Knowledge of grave, hopeless and disabling truths increasingly runs off, like water off a duck’s back. Is Gibbs’ Planet of the Humans any different?
For those familiar with narrative theory, or the praxis of storytelling, documentaries can often appear trite. Many run like speeches, some good, and some bad. They sit the viewer down and reveal to her the new truth—the spectator is treated as a political agent. Whatever it takes.
What is a documentary?
Documentaries document. Think back to the indelible classics: Dorling Kindersley’s Eyewitness series, or Auntie Mabel taking you and her dog Pippin on a tour of a toothpaste factory. You learned, imbibed knowledge. It was innocent fun. Later in life, Panorama or Dispatches would reveal hidden truths to you. These were the outputs of filmmaker detectives, who laid bare the injustices and myriad corruptions beneath the surface of everyday life. They exposed truths.
Rather than peering ‘behind the scenes’ in a fishcake factory, or showing you how marbles are made, these programs make well-aimed offensives. They show you what you’re not supposed to see.
We are now snugly in the era of filmic exposés. Documentary makers like Adam Curtis, Michael Moore and Ari Lewis (This Changes Everything and The Shock Doctrine) have been letting us know for decades what they understand to be the real truth underpinning our reality.
To this end they apply all the arts available to them to contribute to their respective debates. They may differ hugely in stylistic terms – Moore is dry, witty and off-hand, Curtis intellectual, poetic and ethereal, and Lewis is sharply political – but their films stand on the same legs.
The tools all speechmakers use
The best poltical speechmakers jump on personal, familial and societal cues, and appeal to three primary philosophical areas: logos, pathos and ethos. These are the fundaments of persuasive writing.
They are also the pillars of persuasive documentary making. How do you convince someone of something? Appeal to reason (logos), emotion (pathos) and credibility (ethos). For example, a documentary on veganism might argue that eating a plant-based diet is best because a) it makes sense (environment, sustainability, health), b) cute animals don’t die and c) you will be a better person (also, this professor/athlete/eminent scientist says it’s best). The goal is for you not to eat meat. A documentary about global heating deploys the same strategies, to different ends, depending on its overall goal—consume less, vote differently, tell your friends.
In short, filmmakers make decisions about what to document, and how to present their documents, in order to advance a particular agenda.
The most successful documentaries resonate for an even simpler reason
They employ a more basic strategy—empowerment.
Environmentalist documentaries are often arranged like speeches. Their aim – and they are often transparent about this – is to galvanise, to create action. Turn your lights off. Eat less meat. Vote for someone who shows empathy. To this end they will show you three things: negative consequences of current actions (to elicit a logical response), cute animals and/or spectacles of nature (to make you feel emotional) and how things work (so you grant them credibility).
While they do not serve stated political interests, such films are softly propagandic. They push a political agenda. Documentary films about Donald Trump, the Afghan War or veganism almost invariably seek to convince you of something, through education and exposition. Trump is bad, war is bad, and veganism is good. Your foreknowledge of this agenda informs your decision of whether or not to watch it. Whether or not the push is party-political, the idea is to land you on one or other side of an argument.
What viewers need to see
More important to a filmic speechmaker than high production value or a witty front-person is instilling a message of hope.
Hope is the tool that lifts people up. Break them down and rein them in. Break them and build them. The world is being systematically destroyed—here’s how we’re stopping it. Coal burning is still increasing—but Denmark is doing terrifically with its offshore wind farms. Indonesia is moving its administrative capital from Jakarta because Jakarta will soon be underwater—but China has divested x trillion dollars into so-called ‘green energy’ production.
It is not enough to inform you of the myriad ways in which you are being screwed over by capitalism. In order to be successful, popular and (we think) effective, a documentary must also show you what you can do to change the world. The aim is to provide a happy bandwagon onto which you, the viewer, can jump. You are broken, fixed, feel better, and share. You act. What do you do? Buy fewer avocados; join Greenpeace; stop visiting Big Cat zoos, and cease donations to Carol Baskin. This is storytelling.
Except it hasn’t really worked, has it?
We have seen all the documentaries, and there have been many. 45 must-watch documentaries to make you go plant-based, 10 must-watch documentaries about the climate catastrophe. There is enough educative material on Netflix to bring about carbon neutrality. There are enough polemics on YouTube to swing the global scale in favour of plant-based nutrition, polycultural farming, the decriminalisation of marijuana, the legalisation of gay marriage, and so on. The information is out there, yet largely we still fly, drive, procreate, eat meat, and vote for governments that value the economy over human lives.
It might be that the time has come to try a different tack. Documentary filmmakers are not journalists, nor are they reporters. They are invesgative artists with a point to make. After all, the best documentary makers are not bound to fidelity. We do not watch Vertov (Man With A Movie Camera) or Herzog (Lessons of Darkness, Grizzly Man) necessarily to learn. Rather, we watch them to feel—to be taken along. We seek catharsis and elation, to be mesmerised and altered.
Where Planet of the Humans comes in
Jeff Gibbs, the filmmaker responsible for Planet of the Humans, has been roundly accused of sloppy journalism, misreporting, deliberately ignoring alternative arguments, and fatalism. The issue with the first two of those criticisms is plainly that his duty is not reportage. The laws, even the conventions, of 21st century documentary film making, do not bind him to tell the whole truth. He is a filmmaker. Documentary is film. Film is art.
The third criticism is also deflated, given this more rounded understanding of the purpose and role of film. Gibbs’ purpose was evidently not to document the advantages and disadvantages of every non-fossil source of energy. If that had been his aim, presumably a very different film would have followed. His purpose, ultimately, seems to have been to pull the wool from our eyes, which, to at least a degree, he did. How did he do it? Did he do it by instilling hope, like all those filmmakers before him?
It is a hopeless film
For me, as, I imagine, for most viewers, Planet of the Humans engendered a feeling of hopelessness. There was no bright, alternative future presented – not even as an epilogue, not even as an afterthought. It was astounding.
The question is: Is there a place for this? The truth is, it is almost impossible to tell, at present. The film was re-edited after its second release to include two references to the impact it had when it was initially shown. These points, interestingly, in part serve as the hopeful afterthought one craves when learning about something as deeply depressing as Al Gore not being who you thought he was. Presumably, however, the film was originally screened to end without the post-credits snippets.
Is there a place for hopelessness?
Every filmgoer is affected differently. Whether a documentary such as this has the effect of instilling a disabling narcissism (“I knew it, we’re doomed”) or prompting a stark realisation whether previously there was none followed by newly devised action (“I didn’t realise we were that doomed – I’ve got to do something about it!”), is impossible to measure.
Given the rise of click-bait news pieces and monetised viewing figures, producers are incentivised to produce content that creates an argument. Ironically, and inevitably, almost any kind of backlash a film receives serves as free publicity, rendering controversy quite valuable. As a result of this, it is difficult to pinpoint just how noble a film producer’s intentions really are.
Does it make any difference?
In reality, it probably does neither. Self-educators are used to being told to act, and knowing full well the necessity of action, while simultaneously understanding that action on an individual level, or even on a collective level, is futile. Knowledge of grave, hopeless and disabling truths runs off, like water off a duck’s back.
In short, we are accustomed to hopelessness. A new kind is unlikely to make us feel any different.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of perspectives on the documentary. The internet gets busy quick!
- Planet of the humans: A reheated mess of lazy, old myths, Ketan Joshi
- Michael Moore’s environment film a slap in the face on Earth Day (on Medium), Cathy Cowan Becker
- 6 Reasons Why “Planet of the Humans” is a Disaster of Misinformation, Ben Wehrman
- 10 Reasons « Planet of the Humans » Gets Everything Wrong on Climate, Benjamin Tincq
- Why “Planet of the Humans” is crap, Tom Athanasiou, EcoEquity
- Film Review: Forget about PLANET OF THE HUMANS by Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore by Neal Livingston
- Michael Moore produced a film about climate change that’s a gift to Big Oil, Leah Stokes
- Planet of the Humans Comes This Close to Actually Getting the Real Problem, Then Goes Full Ecofascism, Brian Kahn, Gizmondo
- Meet the New Flack for Oil and Gas: Michael Moore, Josh Fox, The Nation
- Inside Clean Energy: 6 Things Michael Moore’s ‘Planet of the Humans’ Gets Wrong, Dan Gearino, Inside Climate News
- A Bomb in the Center of the Climate Movement’: Michael Moore Damages Our Most Important Goal, Bill McKibben, Rolling Stone
- POTH Traffics in Myths, Errors, and Dangerous Misdirection, John Rogers, Union of Concerned Scientists
- Planet of the Humans : Let’s just have a think…, Dave Borlace, Just Have a Think (note: a video response)
- Michael Moore’s ‘Planet of the Humans’ Film Trashes Clean Energy, Offers Zero Solutions, Sally Ho, Green Queen
- The Important Debate POTH Misses, Kate Aronoff, New Republic
- Michael Moores New Film Turns Heroes into Villains and Villains into Heroes, Dr. Michael Mann, Newsweek