Thursday, June 01, 2006

"You Must Watch This Tape!": Truth in Documentaries

Under most circumstances I try to avoid getting into political debates with my friends. For one thing, politics is a serious matter for most people, and I prefer to make time with my friends as enjoyable as possible. Another aspect of political debates is that they are often adversarial, since many of my friends share an opposite point of view. It becomes futile to persuade a few of my friends who are distrustful of any facts I provide, arguing that whether information comes from a government agency or widely read news sources, a hidden agenda corrupts it all anyway. Thus statistics on the job market from the Department of Labor are suspect because they are supposedly influenced by the current presidential administration. News stories and other tidbits from network news broadcasts are to be doubted because they are all owned by a handful of large private corporations. Somehow the editors and news anchors are forced to tow the corporate line, which always seems to favor powerful business against the powerless. Facts matter little to such people, even as they insist that truth on an issue does exist.

What is ironic is that those who doubt factual data never hesitate to embrace information from the most subjective forms of media. One good friend of mine was proud not to watch the news nor read the papers, but he was eager to watch any video handed to him from his politically like-minded friends. Every time I began to lay out my position on a particular topic, he was quick to reply by declaring: “I have this tape!” This tape was supposed to validate his argument, as if an amateurishly edited thirty-minute video funded with a limited budget by a partisan non-profit organization was the only thing that articulated the truth on any issue. Having watched a few of these tapes I asked him how such footage could be less agenda-driven than other media he was so quick to reject. The explanation he offered was that these tapes were purposefully clandestine to avoid censorship and suppression from the almighty media and government agencies out to stamp out dissent. There was something quite romantic that captivated my friend’s interest, having exclusive access to the “truth” and organizing below the surface with other people through camaraderie.

In high school I took a class on television production. Our final project was to create a music video, using camera, audio and editing equipment owned by the school. I remember the hours spent in the editing room, using these bulky editing machines to splice footage in a clean sequence to better express the meaning of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. One thing anyone knows about the production of videos is the tremendous amount of editing, the importance of montage in developing a narrative and the oodles of footage that never make the final cut. Video is an art form that must stimulate the viewer’s interest quickly, and its linear sequence of action requires that the information is as effectively condensed as possible. Such condensation from editing makes videos prone to leaving out lots of important information, making it a comparatively poor resource for inquiry compared to journal publications, books or the internet. Therefore, of all the sources of information one could use to build a valid argument, the last thing one would ever want to cite is a video.

A video documentary is mostly an argument made with an assortment of facts, interviews, images and music. Unlike many people’s inept rhetorical skills, a carefully crafted video feeds on the viewers’ psychological impulses to deliver a convincing explanation and possible solutions to a problem. But since all documentaries are heavily subjected to editing, one cannot help but wonder what kind of useful information was left out. A documentary often tests the limits to which one can make a compelling argument with as few facts as possible, using visual aids instead raw data and deep analysis.

That is why I almost never watch documentaries at a movie theater. I go to be entertained, not informed. If I wanted to be informed I would read about an issue rather than rely on a documentary filmmaker’s deliberately composed jumble of footage and hand-picked facts. A person who uses these documentaries as the factual basis for their argument are basically using someone else’s argument in the form of a video to make his her own argument. This isn’t making one’s own mind on an issue by carefully constructing a logic than it is a simple matter of repeating someone else’s more visually elaborate view on the topic at hand. Between “Farenheit 9-11” and an esoteric, brooding French film I choose the latter. Even if a more conservative documentary were on offer, I would still prefer watching French actors smoke while contemplating their anxieties in life. At least a fictional art film can potentially reveal far more about the truth behind the human condition than best intentioned documentary.

What is really at the bottom of why certain people cannot distinguish good objective information from the subjective kind has to do with the way we perceive truth. To many people truth and fact are unrelated. Truth often consists of an almost spiritual zeal, the way the world should work. Facts are inanimate fragments of information that can be manipulated to simply serve truth. The facts are made to fit the truth, not vice versa. Thus, a video documentary is mostly an exposition of a particular truth. To appreciate a documentary is not to praise its skillful exposition of an issue in general, but to agree with the film-maker’s truth. If the film’s truth is opposite to the viewer, the label of propaganda is used to discredit it.

Indeed documentaries are produced with the goal of informing the viewers. But rarely is it to provide a broad balanced view of a topic. It seems that the more a film is driven by the desire to make money, as in a theatrical release, for example, the more it is less concerned with balance as it is seeking viewers who share in the stated truths of the film. Interestingly, I find documentaries made for public television less concerned about preaching a truth than to simply describe all aspects of an issue in a seemingly fair way. What I hope that people who seek information should know, is that if one wants to really understand an issue, one first has to acknowledge that things are often too complex to understand from one point of view. One has to then do the work in researching and comparing all sorts of facts, and all the while, avoid subscribing too quickly to any sort of truth.

A clear-headed view of what many video documentaries make the most recent revelations regarding Michael Moore’s practice of highly selective editing completely unsurprising. His intent was never to illustrate the War on Terror and Iraq as complicated subjects requiring complete investigative detachment. Rather, Mr. Moore was laying out to the audience his truth in as clean a narrative as possible, from the purported relations between the President and the Saudis to the supposed desperation of American soldiers in Iraq to the apparent joy of Iraqi citizens under Saddam Hussein. If it demanded that he take out of context the words of an armeless veteran to reinforce the truth of his narrative, than so be it. To him, sharing his truth to viewers who are eager to accept any kind of truth was well worth the difficulty in necessarily twisting the facts.

In the end, searching for a truth on any serious topic is more of an emotional response than an empirical one. Facts are what they are. But to film editors, facts are what we choose them to be, and how they can be embellished results into their distortion in service of a “truth”.

For a complementary take on this issue, Patrick Hynes makes some good observations.
Hattip: Instapundit