Posts tagged: truth

Truth, lies and documentaries

By , 11 December 2009 6:30 pm

It was the last day of teaching today and I was delighted to be able to show a BBC documentary Hot Planet on climate change issues to my environmental studies students. The ability to project television programmes from the BBC’s excellent iPlayer in class is potentially revolutionary.  It was also a very relevant documentary. It was typical of the current fashion in documentaries: sexy presenters (male and female), dramatic imagery, continuous and often loud background music and it bounced from topic to topic so rapidly that it was hard to be bored. Boredom must be avoided at all costs! There was much about it that I thought was good and it was an excellent complement to my lectures and notes. And, as I mentioned in last week’s blog, I don’t really have much of an objection to its thesis that we face human-induced global warming on a somewhat alarming scale.

There was however something that troubled me to the point at which I think it is worth blogging on. I’ve seen it before and Hot Planet was by no means the worst offender. Quite simply it was the blurring and intercutting of computer-generated imagery (CGI) with real imagery. In places we shifted within 20 seconds from fantasy film CGI (clips from Day after Tomorrow) through digitally created computer reconstructions to true imagery from real events and all without warning. Frankly, I don’t like it.  I could tell the difference from real storm footage to Hollywood generated imagery but I’m not convinced my students could. In the past, the shift from reality to grainy and pixelated computer-created imagery was so obvious as to need no comment. Now it is much less easy to tell the difference between these, let alone the intermediate of ‘Photo-shopped Reality’. I should say, by the way, for the benefit of climate sceptics and conspiracy theorists that I was not aware of any case which materially altered the factual basis of the documentary. It was just done for effect. I have no doubt similar things occur in almost every documentary.

I don’t mind this sort of thing in the cinema, particularly in something like science fiction or historical fantasy. But I find it troubling in documentaries. Ideally, I would like some sort of icon or subtitle that states whether what we are seeing is authentic, enhanced or totally created. That is of course too much to ask given the almost universal occurrence of digitally enhanced imagery; we all tweak our holiday snaps in some way or another. To some extent distortion of imagery is as old as the camera; as the saying goes ‘the camera always lies’. Indeed, in the dim and distant days of film, you could always buy particular slide and print films that gave somewhat enhanced colours to make your holiday skies and seas bluer than they really were. But here we have gone much much further.

Now, this may seem a petty rant but here there are deep issues here on how we portray truth in a society that has given up the idea of a divine truth. I suspect that a massive distortion of the truth never arrives in a single overwhelming tsunami of falsehood; instead it creeps in quietly like the advancing tide through the successive advance of a million wavelets of little deceits.

There is an interesting side-effect of all this that merits noticing. The effect of such CGI wizardry and Photo-shop enhancement is not, in fact, a mood of universal credulity in which people believe everything they see. It is actually the very contrary; an endemic and pervasive scepticism which doubts everything. I’m not sure whether credulity or scepticism is worse. Those who doubt everything will never believe lies; but equally they will never be able to trust the truth either.

Have a good week.

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