George: The dubious, dangerous documentary

As the traditional documentary embraced a desire to explain or inform, the new documentary intends to drive political action.

Patrick George
Patrick George

The genius of Ken Burns is evident in his 2012 documentary The Dust Bowl, a visual history lesson about one of the worst ecological disasters in American history. Burns provides an account steeped in facts and laced with footage that breathes life into the historical record.

As the traditional documentary embraced a desire to explain or inform, the new documentary intends to drive political action. In early May, the movie Farmland opened in theaters across the US. Marketed as a documentary, the movie seeks to chronicle the lives of farmers and ranchers, all in their 20s, who run their own agricultural operations. The film offers a first-hand glimpse into farming and aims to tell a story from farmers "in their own words." 

While still somewhat guarded, Farmland largely succeeds in describing the day-to-day as well as long-term challenges of an industry in which its workers are aging and feel misunderstood. In between sweeping crop rows and neatly painted barns, the film accurately depicts the tension among farmers on topics such as genetically modified crops, organic farming, and the treatment of animals. Not only is the film distinct in its message and approach, it also serves as an example of how far documentaries have come as a form of policy and advocacy communication. 

The Los Angeles Times described Farmland as a "slickly produced documentary" that "often comes off like lobbyist propaganda." However, the same could be said about An Inconvenient Truth on global warming, Super Size Me on the fast food industry, and Sicko on the US healthcare system to name a few. 

Now more than ever, documentaries serve as an important means for long-form filmmaking.  They are also growing in influence. According to an August 2013 report in The Economist, documentaries account for about 16% of the Cannes film market compared with 8% five years ago. To meet demand among home viewers, Netflix announced on May 8 expanded services including the debut of four documentary films in the coming months.

Given the demand among viewers and desire among distributors, I foresee increasing influence of feature-length documentaries as well as many short-form films. As this era unfolds and talented directors display their craft, viewers will be taken in by the biased hype rather than the informed reality. Having managed an effort that involved a political documentary, I think professional communicators need to be prepared to address the documentary as a powerful medium that can very quickly and dramatically change public perception. Here are three considerations: 

  • Consider the long haul; ultimately it’s a battle of credibility. Documentaries aim to enlist a highly emotional response from viewers. Fair or not, they also convey a very high degree of credibility. Negative portrayals can upend a business or organization for many months or years if they are a subject of the film. Much like a political campaign, organizations that are implicated in a documentary should understand that there will be many news cycles. Before a documentary is released, wise organizations have the foresight to establish industry allies, build relationships with credible third parties, and prepare to deliver messages to policymakers and stakeholders. 
  • Develop a comprehensive response. While documentarians may not have the time or breadth of expertise to execute a full blown PR blitz, their producers and distributors are experts at it. Today, documentaries are released with red carpet galas, film festival viewings, highly orchestrated social media campaigns, celebrity endorsers, entertainment junkets, and domestic and foreign marketing programs. Entities scrutinized by documentaries should consider a broader strategy and tactical tools. They should aim to withstand the initial negative publicity and turn the debate onto a winnable playing field. Public polling, alliances with industry peers, aligning with third-party organizations, issue advertising, direct mail, social media outreach, employee communications, and other approaches should be part of the response toolkit.
  • A documentary is not a news report and the filmmaker is not a news organization. As New York Times columnist AO Scott said in a 2010 commentary: "unlike other journalistic forms, no code of ethics has ever been agreed upon by practitioners…rules of thumb tend to be temporary, controversial, and broken as soon as they are made." In fact, most documentaries should not be treated like news when they are, in fact, more akin to a reality show or a TV drama. Subjects are carefully scripted, contexts carefully chosen, and footage meticulously edited. That is why, by the same measure as their documentary, producers, directors, and subjects in the film need to be held accountable – publicly – for what they say and where they say it. Their motive and credibility is fair game. The "facts" they produce have to be thoroughly vetted. The object of the documentary needs to spend as much time deconstructing the "documentary" as the filmmaker spent putting it together.

Films such as The Dust Bowl illustrate how documentarians take a complex topic and tell a thoughtful story. Other examples indicate an increasing number of organizations and companies proactively sharing their own favorable story through documentary-style films. I expect we will see many more emotionally driven documentaries led by directors seeking notoriety at the expense of accuracy. Unless the public grows too skeptical or simply burns out, communicators should prepare for a continuous flow of both genuine and dubiously dangerous documentaries.

Patrick George is media relations director at KP Public Affairs.

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