Humanitarian Documentaries 
Show and Tell

Alexandra Sutton explores the ethical issues behind humanitarian documentaries, and questions their ability to facilitate change

Whose voice are we hearing? Photo by Jonathan Smith.

Whose voice are we hearing? Photo by Jonathan Smith.

The humanitarian documentary is a double-edged sword of communication and narrative. It serves both to inform and to raise awareness, but it does so through a medium which is necessarily subjective, emotionally manipulative and most importantly, aesthetically produced. So, when it comes to documentaries which focus on human rights issues and campaigns, there appears to be a serious ethical problem in their nature. This problem then forces the question – what do these documentaries actually achieve?

The dichotomy between communication and narrative can be broadly broken down into the idea of “show and tell”. Do these documentaries show us problems, or do they tell us about them? The answer is almost inevitably “tell” – the most powerful documentaries tend to be ideological in their foundations, not only alerting people to serious human rights issues, but exploring the reasons behind them and positing the possibilities for change. This is by no means a bad thing – whether a documentary is led by one strong voice, or features a panel of insightful talking heads, it is often enlightening to have problems which may seem initially very alien relayed to you by those who know the subject.

Although it is arguable that ideology should be the motivating force behind documentary, that argument is contigent upon what we believe the documentary can and should achieve. For example, the basic concept of a documentary would be “to document”, to simply chronicle information and then relay it, leaving room for personal interpretation and reflection. However, humanitarian documentaries, which are heavily stylised and persuasively emotive, aim to create food for thought without actually leaving any room to taste it. A notorious exemplar of this is Invisible Children’s much debated Kony 2012 short film. With its heartbreaking images and moving soundtrack, it struck a chord with the public (not unlike charity adverts) and immediately went viral, before being quickly denounced as flawed, partially false and worryingly evocative of militant propaganda.

Why then were so many people taken in by it? Perhaps it was the aesthetic qualities of the video, perhaps it was the rush of virtual activism (or “slacktivism”, if you will), or the extremely simplified message of Good vs. Evil. However, the most revealing form of persuasion was actually the most unsettling: Kony 2012 made people feel good. Much of the appeal is inherently self-centred – it told us that we could achieve great things by doing very little, that we were an empowered generation of connected social media activists, and crucially, that we in the liberal West had the power to solve the problems of everyone else. It was all about us.

The assumption that documentaries are actually all about the viewer isn’t necessarily wholly negative; learning about and attempting to understand human rights issues requires empathy as well as sympathy. It’s just that the documentaries rarely present situations that we can even attempt to empathise with. As soon as we start trying to, the films risk becoming ethically flawed, and frequently Western-centric – both in terms of moral values and presentation.

For example, recent documentaries such as Girl Rising and Half the Sky – both about women’s rights in India, Pakistan and Africa, amongst other countries – relay personal, first person narratives through the medium of celebrity monologues or interviews. Girl Rising calls for female education and empowerment, but good intentions are dampened by the film’s execution – liberties are taken with the girl’s stories, and their voices are essentially drowned out by a Western imposition of morality, and the famous faces we implicitly trust to deliver said moral judgment. The difficulty with this imposition is that it requires us place a value judgement on cultural norms. In these documentaries, the general solutions are wound up with Westernisation, suggesting that countries should not only assimilate our societal structures, but assimilate the cultural values that go along with them. The question is, where does this end? What happens in countries where religion and state are one and the same? In this respect, the documentary can become overtly political, and once again lose sight of the nuances in these issues, and in each nation. Obviously, there are elements of Western society that are objectively beneficial, and among these education is chief. However, human rights issues cannot be diluted into abstract “pillars of society”; these ideals are fundamentally subjective as culture and morality are not easily separated.

Half the Sky is similarly concerning, in which several Hollywood women meet female victims of persecution and attempt to relate to them. The actresses epitomise the flaws in these kinds of films – the interviews blur into psuedo-docu-drama, and in the attempt to connect with the women, the film ends up alienating them even further. Their very real histories of oppression and trauma are glossed into a simplified story female troubles the world over.

However, idealistic though it may be, behind the majority of these films are people who are intending to achieve something positive. In many cases this goes beyond raising awareness, to actually facilitating change. For example, They Go to Die, a film about the links between tuberculosis and the South African mining industry, led to an All Party Parliamentary meeting in the UK to discuss the issue, and the film received a Global Health Award. The person behind the documentary, Jonathan Smith, was not a filmmaker, but rather a student of the Yale School of Public Health. Smith approached the issue by using his academic background of health and social policy, but rather than letting social theory dominate the film, he let the victims of the mining industry explain the issues themselves. Equally, the award-winning documentary on sexual assault in the US military, The Invisible War, led to an almost immediate directive ordering all sexual harassment cases to be handled by senior officers, issued by Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta. According to the New York Times, the film has been credited with both encouraging victims to come forward, and galvanising procedural changes within the military itself.

Documentaries such as these appear to operate on both a deeply personal level, whilst effectively working to make definitive change. Although they may be a rarity, it is certainly encouraging. Despite the fact that humanitarian documentaries can be extremely flawed in their composition, the argument ultimately boils down to the way we perceive change. Is change restricted to formal, legislative action, or can it also refer to a change in attitude? Raising awareness is the germ of change, even if that change is a gradated one, beginning with a person who watches a documentary at home, and is inspired to seek out answers by themselves. However simplistic it may seem, any narrative that at least raises a few questions, or sparks interest in a previously unknown topic, can only be a positive thing. When the glossy veil of film is stripped away, the human rights issues at their core still remain – as long as we become aware of that, the documentary may still have the power to make a difference.