I love documentaries (try to contain your surprise). It’s one of the best things about the Internet Age, being able to watch some documentaries on the interwebs. To me, “Netflix and Chill” actually means chillin’ with some documentaries on Netflix.
But while I’ve certainly seen some excellent docs on Netflix (Resurrect Dead was a fantastic investigative story; The Keepers, ditto), I do get annoyed with the programs that look like documentaries but seem to be thinly veiled PR campaigns.
I’m not stupid, I’m pretty aware people use “real life” to sell ideas and doodads. But to me, masking PR campaigns as documentaries is a dick move. Ads and commercials might be a little annoying, but I can respect them for at least being honest ‒‒ Coca-Cola wants my money and they don’t hide that fact, and I appreciate their naked capitalism.
And by the way, no, I’m not being paid by Netflix. I just don’t hide that I love it.
What triggered this essay is a handful of films labeled as documentaries I’ve seen on The ‘Flix recently. One is called Pet Fooled, which talks about the importance of an actual meat diet (as opposed to dry kibble) for dogs and cats. I happen to agree, and my dog gets meat without loads of filler and byproduct. But the presentation, despite that I believe in what the filmmakers are saying, feels awfully like a sell-job for a particular brand of raw meat pet food they mention a lot.
A similar thing happens in exactly the opposite direction in What the Health, in which the filmmaker chronicles his path to veganism. I’ve nothing against vegans, I used to be one for many years. And I believe strongly in a good, plant-heavy diet for people. But there’s a lot in this film that doesn’t stand up to tight scrutiny, and in the end it just feels like a rant. Personally, I don’t believe in anyone who claims to have all the answers to something as complex as nutrition and health.
A more subtle example of PR is Flatball, a film about Ultimate Frisbee. Ultimate’s a great game and lots of fun, and yes, it does deserve a little more recognition after, what, 40 years? of relative obscurity, but the film is less a documentary history of a sport than a PR campaign designed to get people interested in joining teams. That’s a fine thing to do, for the record. I’ve played Ultimate, and it’s a lot of fun, but I’m bothered by the very subtle way this purported documentary seems to be trying to push our “hey, what’s this cool thing?” button.
I suppose I’d pick on Michael Moore for calling his extended-dance-mix YouTube video essays documentaries, but he’s not a Netflix entity, he’s already established, so ….
If I have a point, it’s that journalistic integrity suffers enough from shortsightedness, mistakes, and mishandling of information. We don’t need quasi-documentaries muddying up waters that are supposed to be the very waters that wash away muddiness. Just try to be mindful of when you’re being led by the hand towards the cash register.
PS ‒‒ Exit Through the Gift Shop doesn’t count because it’s a brilliant hoax, and I’m going to be very up front in telling you to watch it, because it’s awesome.