Online streaming giant Netflix is viewed as the savior of documentary filmmaking. It’s servers are hallowed ground for the struggling art, and University of California Long Beach media studies professor Sudeep Sharma says that many people view the Netflix service model as that of a library; they see Netflix as “a repository for a whole history of a cinematic genre and, through streaming, [Netflix] can serve the needs of an enormous subscriber base that transcends any one location or community.” This is all well and good, but is it accurate? Sharma says not quite. He argues that “unlike a library or another nonprofit entity, which maintains collections and material on the basis of scholarly need or historic purpose, Netflix’s choices are driven by commercial needs.” This means that their collection is fundamentally different from that of a library; it’s offerings “have to perform” or else they will be removed in Netflix’s revolving door of content. Their shows are offered “under some kind of limited time frame” according to Sharma meaning that the “contented offered on the service is constantly changing.”
This can be very problematic for documentary filmmakers looking to take risks and push the boundaries of the genre. Sharma says that Netflix operates more as a “newsstand” than a library; they are pressured by corporate interests to push stories that will sell, gain public attention, and in turn make Netflix more money. A risk, while having the potential to capture an audience and turn a profit, is just as likely in the eyes of corporations to utterly flop, losing money and credibility in the process. This causes companies like Netflix to play the safe route; a traditional documentary about a hot-button issue will likely gain a respected critical review and garner enough attention to be “worth it”.
But let’s not disparage the traditional documentary too hard. I chose to watch Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, and while it isn’t a rare animation like The Tower, an abstract story like Pearl Button, or even a meta-narrative like Cameraperson, its message of fighting political corruption through civil disobedience and peaceful protest all hit home, especially in today’s…questionable…administration. Joshua hits all the right notes for a quality traditional documentary, with a compelling subject, a high point where everything goes their way, a low point near the end where all hope seems lost, and then an end with an optimistic tone about how the fight for justice is not yet over. I found myself fully invested in his story, drawing parallels between CY Leung and our own pandering, ineffective congressmen, as well as between Xi Jinping and our own wannabe overlord President Trump. It’s a powerful documentary to add fuel to ongoing movements like MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and the Women’s March.
Despite all of these important points, I fully agree with Sharma. This documentary and others like it get privileged because of its safety. That’s not to say I didn’t find it enriching, I had no idea before watching this documentary about the struggles that Hong Kong was facing in maintaining its independence. I also found it fascinating that so many of the interviewees had a British accent, even the teenagers who grew up after the handover; it shows how different their culture is from that of China and I was completely on their side after the movie where before I was just neutral and uninformed.
How does this traditional documentary compare to its episodic brethren? I watched the first four episodes of Evil Genius, a documentary about a frankly psychotic woman named Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong who committed a heinous robbery and several even more heinous murders throughout her “troubled” life. One of the biggest differences I found between Joshua and Evil Genius was the increase in melodrama throughout the latter program. Joshua is one piece, meant to be watched in one sitting. You will find both its beginning and its end in the same program. Evil Genius on the other hand is episodic, which means it needs to maintain viewer interest across parts. That meant that each episode ended with a somewhat hackneyed cliffhanger, revealing a dramatic new piece of information right at the end of the first three episodes and not expanding upon it until the following one. This makes it have a distinctly more “reality TV” feeling, trying to ratchet up tension to keep viewers watching across episode gaps rather than a purely factual, briefing-style show like you would have seen in news coverage of the same event. There are also several reenacted, dramatized scenes (most significantly the silhouetted event which depicts Brian Wells getting captured and collared) that makes it feel more like Criminal Minds than The Thin Blue Line.
Once again, my criticism sounds harsher than it is. I was invested in Evil Genius; I wanted to find out whodunit, whether Wells was a willing accomplice, and why people were so drawn to this crazy rambling crone (and how much her poor lawyer was being paid to listen to her rant). Rothstein’s obnoxious narcissism rankled me and Hoopsick’s 11th hour confession surprised me. There does end up being more of a narrative arc in Evil Genius than Joshua; as I said before it plays out like a police procedural slowly revealing details and providing misdirection as to who was and wasn’t involved to keep viewers guessing and in the dark as long as possible. Joshua on the other hand lays the facts out for all to see, focusing on pushing its message as opposed to creating drama and suspense (except when the cops showed up, I got Tiananmen Square flashbacks and was immediately trying to remember when Joshua’s interviews took place).
To conclude, I think it is unfair to say whether or not viewing these nonfiction pieces are more or less meaningful than watching fictional or scripted television. While these can teach you about real historical events and educate you about the world around you, many people gain this same information from news broadcasts and look to television as an escape from the depression and drudgery of their daily lives. Television should be what you want it to be, and escapism can be a valuable commodity for a lot of people. To say that one is more meaningful than the other is ascribing one’s values to everybody else. I have had plenty of meaningful experiences with fictional television, just last week I watched Coco with a friend and drank wine and cried (I promise I’m not a middle-aged white woman). I also got choked up watching the documentary Mom & Me, which I think shows the power that both fiction and nonfiction programming can have.