When the word ‘documentary’ is used, the expectation is that you will be watching something honest and possibly worthwhile. In that perfect theoretical world, this is certainly possible, but where words on paper meet reality, as with most things, honesty doesn’t always survive.
Worthwhile is a matter of opinion of course. I would not want to sit through a biographical movie about The Backstreet Boys, others might. But remaining honest to the context of a story is another matter.
Take the case of Man vs. Wild, a reality survival show with host Bear Grylls, a former special forces soldier and self proclaimed survival expert. This series follows Mr. Grylls as he throws himself, often out of a plane or helicopter, into the wild where he then teaches the viewer what to do if they should find themselves parachuted into wide open spaces, presumably alone.
Granted, in this example we are not talking about a strict documentary. There is a distinction between that and reality television and it is one that I have yet to fully define in my own mind. Perhaps it is the fact that the entire situation is fabricated to begin with that changes the flavour of this sort of program. From the outset, reality programs feel different from a documentary. This certainly isn’t The Nature of Things, and Bear isn’t David Suzuki. He becomes more actor than expert.
My background is full of working and living in the bush, as a boy scout, treeplanter and forest fire fighter. I would never be so presumptuous to claim that I was a survival expert. I can muddle by, however, and have been instructed by true survival gurus, men and women who can claim to be able to live off the land.
There is not the romance one might imagine in doing this. Making a fire while wet and cold is rewarding, but when you consider that my most prized possessions when in the bush is my bug net, flask of scotch and a good book, you get the idea that the true reward is getting away from the bugs which will soon be the only thing distracting you from the boredom of waiting to be rescued. It usually isn’t summer camp.
As a result, a truly honest show about survival would not have nearly the excitement that Bear Grylls seems to provide on a weekly basis.
Most episodes begin with the hero jumping out of a plane or helicopter into a supposed unknown situation. This is not likely for most of us to begin with. Then Mr. Grylls seems to be in a great hurry to get away from where ever he lands. This includes jumping off cliffs, running away from mountain plateaus full of berries and possible helicopter pick up points. Not good advice.
In most survival situations, after whatever has gotten you into that predicament has happened, the greatest problem is dealing with the boredom, because you should rarely ever wander away from where you find yourself initially. If you are good and lost, stay put.
This sadly does not make for good television.
I can imagine the producer looking at the proposal and wondering “how do I make this sexy?” She/he probably already had preconceived ideas about what a survival show should look like. It would have confrontations galore, wether that be weather, wildlife, terrain... there has to be conflict, especially when you consider that it is in the name of the show. As a side note, in most Man versus Wild scenarios in real life, man tends to lose. Man Dealing with Wild is too much of a mouthful though.
The production is certainly exciting. It pulled me in quite quickly. So credit given where credit is due. The image of someone jumping out of a helicopter 8000 feet about a supposedly deserted island is unquestionably compelling footage.
However, it turns out that in search of sexy, Bear Grylls or his producers have told some very serious lies. In fact, they have lied so poorly that the Discovery Channel has been forced to re-edit many of the episodes in an effort to offset that bad reputation the show has received.
Certainly many, including myself, can debate the merits of the advice given as it is often rather dangerous, but the lies are even more flagrant. In one episode he claims to be on a deserted island and it was found out that he was in Hawaii and returning to a hotel each night. Embarrassing.
Worse yet was during a taping in the Rocky Mountains, they could not find a bear. Apparently bear attacks happen all the time in the mountains, and yet somehow I’ve missed every one of them. But it would be good to know what to do, I suppose, and being that the star of the show is named Bear... well the irony is too important for any producer to ignore.
Not finding a bear to chase Bear, they decided to look for a tame one. No luck. Seems the stunt bears are busy guys, always shuffling between movie sets.
The solution? Man in a bear suit.
There is a list on the internet of all of the fraud on this reality series. Amongst many, this show is a joke and some even now watch it ironically. By some, I really mean myself.
This situation illustrates that you should not believe everything you see on television... but to make it all the more tragic, it leads to a loss of trust in any similar production. The word reality becomes irrelevant and is thus confused with documentary and then further to news reporting, both of which ought to have a strict ethical guide to prevent entertainment getting in the way of being truthful.
I believe there is a need to remain as honest as possible in telling a story. That means not leaving out the dirty laundry where it is important for the viewer to realize that what she or he is watching may not be entirely what they believe it is.
But I’ve found myself placing shots out of order, using footage that was shot on a different day, sometimes misleading the audience. Usually this is as innocent as using a wide shot of a location when the action afterwards happened many miles away. Or using a shot of two people talking when the actual conversation is not what was said at that precise moment. I may not have overtly lied, but I certainly did mislead, and even enjoyed doing so. This is the magic of editing, which is often necessary, and sometimes provides a strange rush to video editor. She has made the story work.
So where is the line that divides an honest slight of hand and a reputation destroying lie?
I don’t have a simple answer. Perhaps it is in being true to the story. That, I’m afraid, is a pretty evasive answer itself.
If Man Vs. Wild was a comedy about a survival expert, it would simply be funny. The fact that many take such a series to heart and that there have been a couple of fatalities already attributed to misleading footage taken as advice by weekend warriors, attests to the harm that a simple lie on television can do.
note: In an effort to avoid ironically ignore my own post, the photo below was actually shot at a fire line camp in northern Alberta. Our meals were shipped in daily by helicopter and we not only each had our own tents, but managed to build a water slide and a sauna. Not exactly a survival situation to us, this was closer to summer camp for an Alberta firefighter.