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Viewer Beware: Doubting the Documentary “Truth” Onscreen

“Fake news” think pieces have been all the rage since Donald Trump took hold of the media spotlight (and never let go), yet far less has been written about questioning the documentary “truths” we see onscreen. While it doesn’t take a genius to spot the alt-right bias in Steve Bannon’s oeuvre, too often subtler – nonpartisan and nonpolitical – filmmaking is simply given an inexplicable pass. So with this in mind I thought I’d offer a few handy tips for increasing viewer vigilance.

1) Google-search the team. What is the filmmakers’ track record? Who and what entities are funding the film? A corporation tossing in a large wad of cash doesn’t always signal a red flag. But do take note (especially when it comes to debut features – as filmmaking vets are usually better positioned to keep a non-negotiable rein on artistic control).

2) Just because the filmmakers trust their sympathetic subject(s) does not mean the audience has to. A glowing spotlight can mask dark shadows. In other words, feel empowered to watch the doc from your POV – rather than from the one that’s been assigned to you by the makers.

3) If it looks and sounds too good to be true it probably is. Truth may be stranger than fiction – but it is never ever black-and-white Hollywood.

4) Pay as much attention to what you’re not seeing as to what’s presented onscreen. Editing, of course, is the most artistic form of manipulation – so always stay alert to the possibilities that might have been left on the cutting room floor.

5) Remain highly attuned to your own confirmation bias. Do you want to believe (disbelieve?) what you’re seeing onscreen? Then you’re not only the target audience – you’re also a sitting duck.

– Lauren Wissot

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