Manipulation in Documentaries

Every night when we sit down to watch our much loved Grey’s Anatomy or Desperate Housewives, we know for a fact they are fictional dramas which allow us to escape the reality and boredom of our lives. We also realise the scripted shows use many tactics to manipulate our thinking. The producer does this to position us towards a specific view of life. But what do we expect from a documentary? We know documentaries to be faithful recounts of events; however, these events may be subject to just as much manipulation as the intriguing plots in our addictive shows.

Many documentary makers include their individual cultural assumptions and discourses to distort the truth and position the target audience to react in a desired manner. This can be seen in the documentary, ‘Supersize Me’ by Morgan Spurlock and ‘Great White – Deep Trouble’ showcasing Peter Benchley, David Doubilet and Rodney Fox. Both producers desire to position the audience towards their discourse through their documentary.

They accomplish this by presenting snippets of films, opinions and facts that agree with their discourse and disposing of the rest. ‘Super Size Me’, written, produced, directed by and starring Morgan Spurlock, is a producer dominated documentary. It shows Spurlock endeavouring on a thirty day McDonald’s binge to prove that regular consumption of the food is a fast way to heart disease, high cholesterol and obesity. Spurlock aims to prove his nutritional discourse by taking tests before and after the experiment to show the affects.

Before the experiment began, Spurlock’s body showed healthy results both physically and emotionally, however, after the experiment, his body was physically rundown sporting clogged arteries, high cholesterol, weight gain and emotionally he showed early stages of depression. Spurlock’s aim in the documentary is to inform his audience that regular fast food consumption is extremely harmful to your body. It uses both fully narrated and self reflexive types of documentary to present the message.

This means voice overs are used to interpret graphs, pictures and facts presented in the documentary to prove that fast food has a significant impact on the nation’s health. He also includes many techniques including camera angles, music and sound, lighting and many elements typical of documentaries. Spurlock uses Mise-en-scene to prove that obesity is a result of extreme fast food intake by purposely filming obese people walking through a shot at McDonalds. Spurlock also uses the technique of interviewing doctors and scientists to grab our attention and make it difficult for us, the audience, to make our own decision.

He does this as the majority of us believe scientists and doctors have the most knowledge on this argument and therefore we will agree with his discourse. Similarly the documentary, ‘Great White – Deep Trouble’, produced by John Bredar, attempts to influence the audience to feel sympathy and love for the Great White which to many represents a killer beast. The documentary aims to manipulate us towards the view that sharks are gentle fish that are simply misunderstood by humans.

Through the journey of David Doubilet, a famous photographer, the audience are presented with pictures, journal entries and filming of the Great White in the hope of capturing the perfect shot. One of the crew on the mission is Rodney Fox who previously had a bloody encounter with a Great White and survived. Although the majority of us would be too afraid to return to the water, Fox has chosen to partake in the mission of defending the creature. The producer uses this to his advantage by demonstrating that even someone who was attacked by a killing machine managed to love the animal and therefore we should too.

The documentary uses techniques in order to create a calm ambience and make the shark seem vulnerable. They use relaxing music and bright lighting to create a sympathetic and almost angelic view of the shark. Camera shots are taken under water allowing the audience to see the scenery and true characteristics of the shark. The documentary provides close up shots to shows the sharks facial features and emotions. It also uses long shots to show the entire body and the provide insight into the sharks natural habitat.

The documentary uses the feature of exposition to expose the true qualities of the shark in order to manipulate the audience. Both documentaries possess intertextualities that we are all familiar with. In general, when we see Ronald McDonald we are automatically reminded of McDonalds and their food products. In the Documentary, Spurlock shows Ronald McDonald as an evil clown rather than happy. This represents his negativity towards the restaurant. When watching ‘Great White – Deep Trouble’ our intertextualities towards sharks is that they are vicious man-eating machines like the shark off the movie ‘Jaws’.

Although many facts, graphs and discourses are exposed and explained throughout these two documentaries it does not necessarily mean the producer’s opinion is correct. They simply want to manipulate and position the audience to believe what they say in order to sell their view to the public. When we hear the word,’ documentary’ our cultural beliefs tell us they are filled with true facts or recounts of events, however, we need to realise that documentaries are filled with individual discourses which aren’t essentially accurate.

We as an audience need to ensure we do not fall victim to the producer’s manipulative techniques that are incorporated in the documentaries. In order to do so we need to be strong in our personal beliefs and discourses. That does not mean you should seclude all opinions from others. Be open to new ideas, but be strong in your own beliefs. That way you will not be manipulated as easily. Make your own decision and don’t let the producer sway that conclusion.