Truth: A documentary

Documentaries like “Blackfish” (2013) often only share one side of the story. //

Documentaries like “Blackfish” (2013) often only share one side of the story. //

Kevin Niederman


You want to watch a documentary. You're tired of all the exciting fiction you've been exposing yourself to, and you want a little dosage of truth.

You'd expect that wherever you decide to turn, be it a recounting of the battle for Wake Island or the creation and history of your favorite baked good, the information you actively consume is the truth. That's what documentaries are, truth. They aren't written or created, they’re fact.

They might as well be educational. Right?

I don't feel this is the case.

I'm an emotional person, and as such I feel like I'm easy to take advantage of. I cry at fictional movies all the time, and of course I would. Of course the tiny red-headed girl dies of leukemia. Of course the boy has to shoot his own dog. Of course the man’s dream girl was initially abrasive because she’s terminally ill. Of course!

These films manipulate me emotionally, forcing me to care about something just so they can bludgeon me maudlin five minutes later. It's so common that it's become kind of an insider’s joke. You know if anyone shows you a picture of his kids or says he's about to retire he's about to die.

Documentaries operate the same way.

Remember the movie Blackfish released in 2013? The documentary told the story of killer whales in captivity, specifically a whale named Tilamook and its captors, SeaWorld. The movie discussed several deaths that occurred as a result of the aggressive behavior of this whale, and questioned the morality of holding giant intelligent fish prisoner in order to perform tricks for five-year-olds.

It brought up some good questions, but it also went beyond and answered those questions. Blackfish, more than anything else, makes you angry. It makes you mad that SeaWorld would ever do anything so wicked.

SeaWorld denied much of what was said in the film. They claimed the vast majority of the “experts” interviewed were disgruntled former SeaWorld employees, and the information shown and discussed was biased. Nobody told SeaWorld’s side of the story.

The things they did show, they showed decisively. Every shot of the whale attacking someone is black and white or tilted and the screen stained red. Music swells and peaks with splashes and screams of the trainers fighting for their lives.

The film is edited, as all documentaries are. That editing is designed to make you feel a specific way. And you do. This isn't a textbook. If you don't enjoy the film, if you don't feel anything, what's the point?

SeaWorld put out a ton of press and material trying to get their side of the story out, but it was too late. It didn't matter anymore. Blackfish is fact now; it's the truth. SeaWorld ticket sales are still plummeting. Perhaps that’s why SeaWorld finally caved to all the pressure and recently announced they would be stopping Orca breeding and are phasing out all theatrical shows.

I'm not saying I agree that SeaWorld is right or wrong or anything. All I'm pointing out is that a movie sharing a point of view is, for many people, considered the truth.

Remember Kony 2012? That 30-minute documentary that had the entire U.S. up in arms over a genocidal maniac in Uganda? Kony had long since left Uganda at the time of that film's release, and his “massive” following also numbered in the low hundreds.

More recently I've been bombarded by people telling me I have to see “Making a Murderer,” and how angry I'll be at America and the justice system after I do.

Yet, before I got the chance to see it, I got to see the film makers admit that they knowingly left out some specific evidence in the trial in order to make a more compelling story.

Has that stopped anybody from taking that film for absolute fact?

Documentaries are fun, but I think the real education is looking into the topics they discuss for yourself instead of being spoonfed someone else's opinions.

Documentaries are films. They are created by people with agendas, and that agenda isn't always spreading the truth. There's a reason your mom told you not to take things at face value. At least I hope she did.

Kevin Niederman is a junior nursing major hailing from Santa Rosa CA, about an hour north of San Francisco. He enjoys cartoons, hats, and driving ridiculous distances for food that has the potential of being amazing.