Lynsey Archibald is a Master’s student of violence, terrorism and security at Queen’s University in Belfast. In this piece, she explores the ethical consequences of a mass-consumerist approach to documentary-making.
“It is not those who can inflict the most pain, but those who can suffer the most who will prevail.” — Terrence MacSwinney, former Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork who died by hunger strike in 1920.
The documentary Bobby Sands: 66 Days (2016), directed by Brendan Byrne and released on Netflix last year, takes MacSwinney’s canonical quotation and makes it an aesthetic structure. Proceeding chronologically via the diary entries of Bobby Sands — a 1981 hunger striker who died during the Troubles in protest of the British government’s revocation of the “special category status” for political prisoners — and interpolating his narrative voice with archival footage and interviews with Sands’ friends and colleagues, the documentary situates Sands within a genealogy of Republican self-sacrifice that gives him the symbolic, communicative status he was denied while alive. It’s an inherently sympathetic structure, described by the New York Times as a “countdown to martyrdom,” that works hagiographically to align Sands’ death with the end of the political stalemate which resulted in the concessions and discussions now memorialised by the Good Friday Agreement. The sheer humanity of Sands as we encounter him in the documentary validates his political position, which becomes increasingly philosophical and divorced from the concurrent atrocities committed by the IRA. Fintan O’Toole says of Sands that with his hunger strike he “stopped being a soldier and started being an artist.” This notion of transformation from man to symbol is reproduced in the documentary without challenge, bar the scant counter-narrative offered by interviews with Thatcher’s cabinet minister, Norman Tebbit. Byrne’s documentary, then, foregoes the traditional journalistic impartiality associated with the documentary genre for the false economy of what one critic has described as the Netflix “talking heads” phenomenon: the substitution of an overtly pedagogic central narrator for numerous protagonists, who nonetheless espouse the same view. Clearly this marks a creative departure, which has implications for how we view and respond to the documentary as a piece of entertainment.
Whilst not detracting from the undeniable merits of the documentary — its examination of the Troubles is expansive, and its filmography striking — such a partisan treatment of a notoriously partisan subject proves problematic. The iconographical tendency of 66 Days (the documentary’s thumbnail is an image of Che Guevara, and Gandhi is frequently alluded to), combined with the structural and narrative bias towards sensationalization, points towards a shifting emphasis from faithful “reportage” to grabbing viewer attention in an already-crowded economy. Especially given the recent flare ups of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland over the last week, 66 Days provides an interesting touchstone for discussions about the ethical responsibilities of streaming services and the politics of representation.
The sheer humanity of Sands as we encounter him in the documentary validates his political position, which becomes increasingly philosophical and divorced from the concurrent atrocities committed by the IRA.
Intrinsic to the reception of 66 Days, and other Netflix documentaries, is the platform and viewing context within which it is available. In 2017, Netflix announced that it was going to spend up to $8bn on content, 25% of which would go on producing original series and feature-length films and documentaries. The company’s dedication to in-house production is a strategic decision to reduce the number of shows it needs to license the right to host in order to increase profit, creating a systemic demand for original content to replace licensed content that risks an overall reduction in quality and responsibility of material. Whilst nuanced and highly acclaimed documentaries such as Icarus and Malcom X are still available on the platform, their adjacency to low-brow (and at times egregious) productions such as Conspiracy, which propounds rather than questions the paranoid theorisations of its subjects, is misleading. The productions are not as contiguous in theme and intent as their juxtaposition under the catch-all label “Documentary” suggests. Superadded to this corporate interference is the Netflix interface itself, distinctive for its preview and autoplay features. By spotlighting so-called “Originals” on the homepage, and using the self-starting player and the “We think you’ll like” function to promote content, Netflix subtly takes away much of the choice we have in how and what we watch. Responding to allegations about the disproportionate role of violence in its most popular shows, a Netflix spokesman said, “There’s a huge choice on Netflix, […] focusing on one genre to the exclusion of all others simply doesn’t reflect the programming we offer.” But this quote misses the point; Netflix is hiding its algorithmic push towards the kind of sensationalised, extreme content that accrues massive views (and revenue) behind a smokescreen of unlimited choice.
Netflix’s autoplay feature also propagates a binge-watching mentality that is ill-suited to the kind of responsible, engaged viewing traditionally required by documentaries. As Tod Van Luling notes, in its serialised documentaries Netflix habitually relies on well edited episodes that end with dramatic cliffhangers in order to incentivise their mass-consumption, reshaping “facts” to maximise commercial success. The dangers inherent in this strategy are most easily observed in the controversy surrounding Afflicted, a series following people who have inexplicable chronic illnesses. To maintain the narrative thrust, Netflix repeatedly cast doubt on whether or not the subjects of the series were actually ill, making the underlying investigative question of the series a socially exploitative rather than medical one: “Are these illnesses real, or in the subjects’ heads?” A perverse kind of “suffering porn” thus sidelines the traditional function of documentary as representing marginal and peripheral perspectives, perpetuating the injustice it represents and entering into morally complex questions the massive entertainment platform is ultimately unequipped and unprepared to answer.
The truth is gradually becoming secondary to grabbing the audience’s attention.
All of these instances point to a changing relationship between viewer and filmmaker, a reduction of the journalistic quality of documentary filmmaking to the most simple line possible, easily circulated as sound-bites on social media. The truth is gradually becoming secondary to grabbing the audience’s attention. It's a shift that explains the stratospheric popularity of series like Tiger King: Joe Exotic’s sequinned attire and outlandish behaviour provide “the stuff memes are made of, heavy on visual absurdity and light on meaning”, and all push unashamedly towards virality. Indeed, far from the interview format popularised by Louis Theroux and others, which challenges the views of their extreme subjects to generate debate and justification, a growing number of Netflix documentaries behave more like mouthpieces to the showmanship of their protagonists. Bobby Sands narrates archival footage via excerpts from his diary in 66 Days, giving him the authoritative take on a contested period of national history; Ted Bundy appears as a charismatic, attractive go-getter hiding a dark secret in The Bundy Tapes, prompting a feature-length spin-off starring Zac Efron; the attention-seeking behaviour of Joe Exotic is ceaselessly pandered to in Tiger King, which documents everything from his run for president to his fancy-dress routine at the funeral of his former husband, to the extent that we forget the charges of attempted murder and animal trafficking filed against him.
The company has already shown its ethical ambivalence in this regard — which, with the rapid growth in membership and in-house production, shows no sign of changing — and so the onus of responsible consumption falls more and more to us, the viewers.
To this end, recent figures showing that, collectively, subscribers stream around 140 millions hours of video on Netflix each day, should be cautionary. Netflix’s status as a staple of modern life is well-established, and never more so than during a global pandemic in which our daily movements are restricted largely to the house and we are deprived of normal routine. But with this preeminent power comes responsibility. Facebook has shown its far-reaching ability to influence elections, and likewise does Netflix have the capacity to shape popular consciousness through the stories it decides to showcase and promote. The company has already shown its ethical ambivalence in this regard — which, with the rapid growth in membership and in-house production, shows no sign of changing — and so the onus of responsible consumption falls more and more to us, the viewers.