Are documentaries worth making?

Sept. 4, 2021, 8:03 a.m.

Environmental documentaries are often designed to elicit strong reactions from the viewing public. But when the internet blew up following the release of “Seaspiracy,” an informational documentary about the impact of fishing on the oceans, the primary reaction was one of concern and suspicion. The documentary’s release did anything but fall flat — the informational documentary debuted on Netflix’s top 10 chart, hit over 1.5 million views on Instagram and garnered the endorsements of many celebrities, including Florence Pugh, Kourtney Kardashian and Tom Brady.

“Seaspiracy” focuses on the impact of humans on the oceans and explores the loopholes behind sustainable labels, the pollution inherent to the fishing industry and the need to lower fish consumption in order to restore ocean health. This documentary serves as a bridge, bringing viewers who might otherwise feel distant or disconnected from these issues closer to understanding them. However, documentaries have their faults — they often leave out the native people’s narrative, misinterpret facts and cost millions of dollars. So, are documentaries like “Seaspiracy” still worth making? 

“Informational documentaries are a way to make nonfiction more palatable to the average viewers, especially because non fiction books have existed forever,” said Dara Albrecht, an environmental studies major at Yale who works with the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF). “We have encyclopedias, we have guides to specific things, [but] in today’s very technological world, people are more inclined to sit down and synthesize that information by visually watching it, so it’s a way for you to consume a work of nonfiction with examples before your eyes.” 

Watching any informational documentary often leaves viewers with mixed emotions. Albrecht said that she feels fulfilled after learning something new and that the “grab bag of emotions” includes being surprised, shocked, impressed, sometimes angry and other times enthralled. “Seaspiracy” evoked all of these emotions and more in viewers, many of whom took to online platforms to criticize the documentary’s treatment of cultural issues in the fishing industry and related communities.

“[‘Seaspiracy’] presents a picture of a heroic ​‘white saviour’ in a cast of ruthless, murderous fishers, corrupt governments and NGOs, and evil Chinese vessels with enslaved crew working hard to deplete the oceans as rapidly as possible, taking food out of the mouths of poor Africans,” Chris Williams of the News Economics Foundation wrote in New Economics Foundation. “Understandably, fishers, industry bodies and experts in the field feel misrepresented, attacked and portrayed as an evil industry.”

Leaving out an essential part of a story can change its impact and outcome. Many informational documentaries like “Seaspiracy” have been accused of bias and misinterpreting the facts that they are presenting to the audience, which often causes people to write off the movie altogether, despite the valuable information it still contains.

“We live in an age of sensationalism, and we want things to be sensational, and we want the news to be cool, and sometimes the truth isn’t as fun as it’s portrayed,” Albrecht said. “It can sow seeds of distrust in the informational documentary industry in which case it would just reverse all the good effects that I’ve been advocating for here.”

Many informational documentaries have an underlying theme of environmental destruction and aim to persuade the viewer to take action to save the places that have been displayed. However, Sian Bradley wrote for Wired, that the “impact of such movies on behavior is poorly understood.” 

“My grandfather isn’t going to change the person he’s been for the past 40, 50 years,” said Stanford marine biology major and Guam native Nicholas Camacho ‘22. “It’s the people who we are raising … My children, my cousin’s children, those are the ones who are going to be learning from this.” 

Coming from a family of scientists, Camacho already knew the consequences of human actions before he watched the documentary. For others, however, these movies can have a sizable impact. 

Camacho has also seen the issues that “Seaspiracy” raises firsthand. “Coming from Guam, I’ve grown up around the ocean. I would argue that I’ve seen a nicer ocean, and I’ve seen it deteriorate. And some people, if they just come in and they’ve never experienced the ocean before, they might not see the full scale of the impact of the natural environment… they don’t see the change, they don’t see the progression,” he said. A documentary can show these changes to those who haven’t experienced them in their own lives. 

When documentaries feature specific organizations, they can draw public attention to the work those organizations are doing. Albrecht said that the portrayal of REEF in the documentary “Grouper Moon,” galvanized people to come to the organization and ask questions about the movement. 

Documentaries can also serve as a sort of time-stamp for our societal practices.

“It should be a metric by which we judge our actions in the future, because if say twenty, thirty years from now we can look back on this film and say ‘oh, you know, a lot of these practices no longer exist anymore,’ then we can see, through that metric, that we have progressed as a human race, that we’ve progressed as a society, that we’ve actually brought about some sort of effectual change,” Camacho said.

Producing an informational documentary is also expensive. Planet Earth, a nature documentary by BBC and David Attenborough, costs about $25 million to make, according to Amazon. To put this number into context, the expenses of Oceana, an ocean conservation non profit, totaled $39 million in 2019. When creating these documentaries, considering the expenses is vital, as donating the money to a reputable organization might have a greater impact than using it for a movie.

While $25 million might be excessive, documentaries are an engaging way to educate viewers about topics that seem far away and difficult to grasp. A documentary can break a complex narrative into digestible chunks for the general population in an entertaining format. According to CBS news, documentaries have “earned the reputation of being cinematic spinach- films that were good for you.” 

For Camacho, whether or not a documentary is worthwhile depends heavily on the source of its funding. If the money is taken from federal funding, for example, the documentary may be more valuable than if the money is coming from something more impactful, such as direct education and supporting local communities. “It’s all relative,” he said.

So now to revisit the main question: are documentaries really worth it? Yes. Absolutely. Despite their costs, they do ultimately have an impact on viewers, whether that is through showing them places they would otherwise be unable to travel to, teaching them something new about the world around them or simply providing a metric for measuring change in the future. These nonfiction stories evoke emotions in viewers, and making these stories more widely accessible brings people closer together, which will always be a worthwhile outcome.  

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