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Responsible Documentary Filmmaking and Media Theory

Inspired by a paper I recently read about media and communication theory, this podcast explores the power of story, perspective motivation, and ideas on how to consume and present media and documentary movies ethically in the modern age.

Relevant Links:

by Joshua Meyrowitz

No Sense of Place by Joshua Meyrowitz

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Before we get into the podcast, I would like to make an important note about something I mentioned in the later part of the recording.

I advocate listing to, reading and watching a variety of media that you agree with and do not agree with, and the key to this exercise is to do your best to see the story from each perspective and WHY they are describing what is happening in such a way.

You may not agree with how they are presenting the story, but if we can understand and feel compassion for those we disagree with (and we do this by connecting narrative of the story to what is desired in relation to basic human needs that everyone requires) then maybe we can see eye to eye and heart to heart.

Humanize the people you dislike. They are probably much more complex than they get credit for, and yet basic as you or I am, in that we, as humans, all require similar things to function well.

Full Episode Transcript

NOTE: This podcast was transcribed by a tool I highly recommend called called Happy Scribe. We do our best to adjust the transcript so that it reads smoothly, but if we missed something please forgive any typos or errors.

Hey there. How are you doing today? I’m doing all right, I guess. Today we’re going to talk about more theory than anything else, and it’s about media theory versus talking about filmmaking in its raw form or even planning your life around being a filmmaker. I feel that media theory is actually quite important from a filmmaking point of view, especially if you’re doing documentary. And I actually gave a lecture on this like 10 years ago, and I could find the slides maybe from that lecture, but I’m going to summarize it, and actually go cast an even wider net beyond documentary, because I think it’s important right now.

There are a multitude of ways to explain an incident that happens. And. When I was young, which wasn’t that long ago. There were many different voices explaining how things happened.

And in that reality there was no one loud voice, or maybe there was, but there were a number of other perspectives that one could find easily that would look at things in a different perspective.

Additionally, whatever news you were receiving in your locality was not something that was necessarily being received in another locality. Now, this, of course, caused problems, but it also didn’t create such a split and that is creating havoc and destabilizing our nation.

So, when I was in seventh grade, we were learning about Russia and somebody asked, “Are there newspapers in Russia?” And the teacher said “Yes”.

And we were talking about freedom of the press. And somebody said, “Really? Well, then that’s how they get their news.” They’re like, “Yeah, but nobody believes it.” And sadly, I feel like that’s where we are today.

And so as filmmakers and particularly documentarians, but also when you’re writing a script or picking a script, there’s always going to be some underlying biases, and it’s inherent in anything unless you’re rattling off data, which even in that can be inherently biased because of data that is excluded or emphasized or explained.

So that was in seventh grade and then I went on to college and I became a media and communications major and I had one of the most brilliant professors I ever had in that time, which inspired me to become a communications major. And he actually… [I] Just read… He wrote a paper that came out on the [January] 6th, and so I am somewhat inspired by that to talk about this, although the topic of that paper was not what I’m talking about today.

And a lot of this might seem super obvious if you pay attention to media. And this wasn’t obvious, by the way, when I was taking classes like 20 years ago with this professor. [It] was all, “Oh, my God, they do this and they do this and they do this?” But if you’re not a media major, if you weren’t a media major back then, you wouldn’t have gotten it. But today, it seems like people understand somewhat how things are parsed out, although they think it’s the whoever they’re listening to is is accurate and right.

And so we have this issue, we had started to have this issue a long time ago where the media was deregulated and it started to become clear that very few people were going to own a majority of the media. And before this deregulation happened, that was illegal because they saw the implications of that. But in the struggle for power that corporations are trying to always grab for they saw that a key thing would be to control the hearts and minds of people by controlling the media and having very few voices.

And that’s why today we either have a bunch of people or a bunch of people saying, pardon my language, “F*** those people”. And that’s what we have now. And there is no in-between.

And so this podcast was also inspired by me watching a documentary, and it had a pretty inflammatory title, I don’t want to get into the details of it because I’m doing my best to not get into my own political beliefs, which are scattered honestly, and so because I listen to a multitude of different medias that range from all from far, far, far one side to far, far, far, the other side, and I try to do that… I do that as best I can because I A want to here the way people are explaining incidences that happen and also to to see what they’re leaving in, they’re leaving out what they’re emphasizing, and it really, I feel [it] like is the most important way to get a balanced understanding, but the truth is we’re never going to know the full details, no matter who we listen to. No matter who we listen to.

Have you ever gone to a party and then like about like a month later you hear about all these things that happened at that party and you’re like, “Oh, my God, I had no idea,” or whatever, just because maybe one of your friends was like really in the know. That’s it.

We hear maybe something like that. That friend that’s in the know, we hear like a percentage of that, you know, so we never really know the full story or maybe like will witness something. And then later we’ll hear somebody tell the story of it. And it is completely different than our take on what had happened, like where we were actually witness to some incident… Maybe it’s a family incident.. And then you hear somebody else explain it and it’s completely off base in your opinion.

So that’s where I feel like it’s hard to be vehement about a lot of the things that people are vehement about because we don’t know the inner workings, and then if you even know the inner workings, there are a million perspectives on the inner workings.

There is an improv game. That improvisation… Improvisational acting… Where one actor will… Like… An incident… A scene will take place and then it’ll pause and then one actor, one character will explain the whole thing happening and the other actors will have to act it out, then it’ll rerun again.

And another actor will explain everything that happened in that original scene. And the actors will have to act it out, but they’ll make up something that was completely different from that perspective of that character that puts them at an advantage or whatever.

And then you have the third character doing the same thing. And this is just a playful thing. But really, I’ve been thinking about it a lot and it really shows the truth in telling a story and how perspective is important and and really can influence how a story is told.

And then you bring that back to the media and you cannot have any kind of news story not have story inherently in there.

So as documentarians…

Going back to seeing that documentary and I was reading the reviews on this documentary, [which] had a very inflammatory title and which made me almost not want to watch it, but I chose to watch it. And it actually had a somewhat compassionate thesis and at least what it was attempting to do was look at [and] psychoanalyse a certain behavior.

And I just thought it was somewhat compassionate. But the title was so inciting of defense from the start that a lot of people had already found it offensive, probably before they even turned it on, and that happens a lot, too, because people want to sell things, and that happens very much in a corporate media landscape where people want to sell things like ad space.

So, in being responsible filmmakers, I think the key takeaway to this podcast is just know that when you create some sort of media it is powerful and influential. Especially if it’s on a hot topic of the day.

And to understand that words have power and that visuals with those words also have power, and it’s a very… “With great power comes great responsibility,” to quote Spiderman’s uncle, I think, I don’t really pay attention to Marvel.

But anyway, there were times in this when I gave my original lecture on documentary filmmaking that I was encouraging people to go out and make a movie if they had a strong feeling on something that they would present it in their documentary.

Not even a strong feeling, but an interesting perspective on something, because I’ve learned a lot from documentaries and looking at something through the lens of a perspective that I may not have had before. And I love that because I go, “OK, that’s a different way to look at something. That appeals to me.”

I like hearing something that maybe isn’t the way I saw it and adjusting myself in that regard.

So what was interesting, though, is people felt that documentary [with the slacious title]… A lot of these reviews [said the documentary] should be even balanced.

And I had two thoughts on that.

The first is “No, it shouldn’t. It shouldn’t. It’s a documentary. It’s, again, a way of examining something in the world that is happening. That is a perspective, you know, and it’s very clear that it’s not meant to be even and balanced.

The second thing, though, is that maybe in this day and age, because the blurred line has happened, it’s all news is and documentary in a fictional sense has kind of blurred.

And so maybe my perspective has changed on this since I gave this lecture 10 years ago, that maybe documentary… There should be something at the beginning of documentary movies saying “This is my take on it and I’m presenting it in a movie because I feel that I have a unique and interesting take on this. So feel what you want. You may disagree, but just listen to the story I tell about the things that are happening in the world right now.”

And I feel that maybe that’s a necessary thing at this point in time because there is a big blur.

And again, going back to corporate media, not only is there always going to be a very compelling and powerful story behind incidents that happen, but there’s always a motive behind telling those stories that is very powerful and again, goes back to the whole and pardon my language again, “There are these people and then these people.”

And I’m not saying one side, or the other because both sides do it, but that’s our that’s our media that we get now.

And it’s so unsatisfying. Don’t you think it’s unsatisfying? I think it’s unsatisfying.

And so the remedy to that… So I’m saying documentary people, and even narrative, when you write something in it, could just be part of who you are, but people might read it as like a thing or a message.

I have relatives that turn off media when certain things are presented in a narrative story on television and they think that they’re being influenced and maybe they are.

Could be. Could be. Because it’s corporate television often.

But, you know, just know that that is something that happens. And then the other thing is, is so that’s powerful. But also the other take away, in the midst of living in the world in 2021 is… And before that but since you’re probably listening to this 2021 or afterward, a general good rule of thumb is to get your news not just from your favorite sources, go to the ones that you really dislike, too.

Go to the ones that you kind of agree with.
Go to the ones that you really agree with.
Go to all of them and you will find that it will soften the one that you agree with the most which sounds like a bad thing, but I think that’s important for rational dialogue.

And what I mean by that is it’s very easy to get angry. And it’s natural to get angry. But it’s also like… That’s a human thing… But it’s also important for proper dialogue and proper change in a civil society to temper that with rational thought and debate.

I guess I’m done.

I’m going to leave it on that note and thank you for listening. And I hope you have a safe and good day. And I will talk to you soon.

I forgot something…

Before I sign off, I wanted to add that I will be adding a link to my professor’s… Professor Joshua Meyrowitz… His paper that I just read.

And again, it’s a commentary on today’s media, but it’s not necessarily about what I talked about today but I just think everything this guy writes is brilliant.

So worth reading. Everyone should read his work fantastic. And even going back like 30 years ago, read his book. It’s fantastic. Just it would help a lot if everybody understood what he teaches.

And that’s it. Thank you. Have a great day.
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