The challenge of objectivity

By Matt Palmer

For those who have started to follow my blog, or anyone who is now discovering it, hopefully my writing is inspiring conversation with friends and colleagues about the lack of civil debate in our society. As a filmmaker, currently focusing on making documentaries, I have ben troubled by the rise of the filmmaker as celebrity commentator. I guess it’s easy to lay the blame on Michael Moore on the one hand because he popularized that form of film. And certainly we have seen that it can be very effective in delivering a specific message and political agenda.

I don’t want to pass judgement on the value of the Michael Moore style of documentary, I do watch his films and have been entertained, annoyed, etc,, but just to say that it is not the style that I choose for myself. I like to make thought-provoking work that challenges the audience. I don’t necessarily want to provide answers. I likely don’t have the answers to start with, but I also feel that with major issues we need more vigorous conversation, and a documentary can be a great way to inspire debate. Not the screaming at each other brand that has become so popular because people like watching a train wreck, but getting back to real civil exploration of ideas. I remember back in the 70’s there was a show on CBC called “The Great Debate”. It was great example of how listening to great thinkers engage in an intellectual battle of ideas can be entertaining.

As a filmmaker, one of my challenges is to try to make films that are relatively speaking “objective”. I think the meaning of that word in journalism and documentary filmmaking has been blurred, and I have been attempting to sort out why. I’ve even used the term with regards to my current project.

It is important then to examine if objectivity is a reasonable goal for a documentary film? There are a number of challenges with being objective. To be objective means to not allow personal feelings or opinions influence the representation of facts. In deconstructing this sentence I would point out some flaws I see in how this applies in my case to making films, and open the debate to how my reasoning may apply beyond the world of documentary film.

First of all, humans are emotional beings. I would suggest that it is impossible to separate emotions from rational thought. We may be challenged in recognizing our emotions, or being able to attach a word to what we’re feeling, but our emotions are always present, not matter how hard we may be trying to be rational and logical.

As a challenge, take a moment right now to close your eyes, and identify what you are feeling, where that feeling manifests in your body, and what word identifies that emotion.

Secondly, we must look deep into the notion of how facts are represented. There is the obvious issue of who determines what the facts are in a given story, what facts are chosen, what ones might be overlooked, and that facts can sour over time. The saying “history is written by the winners” has great relevance. Another example of how difficult it can be to determine the facts, especially when the human element is involved, is the variation in stories that happen when multiple people witness the same accident. Stories from witnesses can vary greatly.

Dealing with testimonies and interviews is extremely challenging when making a film. a typical feature-length documentary for example may be between 90 minutes to two hours. However, that film may be edited down from forty to one hundred hours of footage. My interview with Paul Roberts, author the book “End of Oil“, that I shot for my 2006 film “Pay Dirt” was close to two hours long. Mr Roberts was an awesome interviewee, and he gave some fantastic well thought out, complex answers to the questions. In the end film we were able to use probably five to six minutes of that interview. We had to make difficult choices in boiling down his answers to the sound bites that had relevance to the story we were telling.

In editing a film we constantly make choices about what to keep in and what has to go. Decisions are often not guided by the quality of the content, but that amount of time we have to tell the story. Our choices are guided by the ideal of objectivity and balance, but choices by nature are influenced by our emotions, how we feel on that day, in that moment, My perceptions of what is important might be vastly different from another filmmaker cutting the same footage.

We can then look at issues of choosing the interview subjects, locations, the questions for the interview, where the camera is set up, when the camera is turned on, etc. There are many factors that go into the making of a documentary that have nothing to do with objectivity. Personal opinions, tastes, biases always permeate the decision process.

In writing this blog, I am letting my own opinions flow through onto the screen as I write. It is important that I do this as part of my process of exploring the subject I have chosen. Does that mean I cannot produce an end product film that achieves a goal of relative objectivity? I hope not. I know I cannot be completely objective. I think that absolute objectivity is a false goal in the grande scheme. What I can do is give my best effort to ensure that I am always fair, balanced and transparent. But even these things will be open to debate, and likely some will judge that my biases got the best of me. That’s okay, art is a subjective field. Documentary filmmaking by its nature opens the door to subjective judgments from the audience, and that is a great thing.

In the end, I will judge the success of this project by the quality of debate that it inspires. My hope is to raise awareness around energy issues, and increase energy literacy. I’m sure there may be a few other things, but I’m going to end here. I hope that some of you will share your thoughts on what I have written.


About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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