Sunday, February 22, 2009

Documentaries and ethics

We watched "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" last night. While it was certainly damning, and infuriating to watch these con men smoothly invoking moral rectitude while they stole hundreds of millions of dollars and manufactured the California electricity crisis, I found the film disappointing. Although it showed many people talking about the scams and frauds and the crooks who perpetrated them, it didn't really explain them. Mostly it said, in effect, bad things were going on, it was all about manipulating the stock price, it was a house of cards, the people were sneaks and liars, etc., but never gave clear explanations and descriptions of what they really did and how the frauds really worked. That was left to extrapolation or perhaps assumed background knowledge.

Obviously the filmmakers and their informants knew the subject matter intimately, but they did not translate that knowledge into terms the uninitiated could clearly follow. The feelings of outrage come across, but not the substance that underlay them. As viewers we see a lot of bad people doing bad things but we never really get brought into what those bad things were made up of. You're just supposed to know already, or be content not to understand but let your feelings be plucked regardless. You're left with a sense of anger and a (probably healthy) skepticism at the statements and public posturing of ostensible titans, but not tools with which you might interpret events for yourself, beyond the emotional level.

Michael Moore's films also disappoint for a similar reason. He takes a lot of cheap shots at his targets, making them look bad through filmmaking trickery (this is not to say that I don't agree with his ideas, in large part I do). He's very effective at making people look like crooks and charlatans, but not in enabling viewers to see what is going on for themselves.

Documentary filmmakers have a responsibility to get their subject matter across in ways that help viewers think and understand, not just get angry or condemn. When they fail in this dimension, the films sink down into manipulation. To me that is an ethical lapse that detracts from the effectiveness of the social concerns that such filmmakers undoubtedly possess. The films become more about entertainment -- giving you an emotional experience -- than about giving you tools to develop insight. Not that this is easy to do -- it isn't. But to take the stance of the social documentarian, in my mind, requires taking on this dimension as well.

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