Entertainment and Serious Issues in Recent Years Research Proposal

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¶ … Entertainment and Serious Issues

In recent years, there appears to have been an increase in the popularity of documentaries which have been made as feature films, with the intention of both entertaining and educating simultaneously. The most famous examples of these have been created by people who themselves have become household names, such as Michael Moore (e.g. Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko) and Morgan Spurlock (e.g. Supersize Me, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?). Many of these films have intentionally set out to bring important issues to the attention of the general public, by approaching them in a somewhat different manner to the more traditional documentary. This new sub-genre of feature-film documentaries only appears to further reinforce the notion that the documentary genre is an 'unstable category' (Corner 682). This initial section of the essay therefore discusses how documentaries are able to serve the dual purpose of both entertaining and presenting serious issues. The discussion identifies a number of different tools which are used which allow entertainment to be incorporated into the documentary itself. This discussion uses a number of examples from the genre to illustrate the points which are made.

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Research Proposal on Entertainment and Serious Issues in Recent Years, Assignment

One of the prevailing features of a number of successful documentaries which have made it to the big screen is that of very likeable protagonists. A prime example of this is in the film 'King Corn' which features Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis in a quest to grow and sell an acre of corn. The film focuses on the problems which are inherent in the American industrial food system and aims to raise awareness over the food which we are eating and the processes of farming in the developed nations. Here the entertainment lays not so much in the actual topic of the film, but in the manner in which it is presented by Cheney and Ellis. The two often crack jokes as a part of their on-camera discussion, for example in one scene where they find hemp growing in their field as a weed. The two maintain what one review refers to as a 'light-hearted', 'friendly and interested attitude' (Onion 123). It is essentially the personality of the two presenters, and the implication that they are the proverbial 'everyman', which holds the interest of the audience throughout.

Unintentionally Funny

While some films add humor intentionally through the presenters of the documentary, it may also be that the humor is more subtle. Many times, it may be that the documentary is entertaining through the individual which is selected as the focus of the film. For example in 'Who the Hell Is Jackson Pollock?', directed by Harry Moses, the main feature of the documentary which provided entertainment to the viewer was the centre of the film, Teri Horton. The film was not intentionally entertaining in terms of its content, but it just so happened that Ms. Horton herself, an ex-trucker and somewhat of a spitfire personality, was oftentimes hilarious to watch. In fact, the very value of the piece as a documentary of interest to the general public lay mostly in the extraordinary lengths she pursued to prove the art critics wrong.

A further example of this may be seen not only in the actual focus of such documentaries, but also in the interviews which may be included. For example in 'King Corn' some of the funniest moments of the film (as well as those which best illustrate the points made) are in the interviews with talking heads. This in itself may rely on clever production work to portray the most entertaining parts of the interviews while not compromising the quantity of integrity of the information presented.


There is no doubt that the choice of topic for a documentary may also contribute heavily to its ability to provide entertainment as well as education. John Corner discusses the nature of documentaries as being grounded in suspicion (682), for example pursuing a topic in which there is already some notion that there will be some negative findings from the investigation. It is therefore likely that interest in a particular topic would be largely increased if the general public already shares some of this suspicion. Therefore documentaries such as 'The Torture Question', a PBS 'Frontline' film, which investigate highly controversial subject areas are likely to be inherently more popular than documentaries exploring routine topics. In the case of 'The Torture Question' the entertainment value is therefore heavily increased by the selection of interviews which are included and providing jargon-free commentary on the issues. This is also similar to the film 'Control Room' directed by Jehane Noujaim, which examined international perceptions of the American war on Iraq, thereby increasing appeal outside of America.

Also, documentary topics may be selected less for their dealing with heavy issues and more for the entertainment value of the story itself. For example 'Who the Hell is Jackson Pollock?' deals with a story which was picked for its intrinsic entertainment value as opposed to it being a hard-hitting issue. An even more prominent example is that of 'Unmade Beds', directed by Nicholas Barker, which appears to have been made purely as a source of entertainment. The film focuses on the personal lives of four Americans, and while there are some underlying morals which may be gleaned from the story, the prime function of the film appears to be to entertain the audience. In fact, this documentary is more in keeping with the 'reality TV' style of entertainment created by shows such as 'Big Brother'. The production in terms of selecting which elements of each individual's lives to showcase is the crucial element which ensures that comedy element of the film. It creates an effect which renders the individuals almost as sitcom characters, and it is quite easy to forget that the film is in fact a documentary.


In essence, the style of documentaries which has been discussed in this first part of the essay are able to effectively combine entertainment with important underlying themes. Some focus on a hard-hitting issue and present it in a manner which is slightly more light-hearted, and at times even funny. This ensures that the underlying message is presented to a much wider audience than may appreciate the more formal style of news documentaries, and is thus successful in raising awareness of important issues. In contrast, some documentaries appear to be made with a greater focus on entertainment, and simply 'telling a story'. Again however, important elements of the factual basis of the story may be effectively highlighted to provide education simultaneously.

Pseudo-fictional Elements in Documentaries

As a part of the added entertainment value of many feature-length documentaries, pseudo-fictional elements have also often been included. These are elements in which the documentary is shot to make it look almost as though it is telling a fictional story. A popular means of doing so in a feature-length documentary is often that of following the story of a particular individual. This recreates their own story, and develops the story in a similar manner to that in which an individual's story may be developed in a fictional film. One such example is that of 'Streetwise', a 1984 documentary directed by Martin Bell. The film followed the story of a number of different children living on the streets of Seattle, but focuses predominantly on a 14-year-old girl named Erin (nicknamed Tiny). By following Erin and introducing the different characters within Erin's life alongside her own experiences, the documentary creates an effect whereby it would almost be possible to believe that Erin was a fictional character in a faux documentary film.

Reasons for Introducing Pseudo-fictional Elements

There are a number of reasons why it may be beneficial to introduce a pseudo-fictional element to a feature-length documentary. The most notable of these is that it creates a real understanding of the character, in terms of sharing their experiences. For example in the film 'Streetwise' the introduction of characters such as Erin's alcoholic mother in this non-formal manner gives a better understanding of Erin's own reality. This then generates a much greater sense of caring for the character than may be garnered from interviews alone. Another documentary in which this is particularly well done is in 'Unmade Beds', where following through the highs and lows of each of the four central individuals' lives creates a story which is entertaining and somewhat gripping for the audience. In essence, the audience cares what happens to the 'character', and wants to find out how their story will end. In some cases, such as in 'Unmade Beds' it would appear that this is purely a tool used to create an entertaining film, with the underlying lessons coming second to the entertainment value. In contrast however, it may be used in other films as a means of highlighting the central issue.

Some documentaries may use the pseudo-fictional techniques to garner a sense of social justice (Bickford 131). Again, in the case of 'Streetwise' the use of… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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