Favored by summer vacations and some spare free time I had the time to write down some thoughts from the couch. I don't know if it's the right place to post my ranting. even if I will not write about gear I'm going to write about video after all.
When I subscribed to Sky, the largest European satellite broadcaster I couldn't wait to see their nature channels. After few months I realized that only few shows were worth watching. But I never paid particular attention at it. Well, until few days ago, when I saw the Discovery Shark Week. A shark kermesse aired by Discovery Channel every year. By chance at the same time I saw the short documentary Gombessa IV Genesis. Wetpixel wrote a small news about it here.
Basically it is a short documentary based on Arte amazing long format Le mystère Mérou re-edited with sharks as main subject. Gombessa IV expedition is just finished and I could even follow them on their Youtube V-log.
Let me start off by saying that while I'm passionate about diving and underwater filming I'm able rarely to follow marine documentaries aired by Discovery, NGC, History, etc... I find them mostly targeted to casual public or the average Joe who don't know nothing about diving or marine biology. Let me be really clear, nothing wrong on this. Informing lay people with the most suitable language is the main task of science journalism. Actually seeing these shows (I think show is the proper term, not documentary) some doubt arises.
How much oversimplification can we afford in the name of accessibility?
How many fake infos can we afford in the name of a wider public audience and spectacularization?
In other words, where is the balance between audience and correct information?
I see that Wetpixel almost mentioned one part of the show here but I'll try to be clearer.
Some example: several
documentaries shows of the Discovery Shark Week were shoot at the Bahamas. Some of them at the famous Shark beach. Why the hell every two minutes do they have to remember me that the diver or the camera operator is risking his life doing this or that? They are in the same place where every year thousand of apprentice divers party with the sharks bringing back home their pretty photos and family video! Internet is flooded of these videos. Music, editing, dialogues, everything rotates around shark diving dangerousness. Even when the diver is in the cage we clearly see that video operator is outside and everything is fake as Disneyland. At the end of the show my mother and my little son thinks sharks are dangerous.
Therefore other questions arise. Shark week official declared goal is to show how amazing this endangered creatures are... but after 45 minutes spent remarking how dangerous are those activities are we sure that the usual sentence at the end of the show filled with "amazing... endangered... protect..." is enough to put across the message on shark preservation?
Frankly speaking it's just a boilerplate on a format focused on maximizing the audience. Three shows were focused on shark attacks. I'm done with sharks and surfers. Please. Basically in one week only one
show documentary was worth to watch: Blue Serengeti.
We know, to attract shark we need baits. All of the shows were doing indiscriminate use of shark feeding or chumming. I'm a practical guy so I will not do a crusade against it but how is possible that in a
documentary show there is no mention about opinions or disclaimers on this controversial practice?
By the way, reading two Wetpixel's articles about the poor traveling octopus I understand that balance between audience and correct information should be a topic dear to Wetpixel but then I see that there is a double aspect even for them. Chumming is ok for Wetpixel. I take note of it. On the topic it worth reading this page of Sharks and People: Exploring Our Relationship with the Most Feared Fish in the Sea, University of Chicago Press, p. 160
I'm not fighting against this show. I'm using it as an recent example of what I don't like in nearly all shows about nature aired via satellite or cable: The most dangerous creatures of ... (fill dots with an ecosystem of your choice), Spiders vs Snakes and so on... On shipwreck dives is no joke either! I still remember watching History Channel's Deep Sea Detectives touching wood. Bottom line is that it doesn't worth without someone who risk his life (actually, most of the times someone who acts like risking his life).
To summarize, IMHO I find there is a more general "format" problem on USA productions. It doesn't depends on documentary filmmaker and operators involved. They are professionals who sell their images later tailored on their needs by production companies or they directly produce what the market asks for. USA productions prefer a format that is kind of an hybrid between a reality show and a documentary. When did all of this started?
IMO French productions I cited above are on another league. I'm not speaking about money involved but the plot, storytelling in itself. Breathtaking images and events still depicted in a very realistic fashion. I participated to some documentation and exploration projects and reality on the ground corresponds on what I see on them. Scientific facts and message to the audience plays always a main role and everything revolves around them. In some respects the viewer is considered an adult person fully capable to understand what's going on. Things seem easy because they are good at them but emphasis is rarely given on character's ego or risks involved. From a storytelling perspective these documentaries mix the old David Attenborough BBC understatement with the superman challenges of Yves Cousteau. Sad to say that French are the only one in Europe to put money on these productions devoted to the sea. Maybe something else form BBC. On the shipwreck topic I could cite U455 the lost submarine. Again a French director with an international production.
Maybe it's just me. I'm European and I feel these kind of storytelling more inline with my way of thinking. Yet speaking about fiction, USA storytelling doesn't seem to suffer from these problems. Its language is universal and it spreaded across the world. Maybe when we speak about documentary there is a cultural gap to reduce after all.