Do Documentaries Still Have Educational Value?

From 2011, Christopher Campbell wonders if nonfiction films can still be used for teaching -- and if they ever should have been.

A Film Unfinished educational documentary

Doc Talk was a bi-weekly column covering documentary films that ran on alternate Wednesdays on the now-defunct movie blog Cinematical. Here is an entry originally published on January 5, 2011, about the educational value of documentaries in the modern era.

When I began to favor nonfiction cinema a few years back, I had two major reasons for doing so. One, I simply stopped caring about what happens to fictional ballerinas, dream architects, and talking animals. And two, I realized that with documentaries, even if they’re bad, I can usually learn something from them. But the more I study the format, and the more dubious, manipulative, and one-sided docs I see (and 2010 brought many questionable works), the more I’m coming to the conclusion that nonfiction film isn’t really to be trusted as educational material.

As it happens, I’m actually liking documentaries even more now that I don’t feel I’m learning anything — however, I am a lot less forgiving of the bad films as a result.

I should acknowledge that there is an easy argument for answering “yes” to the question of whether documentaries can still have educational value. Much generic television documentary, such as those programs shown on the History and Military channels, can probably teach viewers about its varied subjects. Science films at museums and planetariums, too.

I’m concerned mainly with docs released theatrically, the sort typically interested in telling a story rather than telling the truth. Not that most of these films set out to lie or intentionally present false information. It is probable that Josh Fox believes everything documented in his astonishing investigatory film Gasland is factual. But everytime I write about that film, a representative from ANGA (America’s Natural Gas Alliance) or “Energy-in-Depth” or some other lobby comments with a link to a list of its alleged inaccuracies.

Contrary to what these commenters may think, I am actually very open to and gracious for such contention. All it does, however, is make me distrust the validity of either side. Actually, distrust isn’t the right word. It’s more like I just don’t care who has the real facts or what those facts are. I still love Fox’s film as a detective story, but if he meant to educate me on the issue, he ultimately failed, even if it’s not his fault.

Another fascinating doc from last year (and, like Gasland, a Sundance prize winner), A Film Unfinished, ironically displays the deceptive power of documentary by exposing a 1942 Nazi propaganda film about the Warsaw Ghetto as having been more staged and fabricated than was previously known. Let’s imagine that this is now used for educational purposes until half a century from now when it too is revealed to be a construct. And by our imagining let us not mean to necessarily doubt director Yael Hersonski; I’m just playing devil’s advocate to put things into perspective.

Recently I watched part of Alex Gibney‘s Casino Jack and the United States of Money (yes, another graduate of Sundance ’10), and I guess I did feel like I learned a few things about the life of Jack Abramoff. But it was the kind of information more appropriately learned from a book. Gibney, through his own dry spoken narration and the interviews he’s conducted, tells us about Abramoff rather than showing us a cinematic narrative.

Many of the director’s films, while highly acclaimed, are little more than supplements or visual introductions to stuff better verbalized in great detail in literary form. And Gibney is not the only person guilty of this kind of filmmaking, nor is he the worst offender (Food, Inc. probably takes that crown). Fortunately for him, he makes at least four films a year and typically delivers at least one exceptional documentary. Last year it was Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, which taught me nothing in the way of facts yet did entertain with its engaging story and colorful characters in a way that Peter Elkin’s related publication Rough Justice could not.

We may learn or be reminded of general truths, particularly about human behavior, from documentaries, as if their closest literary equivalents were the texts found in the humor section of book stores rather than those in any other nonfiction department. Maybe this is why we love comedians-as-documentarians. We learn about the absurdities of the art world from Exit Through the Gift Shop, as Banksy shows it to us (as opposed to telling us about it). We see the worst of the entertainment media and the public’s obsession with celebrity in the satirical I’m Still Here (which I still consider a documentary). However, similar films by or starring people like Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, Doug Benson, and Sacha Baron Cohen are usually more revealing than informative.

No respectable professor or teacher is going to assign any of these kinds of documentaries as required viewing as substitutes for text-based educational materials, right? But is there a line somewhere that educators can cross over and find the genuinely trustworthy films? Nature and ethnographic documentaries, some of which we all saw in grade school, have been predominantly staged for at least a century. And historical films are always up for dispute.

One documentary I initially found to be educational last year was Werner Herzog‘s 3D exploration of geological formations and prehistorical art, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Yeah, I should have known better. Much of the film probably is still acceptable as minor learning fodder for science and art history students, so long as they see it in 3D. They just shouldn’t believe any of that stuff in the epilogue about albino crocodiles mutated by contaminated water from a nearby nuclear power plant. Herzog admits he made it all up.

So what else is there, from 2010 alone? Does Last Train Home teach us anything about China’s urbanization and the massive migrations it’s causing, or does it just show us a single family affected by it? Does Restrepo teach us anything about the war in Afghanistan, or does it merely show us a year in the life of a single platoon fighting there? Can Inside Job and Waiting for “Superman” educate us fully on the financial crisis and — fittingly — the US education system, respectively?

Last year I did learn a few things. I happily now know who Dr. Nakamats is thanks to The Invention of Dr. Nakamats. The validity of all he claims to have invented? Not so much. I also know more about Nuon Chea (Enemies of the People), Joan Rivers (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work), and sheep (Sweetgrass) than I did before.

I’m better aware of the lives and music careers of Harry Nilsson, Bill Withers, and even John Lennon courtesy of Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?, Still Bill, and LennoNYC, respectively. I’m more familiar with the recent history of Disney Animation from Waking Sleeping Beauty, was introduced to the significance of the Barnes art collection from The Art of the Steal, and saw how radioactive waste is being disposed of and was informed how long it will remain hazardous from Into Eternity. But I wouldn’t really say I was educated by any of these films. I’m no more an expert of their subjects than I was previously.

The closest thing to an educational film I saw last year in the form of a theatrically screened documentary — and I guess I can still only consider this because I’ve not read anything debunking, denying or otherwise challenging its facts — is the civil rights history Freedom Riders. Deservedly just nominated for a Writer’s Guild Award (up against Inside Job, Who is Harry Nilsson…, Gasland, Enemies of the People, and The Two Escobars), it informs about and properly shows, by way of some very impressive, exhaustive archival coverage, a tragic part of a 1961 interracial bus ride into the American South.

Civil rights documentaries seem to regularly educate me further on the subject. Last year, there was also Neshoba: The Price of Freedom, which surprised me out of the blue. But is it just that I’m more unaware and more curious about these histories than I am about other documentary subjects that allow me to feel like I’m truly learning from them? I guess personal interest often figures into the educational value of documentaries. It can work in a different way, in that because people flock to docs that preach to the choir, they don’t learn much that they don’t already know.

For me, regardless of whether films like Freedom Riders and Neshoba are fair and balanced or not, they provided me with some undeniable historical facts while also illustrating, without humorous intentions, human behavior of the past and present. I could see them being assigned as required viewing by history and sociology professors, and what they do well can’t be adequately achieved with textbooks.

So there is still some educational value to be found in current documentaries, even for skeptics like myself. But as widespread distrust in documentary truth increases, faith in the form as a learning tool may be dwindling, even as programs like SnagFilms’ new SnagLearning arrive and remind us that some nonfiction subjects can indeed be educated through modern documentary film, particularly the rare sort that is apolitical and unironic.

And people will continue to believe what they want to believe, and some will always believe everything they see and are told. So, other less doubting viewers are being educated on a regular basis, it’s just that that education may not be with accurate or proven information. Of course, we’ve all been lied to by professional educators, so what does it matter?

What was the last documentary you learned something from?

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.