangs in the balance, but its very identity.

One side maintains that documentary-making must be open-minded, impartial and journalistic. Its purpose should be to help people understand, not to encourage them to emote. The other side insists that the whole point of documentary-making is to effect desirable change. Campaigning is to be relished, not shunned.

In the eyes of the journalists, committed films don’t deserve to be called documentaries. They’re propaganda, corporate video or advertising. The campaigners, however, refuse to yield up the cherished label. For them, a documentary that carries an emphatic message is probably the better for it.

The campaigners are winning and the journalists are losing. It’s not intellectual argument that’s deciding the issue; it’s economics. The money for objective documentary-making is drying up, just like the money for print journalism. Yet committed films can find financial backers, so long as the film-maker’s commitment matches the backer’s.

The appearance of independence makes documentaries ideal vehicles for promoting corporate interests. Nowadays, NGOs, charities, single-issue lobby groups and the like sometimes have lots of money. Co-opting documentarists can prove an effective way of spending it. Plenty of film-makers are only too willing to play ball. After all, they want to make films. As Nick Fraser, the editor of the BBC’s Storyville strand, said at the heated Doc/Fest session: “If Dr Goebbels appeared with a huge sack of money, there would be documentary film-makers queueing around the block to take it.”

Thus it is that many of the so-called documentaries now appearing, even on the big screen, turn out to have been dependent on “social change finance”. The Vanishing of the Bees was seen by some as a plug for one of its sponsors, the Co-op, which is using bee-friendliness to enhance its green credentials. The End of the Line reeled in its sustenance from a raft of not-for-profit foundations, the WWF, the Marine Conservation Society, Oceana, Waitrose and Channel 4′s Britdoc, which specialises in mating up indigent film-makers with institutional grubstakers…

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  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/PDDVWRQVUPMKRGHURIEQVNYWHQ Sean

    there will always be bias, weather it is in selection of topics, what evidence is presented and what is not, you will never ever get the whole story from a single source, it isn't the fault of the journalist, it's the fault of the consumer being to stupid and lazy to keep looking.

  • http://joenolan.com/ Joe Nolan

    I agree that they seem to be asking this question rather late in the game. I also think Sean has a good point about objectivity. In some ways film makers like Michael Moore have parallels with writers like Hunter S. Thompson, Thomas Wolfe and George Plimpton etc. The New Journalism attempted to point out the inherent bias in so-called “objective” journalism and this new brand of doc similarly eschews such dubious standards for what may be a more honest approach….My two cents…

  • Manny Furious

    For sure, the idea of “objectivity” in journalism is hysterical and I’m so sick of it being used as such a catchphrase. Though I don’t agree with anything Fox says, I don’t really have a problem with their existence. They know their audience. I can’t even watch the local “objective” news anymore, because no matter how objective they try to present themselves, it’s easy to see through it.

  • Manny Furious

    For sure, the idea of “objectivity” in journalism is hysterical and I'm so sick of it being used as such a catchphrase. Though I don't agree with anything Fox says, I don't really have a problem with their existence. They know their audience. I can't even watch the local “objective” news anymore, because no matter how objective they try to present themselves, it's easy to see through it.