Press "Enter" to skip to content
Documentaries are capturing audiences like never before, but what is going wrong along the way? Photo by Grace Reeb.

The exploitative nature of documentaries

Documentaries have become an integral part of the entertainment industry. Traditionally, people viewed documentaries as the homework equivalent of the film industry, watching them to be educated, not necessarily to be entertained. But that has changed recently. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, TV is making more documentaries than ever before. Not only are documentaries being produced at an unprecedented rate, but they are also being watched by more people than ever before. Netflix’s 2020 docu-series “Tiger King” remains the standout example, receiving viewership from more than 64 million households within two months of its release

Perhaps the most significant shift in the field of documentaries however, is the mediums through which they are produced and consumed. It is not just the big streaming services or production companies that create successful documentaries, but individuals or small production teams. Today, YouTube, as well as podcast websites, are overflowing with documentary-style series, with a particular explosion in popularity for the true-crime sub-genre. YouTube channels like Buzzfeed Unsolved, or podcasts like My Favorite Murder have captivated audiences the world over, discussing the grisly details of real-life crimes.

But something is unsettling about the rise in popularity of documentaries. The recent notion that documentaries (and all sub-genres) are not only here to teach, but to entertain has given rise to several questions; how can documentaries’ main purpose be to entertain, without avoiding the exploitation of their subjects? Have documentaries always been exploitative? Is there anything that can be done to combat the exploitation of documentary subjects?

It is important to note that not all documentaries are exploitative, and even the ones that are often are not created with that intention in mind. Nevertheless, many documentaries have been criticized for the exploitation of their subjects; this is not exclusive to contemporary documentaries. In 1922, filmmaker Robert Flaherty created what is now known as “the world’s first documentary,” titled, Nanook of the North. In this film, Flaherty depicts the livelihood of the Inuit tribe in the Canadian arctic by following one of its members, a character named “Nanook,” and his family. While the film is critically acclaimed and is recognized for its contributions to the grammar of film, it has also been viewed as problematic.

To begin, the name “Nanook” was a fabrication. The real name of the film’s subject was Allakariallak. Flaherty’s film also intentionally depicted Inuit life inaccurately with the staging many scenes. It is not known to what extent Flaherty bent the truth, but we do know that he asked Allakariallak to use traditional Inuit hunting tools rather than the guns that he was actually hunting with. It is also known that the film claimed “Nanook” died as a result of freezing to death while searching for food for his family when in actuality Allakariallak likely passed away at home as a result of tuberculosis. 

While the story in Nanook of the North is riveting, and its very existence reshaped the film industry, it is at least partially fiction, fitting the narrative of its creator, rather than the narrative of reality. So to answer the question “Have documentaries always been exploitative?” the answer is, they came to existence that way. 

But documentaries do not always have to bend narratives to be exploitative. The 1991 cult-classic documentary “Paris is Burning” is a widely beloved, groundbreaking film that follows the drag scene for Black and Hispanic gay men, drag queens and transgender women in 1980s New York City. The film is critically acclaimed, and massively influential in pop culture, and has served as inspiration for the reality TV show “RuPaul’s Drag Race” while giving rise to the commonly used phrases “yaas queen” and “shade.” Regardless, it has been at the center of controversy.

Its creator, Jennie Livingston, a white, middle-class lesbian has been criticized by feminist scholar Bell Hooks for enabling cultural appropriation. Meanwhile, the New York Times criticized Livingston for getting rich off the backs of the documentary’s subjects. While the film is artistically pieced together by Livingston, the stars of the show are the subjects, of whom only 13 received compensation for their participation in the film. The most tragic fact about the film, however, is the number of deaths of those who were in the cast

As noted earlier, documentaries today have taken different shapes and forms, ranging from podcasts, to YouTube videos, with true crime experiencing a particular peak in popularity. The genre lends itself to exploitation by nature, with the notion that content creators can discuss the details of highly sensitive cases, and profit from it. 

An example of this is the widely listened-to My Favorite Murder podcast. The show is hosted by comedians Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark who, often lightheartedly and with great detail, “tell each other their favorite tales of murder.” The title and descriptions are tongue in cheek, and hard to understand for outsiders. The majority of the murder victims featured on My Favorite Murder are women, the creators are women and most listeners are women too. This can be attributed to the fact that people like learning about things that relate to them. Listening to true-crime podcasts, or watching true-crime shows, is a worst-case scenario rehearsal of sorts while allowing audiences to feel safely removed from the ‘threat.’

As valid as the sub-genres’ popularity may be, questions have been raised about its exploitative nature. My Favorite Murder doesn’t bill itself as a documentary, nor do many other true-crime shows. But that does not mean their creators aren’t aware that they are profiting off real-life happenings, with real-life victims, and discuss those real-life circumstances with a sense of removal.

This exploitation is something that some content creators are seeking to curb. A recent video from the YouTube channel Buzzfeed Unsolved discusses a bizarre conspiracy theory regarding “Hollow Earth.” While this particular conspiracy theory appears relatively harmless, Buzzfeed placed a disclaimer at the beginning of the video, noting the dangerous, and racist roots of many conspiracy theories. While a disclaimer doesn’t reverse any potential damage of the subject matter’s victims, it does take a step towards acknowledging them. 

Documentaries in many ways are another form of journalism. Just like journalists, documentarians investigate and navigate real stories that are at times highly sensitive. It is important for documentarians, particularly those concerned with entertaining audiences, that they do not “prioritize good television at the expense of sound reporting.” Unfortunately, just like journalists, documentarians will sometimes exploit their subjects for their narrative and profit. As of now, with no governing body putting a stop to such exploitation, it is up to the consumers to keep content creators in check, a phenomenon that has grown in recent years.