Whether they focus on animals, physical deformities or technological advancements, documentaries hold a strong place in both the television schedule and heart of a nation. Animals provide the cuteness, extraordinary medical conditions fulfil our sick curiosity usually contained by the inherent understanding that ‘it’s rude to stare’ and the powers of science are carefully explained to the average viewer enabling them to perpetuate a self-image of Hawking-level genius. But what is it about programmes designed to inform that grab us so strongly?
Animal documentaries generally fall into two categories: the adorable and the not-so-adorable. More often than not, this divide can be simplified even more: fluffy and scaly. Fluffy animal documentaries are heart-warming, often providing a narrative – or in the case of Meerkat Manor, full geniality complete with names, motives and plot devices. Take the latest in BBC’s animal repertoire, Penguin Island, which is incredible partly due to the penguins and partly because of the incredible array of disguised cameras. Although the penguins are indisputably the stars, the cameras provide a fascinating insight into the difficulties of documentary making. It may be hilarious when an eager male flirts with penguin cam, or when egg cam is lovingly attacked by a childless couple who think they have just found the penguin equivalent of Annie but these are very real problems to film makers hoping to capture the animal world without ruining their shot. Essentially, it provides the audience with an alternative to the dramatic prowess of the David Attenborough documentaries; granted it does take a while to take anything seriously without his deep calming narration but David Tennant does a good enough job.
In contrast to the fluffy documentaries, the scaly documentaries aim to show the true power of the animal world. The focus on reptiles or at least varying kinds of unusual, dangerous or horrifically ugly animals does have a tendency to consider or in some cases, physically show, what would happen should one of these creatures went up against a human. The answer is pretty clear; the animals win. These nature documentaries tend to sway towards the idea of exploration and discovery; The World’s Largest Snake (Channel Four) last year was a prime example. The discovery of the so called Titanaboa, closely related to the modern Giant Anaconda, set in progress the uncovering of a prehistoric breed of snake that would struggle to get through most doors and would be crushed under its own weight if on land. Of course the CGI Titanaboa was counteracted with several bearded men hunting down Giant Anacondas in the Amazon. Turns out, they don’t really like being picked up (potentially threatened by the beards) and that for constrictors, they can really bite. Scaly documentaries prompt the kind of curiosity that drives documentaries, although they don’t have the heart-wrenching warmth that the fluffy-docs do, they do have pure enthusiasm and provide a bit more of the hard-core information that make you as a viewer feel like more of an explorer rather than a member of an anonymous audience.
Human documentaries are always going to be a strange grey-area and often require delicacy; however, sometimes this is completely bypassed in favour of horrific disfigurements. The basic divide in human documentaries appears to be physical and social/mental, with physical denoting medical conditions most accurately portrayed through the Mitchell and Webb sketch ‘The Boy with an Arse for a Face’. There is something morbidly fascinating about the medical documentaries, and despite heavy attempts to try and prevent the sense of exploitation for Western curiosity, this is where the magic of medical documentaries lies. To some extent, the audience wants to be both disgusted and feel a sense pity and gratitude that they are not afflicted with said illness or medical condition. This is where the controversy comes in: the sense of amorality within the audience is questionable – if the audience desires knowledge then the documentary is successful; however, if the audience only desires entertainment then the entire programme is called into question.
The second genre of human documentary encompasses both social and cultural documentaries and is the significantly larger and more varied of the two genres. Crucially, these documentaries have less controversy surrounding them; it depends entirely on their specific subject matter as opposed to the documentaries in themselves. Needless to say, some of these documentaries are just as shocking, although this is generally attributed to the societies they portray, ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ sheds light on a relatively secretive community; however, the nature of the sexism is the most shocking element which cannot be contributed to the documentary makers but simply the culture that the documentary is based on. Perhaps then, the best documentaries are based on our own culture – can we find them more entertaining because we are laughing at our own society? ‘The Girl Who Became Three Boys’ whilst it initially appears humorous and even ridiculous, draws in its audience because of the very fact that it took place within our society.
Essentially, the concept of documentaries is to gain knowledge, whether it’s useful or necessary is of no relevance. This is the real attraction to them; the film makers in themselves are searching for knowledge that appears unbelievable so that the audience can be proved wrong in their assumption. We like knowledge. We like stories. Documentaries are simply an amalgamation of the two.