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Tuesday, 7 January 2014

What Is Truth? Perception, Distortion, Reality And The Documentary - Part 1

Welcome Back, and a Happy New Year to you all!

My DEMONS and DEMONS 2 reviews will be making an appearance on this website soon, I promise, but I have decided to make my first article of 2014, be a little different, as through some research I was doing, an idea began germinating in my head, and this is the result. I hope you enjoy reading it.

Sometimes, to balance out our lives, and make us sit-up and think, we need to stop watching fictionalised horror, and focus on the real-world stuff that goes on. War, famine, medical disasters, political inequalities, etc, are every day occurrences in the world in which we all live. And sometimes, it's necessary to be horrified for real, to make us reevaluate ourselves and our place in the universe.

Just before Christmas, a documentary that I love very much, was shown on the BBC. It's the 2013 natural history doc BLACKFISH by Gabriella Cowperthwaite, about the life of Tilikum the Whale and SeaWorld, and Tilikum's capture and captivity by SeaWorld. It's part documentary, part legal-drama, and part environmental fable. It's a very impressive piece of cinema, and if you've not seen it, I heartily recommend it, as it's a very harrowing and moving portrayal of the way we humans mistreat animals, for our own ends. It will almost certainly shock and upset you, and so it should.

Now, no documentary will ever be 100% truthful. In fact, I would argue that there is no such thing as "irrefutable truth". Human memories, that we recall as being "the truth", because we believed them to have happened to us, are never the whole truth, because our brains will determine what we choose to remember, and that which we choose to ignore or forget. As such, the human mind is not a reliable or valuable source for reporting facts, the truth, and/or evidence. Alas, we have nothing better to use in court cases to rely upon, and that is why you will often see perverse decisions in legal cases. The Black's Law Dictionary describes "the truth" as being:
1. A fully accurate account of events, factuality.
2. Defamation.  An affirmative defense by which the defendant asserts that the alleged defamatory statement is substantially accurate.
Documentaries portray whatever the writer, editor or documentarian wants their work to say, and will create a work that is no more truthful than "truth" and "history" itself. But what counts as "a fully accurate account of events". Stage a fake car crash, with actors as the driver, passengers and onlookers in front of 10 people and then ask each of them "What just happened?" and you will get 10 very different, very divisive accounts of the event, as determined by those ten people: each response claiming to be "the truth". Start asking those people "Who stood where", or "Which person was driving the car, from the six faces shown in this Photographic Line-Up",and again, you'll probably get several people picking each face more than once, all convinced that it was "that person".

And so it is, with BLACKFISH. The documentary has come under an inordinate amount of criticism from detractors, SeaWorld employers and staff, and viewers, decrying the film as being "fraudulent", "a lie, for commercial gain" and "misleading, unoriginal and stupid".

Irrespective of what I say, my viewpoint is going to automtically coloured by the fact I liked this documentary. It worked for me, by opening my eyes to something I didn't know about, and which I now feel more knowledgeable of. It shocked and upset me that we humans can continue to mistreat animals in such a way, yet we do. And all to make a quick buck. So, anything I write in this article, is tainted, and can be argued to be a "lie", because I am showing favouritism towards it. However, I will try to remain as dispassionate as I possibly can.

During my short research for this article, I came upon this article  here  from a blogger called Melissa Smith, who has been blogging for the past couple of years on HubPages. I have never read any of her work before, and I have no knowledge of who she is, or why she wrote the article she did. However, I am going to use that article and one other  here  to form part of my own article. Both blog articles are quite long, but are interesting, if flawed, in my view.

As I said earlier, no documentary can or will ever be 100% truthful, unbiased and wholly accurate. It will be a distorted version of events, much like our own memories are. In BLACKFISH, the director asked SeaWorld to comment and/or be interviewed for the documentary, but they declined to respond. That is their choice. However, once the work was then released, SeaWorld started a backlash campaign of damage limitation - a well-known legal exercise - to try and prevent negative fallout against the company. This was done with the following methods, in order of relevance and date/time of occurrance:

The original SeaWorld response to BLACKFISH - here

An online poll conducted by the Orlando Business Journal - here. (Please note that the results have now changed to be accurate, and no longer distorted. See next link for why the distortion took place!)

Proof by The Huffington Post that the original poll had been rigged to favour SeaWorld - here

CNN asks "Did SeaWorld rig the poll?" - here

SeaWorld responds to the "rigged poll" accusation - here

SeaWorld tries to halt public backlash, due to BLACKFISH - here

And finally, SeaWorld starting to lose business, upon BLACKFISH's release - here

I've never been to a SeaWorld "resort park", so I had no knowledge of their track record and history with keeping whales and other sea mammals in captivity, for our entertainment. I should also stress, that - until I saw BLACKFISH - I held no feelings, either way, towards the company. As such, I was "neutral". When I saw the trailer to BLACKFISH, it looked like an interesting documentary, and so I saw it at my local arthouse cinema, one afternoon, last Summer. It was brilliant, and fascinating, and well-made, and articulately-structured. Hence, I recommended it to family and friends, who liked it and were shocked by it also.

Putting my liking for the film aside for one moment, I've never been a believer in documentaries giving us the "whole truth". Every piece of film and TV making, is going to be distorted in one way, or another. So, as a viewer, you have to accept right from the get-go, that you are being told only what the writer or director wants you to know, and only in the terms that they want you to know about. Ergo, it cannot be wholly accurate, and thusly, it is merely one person's representation or view of events. Once you remember that, then you learn to read into what all documentaries tell you. You learn to filter and be sceptical towards everything you are being fed, questioning it all, at every step. It doesn't stop documentaries (or news stories, or journalism in general) from being enjoyed, and believed, but it will make you look at things with a far more critical eye. As you should.

It's only after I started researching what others felt about it, that I discovered that many people were questioning its authenticity, and decrying it for not giving SeaWorld the chance to respond. And it is on that last point, that we come back to Melissa Smith, and her HubPages blog articles I mentioned earlier.

The first thing, that readers see, is the blog article title: "The Stupidity Of The Blackfish Trailer | Anti-SeaWorld Documentary". Immediately, it's going to get people's heckles up. You're rapidly setting an agenda that is incredibly biased, right from the get-go: the film is bad, the film is wrong, everything I say is right.

No! No! No!

In the first article she wrote, she decried the trailer for "lying" to her. What she seems to forget, is that a trailer is merely a sales tool. A device to be used to "sell" you a ticket, to go see the film it's promoting. It's a hook, to attract and tease you, into ponying-up money to watch the full work. From the start, it appears that she is vehemently against the film, as she says:
BLACKFISH is another entry in a growing line of anti-cetacean captivity fare such as 2009’s The Cove, and David Kirby’s book “Death at Seaworld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity”, released in 2012.
Immediately, the hairs on my neck stand to attention, and I immediately think that this writer has an axe to grind. She continues on...
The efforts are strategically placed to capture the attention of the mainstream media and the general public, with sensationalistic approaches that emphasize the danger of the animals moreso than animal welfare (except THE COVE).
When dealing with anything that is potentially inflammatory, you have to be really careful about what you say, and how you say it. I know this, from my own experience. Things I've said and written have gotten me into trouble, and/or I've had to rephrase or rewrite certain things. But even that is not an excuse, from trying to remain as neutral and unbiased as possible, especially when critcising or critiquing things. Wherever possible, I take my readers through things, step-by-step, so that they can see how I have reached the point that I have, and why I feel the way I do. That way, even if they completely disagree with everything that I've written, they can at least see how I've arrived at the viewpoint that I have, and so that my evidence cannot be contested by others.

Ms Smith unfortunately falls into the easily-avoidable trap of starting her article from a wholly biased viewpoint, and refusing to accept any other evidence. Her profile on HubPages states that she:
I am a [snip] person with a strong interest in exotic pet keeping. I offer balanced views on controversial animal-related subjects, with an emphasis on pet ownership. [snip]Topics I explore include but are not limited to exotic pets, zoos, Seaworld, alternative medicine, and animal rights vs. animal welfare. I receive criticism from BOTH sides of the ‘fence’, and you may not agree with everything I have to say on every subject, but I encourage you to approach my logic with an open mind.
Unfortunately, her "logic" isn't logical. Logic requires a natural progression from point A, to point B, to point C, and so-forth. As such, it isn't possible to approach her work with logic, because her work isn't logical. It's no different than a maths teacher saying to a student "Do this working here, get that result there, and that's how you do quadratic equations. See? It's easy!" If the student can't grasp how the working is worked-out, then no wonder they are left wondering what the hell to do, because nothing's making sense.

That paragraph I've just quoted above, is also quite telling. The final sentence sounds more like a plea for readers to side with her, even if they disagree with her. That's not how things work in the real world. People read blogs, mostly for fun. Some are read for research. Some to stimulate and expand upon an interest the reader has in a specific topic or subject. Mine is firmly aimed at the latter. My blog, as I've explained, is not meant to be about the latest developments in Extreme Cinema, nor interviews with famous faces. That's showbiz bullshit, and I don't subscribe to that theorem. It's crass, it's lazy, and it's a waste of my time!

I am here to educate, entertain and elucidate. The blog is as much for me, as it is for my readers. If you want tittle-tattle and gossip, there are other places you can frequent to get such material.

Ms Smith's blog article continues on, to breakdown each part of the US version of the BLACKFISH trailer. Her first bullet-point states:
Horror stories are now the name of the game. The movie is being billed as a ‘psychological thriller’, and I am very intrigued as to why this is so. While, of course, there are many people who are emotional over the idea of keeping ‘magnificent animals' in captivity and identify with their plight, I still don’t see how this is a horror movie for most people.
First things first: what have horror stories go to do with BLACKFISH? Answer: nothing whatsoever. However, it is a horror story, because the tale that BLACKFISH tells, will horrify most audiences. The story is shocking. It is horrific, so actually, Ms Smith is correct in asking her initial question. The problem, however, is that she doesn't logically get from point A to point B, but jumps about. Ms Smith is immediately striking an oppository stance.

Next: she claims the movie is being billed as a psychological thiraller, and then says "I still don't see how this is a horror movie for most people". Again, using connotation and denotation, the former being words that are linked to the meaning of something, whilst denotation is what something actually means. So, by describing BLACKFISH, the trailer-makers are suggesting (connotation) that the film will terrify, shock and repulse you, and hence this is why they are labelling it as a "horror movie", because "horror movies" are movies designed to terrify, repel and shock you. The inference being, that once you've seen the film, you will be shocked at what it has to tell you. (Which, if you've seen this documentary, is true!)

She then moves on to her second bullet-point, in which she states:
The trailer starts with an off-screen person saying “when you look into their eyes, you know somebody is home”, and another saying “they’re an animal that posses great spiritual power, not to be meddled with”. A little too religious for my taste…but OK.
Again, you have to ask yourself, why is she citing that quote as being "too religious". Is she anti-religion? More to the point, however, is what does religion have to do with this film or this trailer, and the simple answer - as before - is absolutely nothing. She is deliberately using that term to divide her readers into a "religion = wrong" stance, and subtly trying to coerce her readers into siding with her biased viewpoint, that religion has no place within this trailer. Well, religion isn't mentioned in the trailer, but she is inferring otherwise, and in my opinion, you are belittling your readers by telling them "You must think as I do. If you do, then that is good, but if you don't, then you are wrong and stupid." To me, that is deeply insensitive and crass. You are talking down to your audience, and patronising them. I don't want anyone to tell me how I should feel, or what I should think. I'm an adult, and perfectly capable of deciding for myself how I feel and what I am thinking, thanks very much!

She then progresses on and on, citing moments in the trailer as "silly", and belittling the way the film was being sold to her, because it doesn't fit into her own, narrow-minded, lofty viewpoint. Thus, when it doesn't fit into it, she can then dismiss it as frivolous and wasteful. And, ergo, the film can then be relinquished as garbage unworthy of her time.

All of this, because of one, single piece of advertising: promotional marketing aimed at getting people excited, interested, teased about seeing a new piece of movie-making. Ms Smith doth protest too much, in my view!

Then, when her readers criticise her for reading too much into the trailer, she goes on the defensive.

If she had made her argument more logical, then she couldn't be criticised for it. No one expects that everyone will like what you say or write. Your views are your views - irrespective of whether those views are full of perceived wisdom, or deeply flawed logic. You are entitled to hold your views, because they are what you believe, and no one has the right to tell you otherwise. However, there's one caveat to all of that. Your views should be able to withstand some testing. Don't use child-like logic. "I hate apples." "Why?" "Because they're red and green, and I don't like things that are red and green". That's the logic of a child. Understandable, as children don't always have the knowledge to explain why they hold certain views. But of a supposedly intelligent adult, then that begets major problems.

Your views, should be reinforced by knowledge, wisdom, experience. You can't just say "I believe" something, and then when questioned as to why you believe what you do, respond with "just because".

That's not an answer. That's an excuse. An excuse not to respond, because you can't justify your belief. And if you can't justify them, then the world-at-large may think that your beliefs are wrong, or worse, extremely ill-informed and ignorant. Sadly, Ms Smith's blog article tries to turn a spurious piece of thought (that the film isn't what it's claiming to be) into an absolute and valid opinion-piece, with nothing to back it up except her own, poorly-articulated views, that cannot be substantiated. I'd have had more respect for her article if she'd simply said "I don't like the way this trailer is promoting the film in the manner that it is". At least, that can be substantiated as being just her own viewpoint, to which she would be wholly entitled. That works.

Alas, she wrote this article before the film was officially released in the United States. (Sadly there is no date of writing on the article, so I can not state for certain when it was originally written. It was last "updated" on 25th October 2013, though.)

To all intents-and-purposes, she was judging a book by its cover.

I will continue this article and examine her main article on the film itself, in Part 2 of this discussion, which will go online shortly, followed by reviews of the two DEMONS Steelbook releases from Synapse a little while after. Apologies to those of you awaiting those reviews.

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