Critical Documentary Viewing

Trinity Iwicki
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Images and videos of lonely polar bears, interviews with scientists and politicians alike, and pictures of the aftermath of storms are all trademarks of environmental documentaries. To many, documentaries are a way to share facts and information, something simple and objective. However, objectivity is quite a lofty ideal. Often, documentaries end up striving for “authenticity” instead of objectivity, since the nature of media as a means to an end makes true objectivity nearly impossible. There are many ways different filmmakers look to reach this authenticity – from crafting documentaries that look to only observe and not interfere, to deep investigative journalism. 


Yet despite all of these varying approaches, the simple truth is: no documentary has ever reached true authenticity, neutrality, or objectivity. It’s been largely accepted as not possible. Media and documentaries serve a purpose in their creation, from sharing information to entertainment, to changing minds or actions. Environmental documentaries often fall under all three categories: entertainment, information, and influence, and inherently cannot escape the bias of their nature as a result. This in itself isn’t a bad thing, it’s just the way of media. This blog post explores some common tactics seen across environmental documentaries. This way, viewers can be aware of what these tropes look like in practice and how they affect the message and presentation of the film. 


Yellow Flags

So what exactly are some of these tropes? While none of these are hard rules that make a “bad” documentary, there are a few things to keep an eye out for. We’ll call them yellow flags, not necessarily good or bad, just something to watch for. 


Flag One

One of the most common “yellow flags” that environmental documentaries tend to raise is the problems-centric approach to the climate. Looking at the news when it comes to the environment, we’re often confronted with problems and disasters such as extreme wildfires, floods, and deadly storms, so it makes sense many documentaries would reflect that. The yellow flag comes in when documentaries discuss the potential future of climate change and human intervention, and they focus so strongly on current problems that the discussion of solutions falls to the wayside. Many documentaries promise discussion of what can be done and then don’t discuss solutions until the final fifteen minutes… after having watched over an hour of in-depth discussion on problems being faced.


 Discussions framed like this are more prone to breeding “eco-anxiety,” which are feelings of fear and helplessness centered around climate change and the environment, instead of the empowering message many documentaries advertise themselves with. Generally, the ratio of problem-solution discussion doesn’t need to be perfectly even, but more documentaries are beginning to adopt a solutions-oriented frame. This is when the documentary’s goal is to showcase possible solutions to a plethora of problems, rather than just discuss the issues themselves. Keep in mind that sometimes too, these proposed solutions can require their own critical consumption. Solutions may be vague and broad, for example discussing reducing poverty without explaining how, which also makes them unfeasible. Broad solutions can feel overwhelming or pandering in their scope and appeal.


Flag Two

The second yellow flag has to do with visual imagery and presentation. Is the documentary filled with graphs and talking head interviews where someone is sitting and speaking or even lecturing to the camera? Does it have the iconic imagery of lonely polar bears and sad-looking animals from across the globe? Imagery can have a huge effect on how any information is received. The days of prolific imagery of tragedy and destruction have begun to be questioned, called performative appeals to emotion. The idea of “trauma-informed storytelling” has also emerged in the realm of documentary filmmaking. This means that when discussing and showing disasters, there is greater care paid to those impacted by the depicted events and their realities in the story. Filmmakers are starting to turn away from stock footage of floods, and turning inwards to a more in-depth discussion of the reality of the people left behind and affected by the disaster. This ensures filmmakers do not erase the people behind the victims from the story for the sake of shocking imagery.


Flag Three

Our third yellow flag reaches beyond the screen. Conscious consumption often relies on knowing where the documentary came from. This can mean a lot of things. Knowing where the documentary was produced, for example, can answer some important questions about culture, historical beliefs, and the sociopolitical context in which the film was created. Not only where, but who is just as, if not more, important. Where the funding comes from can change everything about the messaging. Where the money comes from determines what the viewpoint is, what the call to action is, what information is considered important, and so much more. A corporate-sponsored documentary telling viewers to take control from centralized systems, for example, can come off as ingenuine and hypocritical–part of the problem trying to preach the solution. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and activist organizations have agendas too–it isn’t just a corporate discussion. It is important to acknowledge that no documentary is free from ulterior motives if you’re looking to truly critically consume the genre. 


Are Documentaries Still Worth It?

This may sound like a whole lot of warnings for something that appeared reliable or at least harmlessly entertaining. With all of this in mind, are documentaries still… worth the watch? The answer is: of course! No form of media is without its flaws. Learning what some of these may be and training your brain to watch media critically is what allows it to still be a reliable resource. Documentaries are a great source of information in an entertaining format. For those of us who perhaps don’t have the attention span, technical knowledge, or time to read through academic papers and research, documentaries help make various aspects of the world accessible. From the depths of the ocean to the inner workings of the Amazon Rainforest to the far reaches of space, documentaries help open the world up to the general public. It’s just important to remember their potential for bias and misinformation too–just as with any other media form. Documentaries are often lauded as objective stories and regurgitation of facts over video and imagery. Their reputation as purely academic endeavors earns them the inherent trust of their viewers. Some documentaries use that relationship to their advantage. By breaking that expectation on our end as viewers, we can view documentaries as they are: just media, that can be just as flawed and biased as anything else, and can be just as wonderful a resource as anything else. 



Learning how to navigate the media world we’ve built around us certainly does not end with documentaries. Every day we are bombarded with information from all sides about the world around us. The natural world and its future are as divisive a topic as any, and one rife with misinformation and political agendas. Hopefully, this deep dive into common things to keep an eye out for within documentary viewing helped provide the foundations of critical viewing of film, short videos, and any other media you may encounter in your day-to-day life. The first step is to consider the many things that can change and alter how and what information is presented. From there, the unending tide of information around us might begin to make more sense as a way to communicate not only objective facts but also personal and political agendas, no matter how authentic on the surface. In such a media-saturated environment, critical media literacy is one of our most powerful tools in the modern world.


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