In era of fake news, honest documentary makers have never mattered more

From Netflix docuseries Making a Murderer. Netflix

Facts are under threat. I write this after Donald Trump tweeted an old clip of himself wrestling a CNN avatar to the ground, declaring them “FNN: Fraud News Network”. Over at Info Wars, meanwhile, a guest on the Alex Jones show declared the existence of a child slave ring on Mars.

Inflammatory clickbait, conspiracy theories and populists dismissing the mainstream media and scientific reports are challenging the ways in which people make sense of the world. I am interested in how documentary film making has been affected, and how it can respond. This was the subject of a session of industry professionals that I chaired at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

The panel saw the internet and social media as both cause and potential cure for these problems. They amplify the speed and reach of misinformation. And because people are used to giving such material only glancing attention, it forestalls their critical engagement.

Long-form documentary encourages a more contemplative commitment for viewers, yet it faces challenges from an industry eager to adapt to the online space. Sonja Henrici of the Scottish Documentary Institute described a shift in emphasis from storytelling to content marketing, where the widest possible distribution is the priority.

This means that soundbite clips of documentaries that are well liked and shared on social media have become coveted by funders and broadcasters. These videos have their appeal, but it’s not clear if social media activity translates into deeper engagement. It also risks replicating the conditions that facilitated the rise of fake news in the first place.

Still, it is impossible to dismiss the value of technology for documentaries. Platforms from Netflix to YouTube have increased our access to other voices. As one audience member noted, when Indian broadcasters refused to support documentaries made by and about Dalit, those at the bottom of the caste system, YouTube offered a means of watching and exchanging such material.

The gatekeepers

One marked example of fake news as documentary is arguably the 2016 film Vaxxed. Directed by former gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield, it reasserts his discredited 1998 claims of links between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Vaxxed was scheduled for both the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and a Curzon cinema in central London, but both cancelled following negative publicity. On the other hand, the film is available on Amazon, in an example of the reluctance of internet platforms to make value judgements about their content.

Not coming to a cinema near you.

This case highlights the role of exhibitors, funders and distributors as gatekeepers who decide access to a documentary that could potentially cause harm. Despite my own agreement with the cancellations, this touches on broader questions about what it means to use “truth” and “harm” in deciding what should be publicly available. After all, yesterday’s accepted knowledge can be considered oppressive or dangerous today.

Science is grounded in social biases – race science and eugenics may be the best example; women’s long exclusion from medical research is another. Documentaries that counter official stories – in history or science – are therefore crucial. Luke Moody, film programming director of the Sheffield Doc/Fest, stressed to the Edinburgh audience the need for a range of voices at a film festival, including opinion-based work.

History of misdirection

The panel also pointed out that fake news and post-truth is nothing new. Documentary makers have been blurring the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction ever since Louis Lumière instructed his workers to exit his factory as if they had finished a day’s work for his famous 1895 short. Experimenting to achieve maximum effect, Lumière made three versions of the film.

Richard Warden, a documentary producer and film lead for the Mental Health Foundation UK, made a similar point about the 1855 Crimean War photo “The Valley of the Shadow of Death”. Taken by the pioneering British photographer Roger Fenton, cannonballs were placed in shot for dramatic emphasis.

Flora Gregory, a documentary consultant and former commissioning editor for Witness, Al-Jazeera English’s documentary strand, said the conflict between a free press and authoritarian leaders is also age-old. It may seem like a novelty in the West with the arrival of Trump and other populists, but that’s not the case.

Colbert in 2016. EPA

When Oxford Dictionaries made post-truth its word of 2016, it was not because it was new but because usage had increased in relation to the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election.

Indeed, US comedian Stephen Colbert introduced “truthiness” in 2005 to mean preferring concepts or facts one wishes or believes to be true to those that are true. He was applying this to the Iraq war, which is a reminder that fakery can have very real effects.

While discussing the range of perspectives offered through documentary, the panel also noted that national broadcasters can influence the truths audiences witness. Firas Fayyad, director of the award-winning Last Men in Aleppo, recounted how an earlier short observational film about children in Syria was shaped by two broadcasters’ differing priorities.

Broadcasters are beholden to perceived national preferences, Flora Gregory added. In the UK, they often prioritise presenter-led documentaries. Observational films on difficult subjects without voiceover or interviews can struggle to get picked up.

Left to right: Leshu Torchin, Firas Fayyad, Richard Warden, Flora Gregory, Sonja Henrici, Luke Moody. EIFF

In short, the historic challenges in making documentaries risk being exacerbated by online echo chambers and those in public life seeking to exploit them. It redoubles film makers’ duty to trade in honest portrayals and encourage deep reflection. Meanwhile, I hope broadcasters and exhibitors do not shy away from challenging subjects and experimentation in response to fake news.

I don’t see any general deterioration in the commitment from documentary makers to telling these complicated stories. Making a Murderer, and Last Men in Aleppo are two examples.

Yet in these testing times for facts, the future can definitely not be taken for granted. The overwhelming message from Edinburgh was that responsible documentary making has never been more important.