All Documentaries are Liars (as are all historians, too)

I hate documentaries. In fact, I’m somewhat morally opposed to them.

You see, a documentary is one perspective, one story, told in a very moving, dramatic, and persuasive manner. It’s one side of a debate without an opponent. There are images, music, and powerful language to sweep you up into a story. A tale. It demands your belief and polarizes the story.

And all of this is fine if, like a political debate, the documentary is merely for your entertainment.

I suppose there are two types of documentaries. Probably more, but I studied history, not film. (With the delightful exception of a science fiction film class.)

One kind of documentary tells a story.

The other kind of documentary tells a story.

Ha! What I mean is, one’s a narrative and one’s persuasive. Persuasive documentaries are the ones that really get my hackles up. They present a story and pretend it’s fact. Not cool! They have the option to omit important facts and considerations. They can cite studies but don’t have to tell you how those studies performed in peer reviews.

Now, the narrative kind of documentary is more tolerable to me, but it can be sneaky. It’s also a story, presented as fact. It’s just not overtly trying to form your mindset. And that’s where they get you, because you’re not listening with guarded ears.

It’s kind of like history, actually!

I mean, when you read a history book – a secondary source, if you will – you expect to trust it. But you shouldn’t! Historians write history, like literally write history. History is whatever they want it to be. Fortunately, there are checks and balances and peer reviews, but there’s a reason the world history you learn in American schools is different from the world history you learn in, say, Chinese schools.


Why am I dogging on my favorite subject? (History, not politics.) Well, I believe that a good historian is always doubtful, always critical, always aware that everything (and I do mean everything) is subjective. My undergraduate studies, and my critically-thinking parents, and even my graduate studies, taught me to view information with a doubtful eye (a grain of salt, if you will). To quote my current favorite show, the truth is out there. It just might be between the lines or on the cutting room floor or buried under a pile of s***.

P.S. I absolutely loved the documentary Encounters at the End of the World. Quirky and unequivocally beautiful – it’s the only documentary I suggest you watch. 


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