DOCUMENTARIES are works of art. Like paintings and theatre, they are a visual medium, and over the years, many documentarians have been using this form for a variety of purposes in the world, all of which fall under the main category of passing on information.
The main purpose of a documentary is to give information to the audience and, as previously mentioned, this can exist in various forms. A documentary such as “Paris is Burning,” for example, uses the pomp and ceremony of its subjects as a way of introducing the world to the underground NYC Ball Scene, a segment of LGBTQ culture that had been hitherto unknown to many people outside of that circuit. This year’s “Leaving Neverland” is a heavy documentary that resurfaces and rearticulates the arguments surrounding the accusations of child sexual abuse against Michael Jackson. “Casting JonBenet” interrogates the story of JonBenet Ramsey by interviewing people from her hometown who are auditioning to be in a film based on the murder. Using images, sound, cinematography, writing, directing, and all of the other art techniques that are used in a feature film, documentaries should be respected and celebrated for what they are, particularly by people in the Caribbean. I get the impression that documentaries are, too often, seen as lesser versions of feature films, which is both an incorrect definition of what a documentary is and an unjustifiable attempt at indicting documentaries, a genre of art that can stand on its own.
Documentaries, like all other forms of art, can move us emotionally, can make us think, and can motivate us to take the reins of the world and lead it to whatever we need it to be. Netflix’s “Our Planet,” narrated by the legendary David Attenborough is an example of a documentary (or, more specifically, a documentary series) that accomplishes all of the goals that documentaries as art forms are meant to capture.
“Our Planet” is an eight-part docuseries that outlines in staggering, mesmerising details, various aspects of the natural world and the unique plants and animals that make up the world in which we live. A clue to the primary aim of the series lies in its name, “Our Planet.” It is a reminder that the planet is “ours,” while at the same time inferring that this “our” in the title does not refer to humans only, but to every living organism that is found on the planet. “Our” planet belongs to ants, whales, tigers, orchids, sharks, humans, elephants, salmon, mice, urchins, grass, penguins, and every other living thing in the world. Furthermore, the title also underscores the fact that humans are contributing to the destruction of the planet by forcing us to ask ourselves, if the planet really belongs to us, to humans, then why are destroying it? If it’s “our planet” then why are we not taking better care of it?
The issue of global warming, climate change, and other aspects of human interference that are destructive to the natural world (overfishing, deforestation, etc.) are explored not in isolation, but in connection to a wide variety of other plant and animal life that are affected by the actions of humans. One of the goals of the series seems to be to showcase and emphasise the relationship between people and the natural environment and to show that our actions have consequences, even when we are not aware of it.
When we litter or contribute to pollution or deforestation, we create a ripple effect that moves through the whole ecosystem we destroy and a great variety of flora and fauna can be harmed if human behaviour remains unchecked. An example from the series that highlights this is coral bleaching, where miles and miles of beautiful, multicoloured coral reefs are bleached white and die because of rising ocean temperatures due to global warming. Not only is the coral and all its beauty lost, but hundreds of species of sea-creatures that rely on the coral reefs for protection or sustenance. Similarly, when we cut down a tree, we are not only affecting the hundreds of animals that might live on that tree, but also all of the other animals in the jungle who may be connected to the animals on the tree in some way – and these relationships can exist in the form of predator/prey or in some mutualistic way. The point is that humans may be unable to see the ripple effect caused by their actions, but that does not negate the fact that the effects are happening and that they are causing tremendous harm for the natural world.
The filmmakers also appeal to both the audience’s emotions and sense of logic through the use of the documentary form itself. The beauty of the animals is captured in an array of environments, using techniques that bring us close enough to detect the sense of wonder that comes from the natural world. There is no doubt that after seeing the polar bears, orangutans, and even yellowfin tuna (they are huge and incredibly fast), and all of the other creatures, it is possible to come away feeling anything but awed. These sumptuous and striking images motivate us to want to protect the world in all its beauty. The gorgeousness of the animals are used by the filmmakers to make us want to be conservationists, because they show us what is at risk, they show us what we stand to lose if we do not take immediate remedial action.
There are some factions that have criticised the series for showing the darker aspects of what is happening in the world. Specifically, one of the most controversial scenes involves walruses attempting to climb rocky cliffs, as their icy homes melt away, before falling to their deaths. The scenes of the walruses’ bruised and battered bodies are terrifying, horrific, and extremely depressing – but such scenes are necessary if the goals of the documentary are to be accomplished. Humans might be swayed with the world’s beauty held up to them, but they might also change their ways if the darker consequences of their actions are highlighted too.