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What Makes a Good Environmental Documentary?

By: Cameron A. Straughan

A documentary is a “creative dramatisation of actuality” with some “social analysis” (P. Rotha quoted in Bousé 1998). Perhaps the thrust behind documentary filmmaking was best explained by the man who coined the term “documentary” – John Grierson.

“The basic force behind it [the documentary film movement] was social, not aesthetic. It was a desire to make drama from the ordinary; a desire to bring the citizen’s mind in from the ends of the earth to the story, his own story, of what was happening under his nose… We were interested in all instruments which would crystallize sentiments in a muddled world and create a will towards civic participation.” (John Grierson quoted in Barsam 1973).

Lastly, according to T.D.A. Cockerell, films …

“must be no longer merely for amusement; it must be designed to stimulate thought and, through thought, action.” (T.D.A. Cockerell quoted in Bousé 1998).

For the purposes of this essay, an environmental documentary is a documentary that focuses on the natural environment and its relationship (good or bad) with society. A good example of an environmental documentary series would be the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Nature of Things. It visualizes nature, includes well researched science, emphasizes an ecosystem approach, and usually calls for the audience to take action of some sort (the series host, David Suzuki, is himself very politically active and seeks to change policy with environmental concerns in mind).

Environmental documentaries differ from wildlife films in that wildlife films place emphasis on dramatic action, storytelling, and the creation of animal characters (Bousé 1998). In addition, wildlife films often occur under controlled conditions, with dramatic events created through editing or deliberate staging (Bousé 1998). However, wildlife films will be discussed in this essay since they share some common elements with what I consider environmental documentaries. For example, a documentary on toxins in the food chain may require footage of fish and fish-eating birds (possibly with tumors or other signs of distress), so that the audience can see some visual evidence linking environmental problems to their own health. Likewise, a documentary on negative cultural perceptions of wolves and the impact on society would benefit from some footage of wolves in their natural environs.

This essay asks the basic question: what makes a good environmental documentary? In asking this question, there must first of all be criteria for judging if a film or video is really a documentary or not (which there is, in abundance). Secondly, it must have a central environmental theme or message (that is determined easily). And lastly, a “good documentary” must be one that attracts an audience, entertains them, educates them, communicates effectively, and causes some or part of that audience to take action in some way – maybe even instituting policy change.

Since there are next to no books or articles dealing with environmental documentaries (aside from many articles on wildlife films and their place in the documentary canon), let alone how to judge their effectiveness, answering this question requires a literature review of documentary theory and practice, wildlife film theory and practice, mass media and environmental communication, science communication, and environmental risk communication. Drawing from these sources, this essay suggests a general “recipe” for a good environmental documentary. It does so by pointing out positive, proven ingredients, that should be used more often than not, and problem ingredients that should either be avoided or adjusted for flavour.

Hopefully, once this recipe is determined, it can act as a generalized metre stick to help judge the effectiveness of environmental documentaries from an academic standpoint. Of course, the final word on the effectiveness of any documentary is the audience’s response. In this case, this recipe I am attempting to record could assist with the creation of a survey form for the purposes of recording audience response, leading to a more thorough evaluation of effectiveness.

To begin, the production of environmental documentaries seems reasonable and justified since, aside from the social benefits, previous successes in the field of nature and wildlife films suggest a niche for environmental themed documentaries. For example, David Attenborough’s Life on Earth was the most popular documentary series in the history of the BBC (James 1985). In the United States, it was one of the highest-rated series ever shown on PBS (James 1985). More recent evidence points to a rise in audience interest in nature and wildlife TV shows (Bousé 1998).

“In sum, natural history TV programs are now the single biggest source of adult science education.” (James 1985).

Since environmental documentaries contain many of the same elements as wildlife and nature TV programs, it is plausible that they could also reach large audiences, except with a stronger message and a call to action of some type. In addition, there is a strong public interest in science and technology. Surveys demonstrate sizable and growing interest in science, technology, and related innovations and discoveries (Nelkin 1987). The same surveys also indicate that the public interest in this regard is not being met. Add this to the fact that technology and communications have effectively shrunk the globe, causing people to see the environment as finite, vulnerable, and under terminal threat (Burgess 1991). Clearly, the general public craves awareness and education, and environmental documentaries could help satisfy some of these cravings – as long as the recipe is good.

Of course, it’s nice that there appears to be a large potential audience for environmental documentaries. This could help filmmakers obtain funding, secure distribution, and generate sales. However, with the possibility of large audiences, and the importance of the form as an educational tool, comes great responsibility. Clearly, filmmakers must present accurate information if they are to gain the trust of audiences and educate them effectively – with the hopes they can act on what they’ve seen.

An effective environmental documentary must bridge a large gap between scientists and the general public – a gap caused mainly by popular preconceptions and scientific language. There is a popular conception – especially by young people – that scientists are geniuses or weirdos, who they have no hope of relating to (Nelkin 1987). Within an environmental documentary, this can be avoided by featuring a variety of scientific experts – both men and women – preferably from different age groups and cultural backgrounds.

Another way to avoid such perceptions is to allow the “human side” of the scientists to come out during the interview. This may be accomplished by specific questions or the setting of the interview itself. Perhaps the scientist lounging in his/her backyard, with his/her dog running around, would be preferable to the classic “lab coat in front of the computer” interview.

Placing science in this context, while deceptively simple and innocuous, is an important step towards overcoming a major hurdle for environmental documentaries. People tend to view science as arcane and apart from its social context, removed from public concerns – in fact, at odds with human values (Nelkin 1987). Science, unfortunately, does not encourage a social bound – unless it is indirect or antagonistic (Silverstone 1986). Thus, if the documentary is to impact society in some way – to initiate action – it must make clear ties between its science and that society, or it will fall flat. Along these lines, Nelkin (1987) points out that care must be exercised not to idealize science or scientists too much, or the awe and reverence will work against effective communication of the material to the general public.

With regards to language, a recurrent dilemma in communication between technical and non-technical people arises from the “language of confidence” – that is, emphasis on probabilities (Krimsky S. & Plough A. 1988). The public looks for advice on whether something is safe or healthy or not – with no shades of gray. They can not comprehend statements like “unlikely” or “no foreseeable risk”. I encountered a similar dilemma working on a Detroit River Update Report for a local committee. In that report, I chose to represent areas of low, moderate, and high sediment toxicity using green, yellow, and red (respectively) marked on a map of the Detroit River. The general public liked the map – it was simple, visual, and easy to understand – but the Ontario Ministry of the Environment did not because of a lack of technical detail (there were only some reservations from the EPA).

Sometimes the general public views documentaries and wildlife films as neutral, and this is to the detriment of the environmental message (Burgess 1991). Thus, environmental documentaries, while containing some “objective” scientific and technical information, should have a well defined point of view (over-all) and be passionate about its environmental message – even if some experts appearing in the documentary come across as neutral and conservative. Otherwise, the general public will lose interest.

The general public also likes to see the broad implications of an environmental issue. They can not relate finite, detailed effects – as suggested by scientists – to their everyday lives (Krimsky S. & Plough A. 1988). In addition, people need time to assimilate complex issues. In a specific example, it has been demonstrated in the past that effective risk communication videos should avoid technical jargon, graphs, rapid fire monologue, and a high density of new information (Krimsky S. & Plough A. 1988). Here, editing may be the key – it should not be fast paced, if there are a lot of facts to cover. Ideally, visuals should be balanced with narrative, so the audience does not tire of a stream of facts – slow or not. This points to an overall need for simplification. Simplification is an essential – if controversial – part of making science palatable to the general public (Nelkin 1987). The documentary format, with its obvious time constraints and need for visual evidence, can not help but simplify complex issues and should not feel guilty for doing so.

It would also help if, when planning a documentary, alternative versions were planned for various audiences. For example, a shorter, “easier to understand” version could be released to school children. Other parts – or sequels – could be planned. This would not only provide maximum exposure over time, allowing people to slowly digest the ideas, but it would allow more thorough study of problems that are large, complex, and ongoing. Most environmental issues are not subject to the schedule of a documentary shoot – they continue long after shooting and post production has ended.

When speaking to an audience via the documentary format, filmmakers must not underestimate them. The public does not think that merely showing the wonders of the natural world is enough to warrant conservation (Burgess 1991). An environmental documentary, if it is to communicate effectively, must combine the pretty pictures with solid, well-researched content. This is especially important since in scientific reporting imagery often replaces content, leaving audiences with little understanding of the issues (Nelkin 1987). Essentially, the environmental case must be argued using several techniques – visuals, sound, interviews, testimonies, evidence etc. – before the audience will accept the proof and act on it. In addition, while the audience may not realize the technical distortions that occur during filmmaking, they can challenge the representations of the environment that they see (Burgess 1991). Effective communication depends on trust, and when that trust is broken (e.g., the LWT documentary on Rainham Marsh that artificially inflated the number and types of animals in the marsh by using old stock footage, some of it from a completely different local), the public will reject the environmental message as false and even propagandistic (Burgess 1991).

This points to a need for environmental documentary filmmakers to interact with locals, ask their opinions of local environmental issues, show them footage, and gain their trust and support. In this manner, the locale will not be misrepresented. In addition, valuable information will be gathered from people who have lived in the area for quite some time and are familiar with the environment there. Essentially, documentary filmmakers must democratize some of their practices and empower their audiences (Burgess 1991). Otherwise, they will continue to be seen as an “elitist, exclusionary and truly arrogant bunch” (Burgess 1991). These changes can only add to the overall quality of the documentary.

As a final comment on language and discourse, perhaps most of the discussion of a documentary’s merits occurs long after it has been viewed. People gain confidence in their own abilities to make decisions when they consult directly with others over a long period of time (Krimsky S. & Plough A. 1988). Once issues are clearly articulated, the decision making process can begin – leading to action of some sort. This points to a need for environmental documentary filmmakers to be patient when trying to determine the effectiveness of their work. Time should be given for people who have seen the film to get together and discuss it – on their own terms, using their own language. In fact, this sort of discussion should be encouraged.

To this end, environmental film and video festivals are starting to spring up – the most recent one being Planet in Focus: the Toronto International Environmental Film and Video Festival. These venues provide a valuable launching pad for environmental documentaries, helping to secure audiences and distributors. They also provide important feedback from audiences, media, critics, and peers.

In addition to circumventing problems associated with audience preconceptions and language barriers, environmental documentary filmmakers are faced with problems associated with narrative – including content, structure, and who is narrating.

The narrative of an environmental documentary will (most likely) be antagonistic with “mainstream” narratives, including a classic Darwinian paradigm that favours mankind over nature (survival of the fittest), political and economic systems that work against the environment, and the western notion of nature as separate from the environment (Burgess 1991).

A systemic problem with wildlife films, that exists to this very day, is that they are from a white man’s point of view. They are essentially a white man’s adventure in the wild (Bousé 1998). In accordance with classic paradigms, they are about colonizing the wild – not protecting it.

“[Marlin] Perkins et al. epitomize the Field & Stream ideal of the manly sportsman, who shows nature who’s boss – while at the same time delivering homilies about the need for conservation.” (James 1985)

This type of thinking may very well explain the recent success of the Crocodile Hunter series, which portrays the theme of white man conquering nature by literally showing the protagonist (who appears as an average Joe) wrestling animals to the ground with great joy and determination. I personally do not feel that this is useful in teaching conservation or communicating any sort of environmental message to the public, because of the potentially harmful man-conquers-nature theme running through each episode I’ve seen.

It could be argued that these “white man conquers nature” wildlife films are about the politics of colonization (e.g., Manifest Destiny) in general. Basically, an environmental documentary must avoid this narrative style and codification – specifically, the predominance of Western cultural traditions (Bousé 1998). This can be accomplished by interviewing a variety of stakeholders, of varying backgrounds. This is important because nature is not only a physical reality – it is also, perhaps more importantly, a symbolic and imaginary reality (Burgess 1991). Thus, due to the historic symbolism they have been exposed to, notions of “nature” and the “environment” will differ between stakeholders from different cultural backgrounds.

Essentially, documentary filmmakers need to strike a balance between romanticizing nature and portraying its darker, Darwinian side (Burgess 1991). This may be accomplished by allowing people from different cultures to contribute to the structuring of the documentary – including obtaining footage (a good example of this is outlined in Sol Worth’s book Through Navajo Eyes). Action learning techniques could also be used to these ends. Is this manner, the documentary will have more resonance, since its themes and ideas will be more universal. Yet, this process requires a slow entrance of environmental ideas into culture – a slow change overtime. Documentary filmmakers should be wary of expecting rapid results in the face of preexisting paradigms.

With regards to the specifics of narrative structure and content, environmental documentaries will have to mediate between two dominant discourses – science and common sense, reason and emotion, or science and narrative knowledge (Silverstone 1986). Clearly, this is a tricky balance that environmental documentaries must strike. It implies that, while well-researched scientific facts are important, the narrative structure or style they are presented in are even more important. As pointed out in Silverstone,
non-narrative science has failed to dominate knowledge at the expense of the narrative knowledge of everyday life.

“Narration is the quintessential form of customary knowledge” (Jean-François Lyotard quoted in Silverstone 1986)

“The naturalization of a text – the product of both narrative and rhetorical strategies – is the key to its ‘truth’ and the measure of its acceptability.” (Silverstone 1986)

Effectiveness seems closely linked with heightened rhetoric and a consolidation of the mythic narrative (Silverstone 1986). This suggests that the general public expects information to be packaged in a certain way that they can readily understand and assimilate – based on their cultural background, of course. Thus, environmental documentary filmmakers need to study and understand this “packaging”, before they can create a product that will succeed in getting through to the public.

This “packaging” involves knowledge of preexisting and preferred narrative types. Fables, myths, folktales, and proverbs are good examples of established and recognized types (Silverstone 1986). However, narrative knowledge is more tolerant of science than science is of narrative knowledge (Silverstone 1986). This tension must be resolved by striking some sort of balance within the documentary, which is – of course – subject to the content and time allotted. In general terms, it could be achieved by interviewing many stakeholders regarding any given environmental issue, including local residents and community activists – not just scientists. It may also be resolved by letting scientists view the footage – in effect, conduct a technical review. This may result in additional useful information that can be added, and it is also an opportunity for the filmmaker to explain his/her choices to a scientific audience. Of course, wherever and whenever possible, footage should be shown to the non-scientific community as well. This type of consensus building, based on fairness and balance, could be conducted at any number of screenings. Normally, audience screenings are necessary for establishing whether a film is effective or not anyway.

Classic filmmaking is also based on a preexisting and preferred narrative type. According to classic documentary filmmaking, for example, there must be a central question or problem that the documentary will explore, and this must be clearly indicated at the beginning of the film. But the question is – when should it appear? According to classic screen writing practices, the protagonist’s “call to action” must occur no more than ten pages into a standard ninety page screenplay (this translates into ten minutes of screen time). If it does not, dramatic thrust will diminish and the audience (and producers) will lose interest. It follows then that environmental documentaries, if they must utilize classic narrative types, would have to state the problem/question they are dealing with within the first ninth of the film. Of course, classic screen writing practice also suggests where obstacles and villains should appear within the script.

Interestingly, Silverstone (1986) analyzed a scientific text entitled Weed Control in
Dry-Seeded Rice
and perceived a classic heroic narrative, complete with obstacles and villains. This points to a need for environmental documentary filmmakers to analyze scientific texts carefully, keeping in mind narrative structure, rhetorical apparatus (the art of persuasion), and ideological status (Silverstone 1986). Basically, it helps to view them in a very creative way, such that visuals may arise to represent the material to a wider audience. Once a structure and visuals for the documentary are determined, a semiotic examination may be useful to determine if the images, symbols, and/or visual metaphors are being applied towards the filmmaker’s ends.

An unfortunate side effect of this type of thinking – an emphasis on packaging – is that it may limit risk taking and experimentation on the filmmaker’s part. However, if the environmental filmmaker wants a select audience for his /her film, then going against preconceived narrative structures may be in order. In addition, some experimentation is still possible within the context of a “classic” structure. I’d argue that it is, in fact, essential since giving the audience a jolt now and again – attacking their expectations – will make them sit up, take notice, and remember the experience long afterwards.

While some packaging and experimentation should be encouraged, there are some types of narrative practices and packaging that should be avoided altogether.

Environmental documentaries should avoid dramatic story construction, heavy use of voice-over narration that borders on the omniscient, and heavy use of “classical” continuity editing in service of scene construction and narrative (Bousé 1998). Exceptions to this rule would be reenactments – historical or otherwise.

Voice-over narration is particularly problematic. Aside from becoming dull and repetitive, it can allow the voices of those featured in the documentary to rise over the images. However, choosing more than one subject to provide voice-over narration (i.e., different narrators to describe different segments or events) would avoid both the monotony and the omniscience.

It must be remembered that when an audience watches a documentary, they should learn from observing events, rather than being told what they are. The only drawback to a fine documentary series like Nature of Things is its reliance on voice-over narration. However, within the confines of a one hour long TV broadcast, it is very difficult not to rely on voice-over narration to communicate the information quickly and effectively.

Classically, nature and wildlife films rely too heavily on voice-over narration. They are shot without sound, so that narration can be added later. This results in the creation of artificial “film time” (Bousé 1998). Editing sync-sound, on the other hand, allows real speech, and natural sound, to reassert itself (Bousé 1998). This makes it more difficult for filmmakers to cut at will. Thus, there is less manipulation of the documented events. Events are no longer fragmented, sound effects are not added, and events are not interpreted in scripted voice-over narration. Essentially, filming a documentary with sync-sound (or in-camera sound) keeps things more honest and provides a more “realistic” depiction of events – ideally, that’s what environmental documentary filmmakers should shoot for.

While there are established and suggested do’s and don’ts for narrative style and content, environmental documentaries should not be afraid to employ various techniques to enhance the audience’s experience – wherever applicable.

Personally, I am in favour of adapting new techniques to the documentary form because I do not see the sense in preaching to the converted. Environmental documentaries made for environmentalists will achieve very little. If environmental documentaries are going to reach an audience and have any sort of impact on society, then – in some cases – they must employ pop culture techniques to get their message into mainstream culture, and ultimately into the boardrooms.

By pop culture techniques I mean utilizing popular music in the soundtrack, using music video style camera work to enhance certain scenes (although care must be exercised that it is not overdone, thus annoying the audience), creating poetic or experimental effects through editing of some sequences, and possibly even the appearance of a celebrity who has a particular interest in or knowledge of an environmental issue. These techniques will help grab audiences and keep them interested, while allowing the over all message of the documentary to be effectively communicated.

Television has conditioned people such that they are accustomed to short bursts of information with emphasis on visuals (Nelkin 1987). The Internet has pushed this further still – increasing the flow of information and the expectations. This has resulted in the use of Web / computer-like camera work and flashy graphics in TV commercials and some shows, in order to keep the attention of easily distracted audience members. It may be advisable to incorporate some of these techniques into an environmental documentary, dependent – of course – on the content and the target audience. Environmental documentaries should, after all, keep up with the latest techniques so that their message can seep into the mainstream.

Ultimately, these choices are up to the director and are subject to many factors (content, intended audiences, budget etc.). However, I would argue that environmental documentary filmmakers should study pop culture and mass media techniques, even if they have contempt for the products they flog, so that the same techniques can be used for something more “positive” – that is, an environmental message. From my discussions with friends, colleagues, and members of the general public, documentaries are frequently described as dry, boring, and preachy. By avoiding a reliance on old-school scientific discourse and straight forward classic documentary structure, filmmakers may be able to reverse this perception. Clearly, there is a need for it.

When considering adding some pop culture to the recipe, humour should be a key ingredient as well. Humour puts the audience at ease and helps them to relate to the material – it sweetens the pill. Science will be more palatable if it is made humourous or curious (Nelkin 1987). In addition, drama, aberration, and controversy also pump up the entertainment value, thereby attracting audiences. Conflict and controversy are classic ingredients of documentaries as well.

Creating mystery will keep audiences interested too. For example, imagine not using narrative to explain an image. Instead, let the audience view the images until they unravel the mystery themselves. This may apply to a montage within the production, or the main structure of the documentary itself. Errol Morris used something like this in The Thin Blue Line, thereby fashioning an exciting, provocative documentary using structure and imagery normally associated with Hollywood mysteries and film noir. This technique leads the audience to believe they are part of a journey – a quest for knowledge and understanding. If done well, it can be a very satisfying and memorable experience.

I suggest these techniques with some restrictions and limitations. Generally, it seems that Hollywood-style dramatic elements in documentaries are frowned upon; in fact, they may compromise the very definition of documentary (Bousé 1998). However, in some cases – in some scenes, perhaps – I think they are useful (i.e., Errol Morris’s interesting use of mystery narratives and stock footage from 30’s and 40’s adventure serials). Yet in any attempt to report scientific information to the general public, care must be taken not to treat the documentary as merely a series of dramatic events. The danger is that audiences are treated to hyperbole and blatant promotion, in order to draw them in and generate interest (Nelkin 1987). The result, as Nelkin points out, is premature enthusiasm, disillusionment, and audience pessimism. Ultimately, this would lead to viewers not trusting the documentary – or the filmmaker either.

While on the topic of technique, environmental documentaries should become a research tool. They should become a technique (in itself) by which to actively collect and communicate environmental information, versus relying on expert testimony and outside research. This is a community service that environmental documentaries should perform. A previous success story suggests that this is both plausible and valuable.

A household radon study was conducted by WNEV in Boston and broadcast as a TV series (Krimsky S. & Plough A. 1988). It was sanctioned in the absence of a state wide study of radon levels in local homes. The resulting TV series is an excellent case study in risk communication, as described by Krimsky S. & Plough A (1988). The problems that faced the TV series are the same as those facing larger documentary projects that deal with complex environmental problems.

For example, the producers had to make a visual series out of an invisible gas – not to mention explain something very complicated while maintaining accuracy and avoiding sensationalism. Viewers wanted to see a victim of radon, but it was not possible to do so, since it couldn’t be proven that radon lead to lung cancer, making it very difficult to communicate to them and relate it to their everyday lives. Thus, the series used comparisons to communicate risk, such as analogies to cigarette smoking, and comparisons between the radiation levels in one home and the Three Mile Island accident.

The TV series also effectively criticized government policy by showing that levels in homes are such that similar levels in uranium mines would cause the mines to be closed, yet the government was doing nothing about the homes. Such analogies would also have to be used in documentaries to explain complex issues to the public. Essentially, you have to relate it to the audience’s everyday life or they won’t understand it. The series also used sly visuals, such as making one out of four homes glow in a pictorial representation. It combined this with interviews with experts and homeowners, with poignant quotes from children who wondered if it was safe to breathe in their own house.

The audience response stunned the station. Thirteen thousand people replied to their advertisement for more information on radon and how to test for it (Krimsky S. & Plough A. 1988). Newspapers even covered the station’s survey. Environmental documentary filmmakers should take note at how this TV series affected other forms of media. Essentially, its story was presented in such a fashion that it generated substantial momentum and spread out through other media like a web. The result would be increased exposure and audience awareness.

Krimsky and Plough considered the TV series on radon a success for several reasons. It brought complex environmental problems in to the viewer’s living rooms – literally. It was also local in flavour. This coincides with the mantra Think Globally, Act Locally. Perhaps this mantra should be chanted before environmental documentary filmmakers begin writing a treatment and conducting their research. In addition, the series successfully connected the radon problem with people’s health, something that everyone is concerned about.

I’d argue that environmental documentaries should attempt the same. No matter how complex or esoteric the issue, they must relate it back to people’s health and well-being in some manner, or people won’t be concerned enough to watch the documentary – let alone act on it. This is especially important since a National Cancer Institute Survey showed that 58.3 % of respondents got their cancer prevention information from television (Nelkin 1987). Only 13 to 15 % had talked to their physicians about cancer prevention. Clearly, the choice to communicate a health and environment message, via film or TV, presents a distinct opportunity for more viewership.

Krimsky and Plough also noted that, in the radon case, very concrete and specific activities were presented for viewers to perform. It left viewers with the sense that they could do something about the problem. This is crucial since surveys suggest that the general public feels apathetic and impotent when it comes to problem solving and changing policy, resulting in a tendency to let the scientists tackle the issues (Nelkin 1987). Finally, the series showed every-day locals dealing with the problem and did not dwell on scientific discourse.

As Krimsky and Plough point out, at times it’s the media that originates useful risk information – not the scientists! Moreover, as Dorothy Nelkin points out in the introduction to their book, social perceptions of risk are of central importance. Thus, technical rationality should not be allowed to dominate a discourse.

The household radon case is in important lesson for environmental documentary filmmakers for several reasons. Perhaps most importantly, environmental documentary filmmakers must struggle with the fact that the general public often feels cynical that any form of individual action or protest will have any affect on environmental policy (Burgess 1991). Thus, to circumvent this, filmmakers should try to empower audiences wherever and whenever possible – as in the television series on household radon. The key, once again, is a clear message, well defined actions that need to be taken, a local perspective (Think Globally, Act Locally), and showing clear connections between the environmental issues and the health and well-being of the audience.

Lastly, no survey of documentaries is complete without mention of ethics. Ethics seems to enter into all discussions of documentary theory, form, and content. It is fair to conclude that a good environmental documentary must also be an ethical one. To be able to judge a documentary according to ethics, the do’s and don’ts associated with ethics must be determined.

“There are two commandments in natural history filmmaking – thou shalt not deceive the audience, and thou shalt not be cruel to the animals. The problem, of course, is that morality, unlike science, is subjective.” (Jeffery Boswall quoted in James 1985).

Unfortunately, the commandments noted above do not apply to all wildlife films – although they should. Several nature and wildlife films have been accused of systemic falsifications, deceptions, and unethical filmmaking practices (Bousé 1998). Bousé describes wildlife films as suffering a history of critical neglect. Thus, major issues (i.e., the ethics of filming, representing, and interpreting “powerless” animals – their “right to privacy”) are going by the way side. Environmental documentaries must be very careful to adhere to the above commandments.

As a general rule, environmental documentary filmmakers should not show the audience what they cannot see in nature. However, problems arise with the use of sound. Classic wildlife filmmaking is accomplished with a zoom lens, thus the subject is too far away for live sound to be recorded. However, the irony is that not including sound makes the animal look like a mysterious thing that moves in total silence, which is also false (James 1985). Thus, a balance should be struck between natural sounds, foley sounds, and stock sounds.

However, with recent technology, including long distance directional microphones and digital recording, I find it very hard to believe that live sound can not be obtained in sync with the images being captured on film. I think that today’s environmental documentary filmmakers should embrace this technology. In addition, trust, honesty, and sincerity should be key elements of their documentaries. Sensationalism or manipulations (i.e., adding in sound or foley effects in wildlife films, staging footage) should be avoided. Intensive research is needed, with emphasis on scientific accuracy. Narration must be sensitive and informed – preferably from a variety of stakeholders. Anthropomorphism of animals, failure to capture their ecology, and misrepresenting them or their environment must be avoided. All of these things are tied to ethics.

Environmental documentary filmmakers should approach the use of library and archival footage with caution. Unless it is obviously stock footage – and it is being used for some effect other than providing visual evidence, as in Errol Morris’s use of footage from old 30’s and 40’s serials for creating humour – there should be a clear indication that stock footage is being used. In addition, camera and editing trickery must be avoided.

“As for the truism that the camera cannot lie: the camera can be made to say, convincingly, anything. When it’s being its most truthful, it’s probably employing the most artifice.” (David Attenborough quoted in James 1985)

While introducing new camera techniques to the documentary filmmaking process, in order to draw audiences in, is positive, it must not become the central thrust of the documentary – thereby obliterating the environmental message. The challenge for wildlife filmmakers, in particular, is that while the public craves new wildlife programming, there’s nothing new under the sun (James 1985). In addition, there is likely a strong rivalry between nature filmmakers to one-up each other. Thus, they resort to all sorts of camera tricks, and even staged events, to get the audience to ask “how did they do that?”. This is rather like letting the special effects over run the feature film – you’re left with a plotless, superficial mess.

If environmental documentary filmmakers can not get the wildlife shots they require, they should develop a work around. The classic use of fenced enclosures, staged dramatic confrontations, and unwitting participants who become disposable subjects must be avoided if the film is to have any integrity (Bousé 1998). My own documentary will make use of footage shot at the Toronto Zoo, but it will come out and say where the footage was obtained.

Perhaps, in the initial stages of the production, emphasis should be placed on revealing something new, as opposed to seeking footage to illustrate preconceived ideas (Bousé 1998). Filmmakers should not be too reliant on their treatment, to the point that it is a “wish list” of footage that they must have to make their documentary work. This may lead to unethical or dishonest techniques, such as staging or provocation. Sometimes, as with any scientific study, embracing the unforeseen and reporting unexpected results can lead to the biggest accomplishments.

In conclusion, this essay has highlighted five major factors to consider when evaluating an environmental documentary: language, narrative, filmmaking techniques employed, value as a tool of scientific study (i.e., ability to conduct research, communicate findings, and empower citizens), and ethics. Of course, by listing all the ingredients that I feel make a good documentary, and pointing out what to avoid, I am suggesting that an ideal documentary is possible. While that is not practical or realistic, I think there is still value in suggesting an ideal for the purposes of generating discussion and moving the bar up for future documentaries. Lastly, I think this essay is an important step towards judging the effectiveness of existing documentaries and helping to improve the quality of future ones – including my own documentary!


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Bouse, D. (1998). “Are Wildlife Films Really “Nature Documentaries”?”

Critical Studies in Mass Communications 15(2): 116-140.

Burgess, J. (1991), “Images and Realities: the Views of Wildlife Film Audiences”, Image Technology, 73 (12), pp. 472-5.

James, J. (1985). “Art & Artifice in Wildlife Films.” Discover (September):

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