Frozen Planet and documentary fakery

Today’s fuss about “fakery” on Frozen Planet has provoked an interesting response on twitter, a chorus of jokes and commentary which essentially said “well *duh*, of course not everything on TV is real! Which idiots thought it was?” And no, I don’t think the Frozen Planet example, of cutting zoo footage with footage from the wild in a way that implied the former was happening in the latter and then telling everyone they did so on the website, is really that bad. In fact, they should be commended for providing behind the scenes information, as they also do in their end “making of” sections in the show. However, it does give me an excuse to talk about documentary fakery, on even very small scales, which has been bothering me as a filmmaker for some time and which I’d dearly love to have a bit of a debate about.

Firstly, let’s not assume that everyone does in fact realize the degree to which television, even documentaries, is manipulated and manipulative. Not everyone has worked in TV, made their own films, is media savvy, or even that critical of what they see. Why should they be, watching TV is often something people do to switch off and get swept away at the end of a long working day. Also, it’s not like we got taught to analyse television in this way at school (unless kids do now?) So the fact that shots are staged, noddies are sometimes done in the absence of the interviewee, bears are filmed in a zoo rather than the wild and so on will indeed come as a surprise to many people who aren’t necessarily idiots. Because documentary includes shots of real life, people do mistake it for an accurate representation of real life.

Even those who think they are smart about the way TV is made, who can spot the ways in which Come Dine With Me features staged shots, who sees the strings being pulled in the X Factor or even news interviews, even they aren’t always aware of the power you can wield in the edit, which perhaps one never is until you’ve tried it yourself. When editing an interviewee, for example, it is sometimes trivially easy to cut them to sound like fools, or edit out their inconsistencies to make them into geniuses. I feel a huge responsibility to interviewees for this reason, and it can be a tricky balance.

But does it matter that probably a majority of people are indeed very definitely being mislead by things like added sounds in nature documentaries, Kevin McCloud pretending to have “just arrived” at the recently finished houses on Grand Designs, and so on? In those examples it can seem fairly harmless, but they are still a fraud and very rarely made clear as such, and so it bothers me on some really basic level.

It also bothers me partly because these techniques are also used in documentaries that are trying to make a point, maybe political, maybe about a social issue, and whilst all intentions may be good, they are still on some level defrauding people who aren’t aware that it’s happening. Perhaps in some really really tiny way, like staging a shot of someone arriving to work on their bike (as I have done), when they do always arrive to work on their bike. But even that is still a fraud, and can undermine the validity of the rest of what the programme is saying. For those who do realize something is staged, it provokes the question “hmmm, I wonder what else is faked that they aren’t being clear about?”.

Finally, it also bothers me because often it looks REALLY NAFF. The noddies, interviewing someone whilst walking towards the camera as if it isn’t there, pretending you’ve got two cameras by asking someone to do something again and shooting it the resulting stiff and forced action from another angle etc

Done well, of course, this is all about making the programme more watchable and more flowing. And of course there is no way to make any sort of programme without editing. I’m certainly not suggesting that everyone should always make all their footage available. But it is something I wrestle with every time I make a film and sometimes I wonder about coming up with a Dogme 95 style list of rules for documentary that would do away with a lot of this. What would the resulting documentary look like?

Mostly, I’m talking about a point of principle, a philosophy of filmmaking that I haven’t quite worked out for myself. And I’m talking about not making assumptions about how people watch TV. But if nothing else, what I want to say is that I do think a little more transparency would be a good thing, if only because I think it’s something that many people would genuinely find really really interesting.

One thought on “Frozen Planet and documentary fakery

  1. Good post raising some pertinent questions.

    The way i’ve thought about representation in factual/documentary pieces is that the degree of editing and creation depends on the context of the piece and the source(s) of the narrative.

    So for example, the narrative of Frozen Planet can only be told by its creators. The animals, the geography cannot represent themselves, so the narrative has to be a creative construction. The polar bear incident is minor compared to the larger discourses being woven into the series, such as the anthropomorphising of the animals – do penguins go around with a funny plinky-plonky piano soundtrack, making them appear comical and human?

    When however the source of the narrative e.g. people – can tell their own story then I think the level of representation must be more faithful. So when a documentary is interviewing someone or representing events, history, facts etc, the creators are ethically bound to represent that story as close as possible. If the narrative source can speak for itself, then let it. Otherwise the depiction of reality moves closer toward fiction and should be treated as such. A Johann Hari style defense of legibility is not acceptable.

    Technical edits, such as noddies don’t impact on the narrative either way but frankly, they are a presentational device that is mostly pointless.
    Other practices such as you mentioned, Kevin McCloud ‘arriving’ at the house, and the door being opened with the camera already inside, looking out at Kevin in the doorway, are, in the context of Grand Designs being an entertainment show and not anything factual, acceptable.
    The source of the narrative in that show is not the home builders, but Kevin, therefore I always consider it to be closer to fiction than an effort to objectively reflect reality.

    Anyway, those are my quick thoughts, squeezed out of my lunch hour!.

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