“I look on cinema as a pulpit, and use it as a propagandist.” Explore to what extent documentaries can affect audience beliefs and changes in society?

What are Documentaries?

The word documentary was first used to describe a non-fiction text by Edward Sherriff Curtis. This photographer and filmmaker argued his 1914 motion picture “In the Land of the Headhunters” was of “documentary material”.  It recorded the traditional way of life and ceremonies of the Kwakwaka’wakw.

However, the history of documentary films generally credit John Grierson with the genesis of the term. He argued that the 1926 film “Moana”, directed by Flaherty and exploring the customs of Polynesian natives on a Samoan island, had a “documentary value”. Both of these films, although not propaganda, helped raise awareness of different tribes living in remote locations and dispelled the myths about their “headhunters” cultures. Grierson then defined the term “documentary” in one of his lectures as “the creative treatment of actuality”, meaning the genre had to be an entertaining look on real life. I believe this definition still holds true today.

More recently, Bernard argued that documentaries should have a narrative that was both “compelling” and “truthful”. In other words, the text should be so intriguing and entertaining so that the narrative becomes “unmissable” viewing for the audience. However, unlike a non-fiction text, the documentary also has to present the information honestly and factually. The fantastic documentary “Blackfish”, an acclaimed exposé, epitomizes the genre’s ability to both engage the audience and affect positive changes in society.


“Blackfish” (2013) was created by its director and producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite and investigates the story of a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity.  Cowperthwaite was originally inspired by the article “The Killer in the Pool” by Tim Zimmerman, who she then asked to be her associate producer for the film.  They began to work on the film in February 2010 after the death of the trainer Dawn Brancheau hit the headlines, creating a moral panic surrounding the mistreatment of the majestic animals. For example, the Daily Mail reported that the “swish of a ponytail made the five-ton killer whale strike” and that the expert trainer was vulnerable to the predator’s natural instinct. Cowperthwaite argued that such claims had been conjectured and that “there had to be more to this story”. Documentaries are, as Grierson argued, texts that search for the “actuality” in intriguing real-life stories. And so, Cowperthwaite was determined to find out the truth behind the headlines.

Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival 2013, the film was also nominated for a British Academy Award (BAFTA) and was short-listed for the Academy Awards for the Best Feature Film Documentary. Not only was it a critical success, but on its opening weekend it brought in $75,962 and then a worldwide gross of $2,296,380, proving how popular and commercially successful a documentary can be.  Despite being a mainstream success, the film had independent roots. See Appendix One for more information. Low-budget, non-fiction texts created outside the mainstream can reach a mass audience and achieve acclaim, but can they be a force for change? “Blackfish” certainly tries to evoke a reaction from the audience for this reason.

Documentaries and Audiences

Filmmaker Raymundo Gleyzer said that “We think of film as a bullet that ignites consciousness”. This means a documentary should spark off thoughts and opinions on the matter that add clarity to the tabloid headlines, in search for an action or result. This is purely what the makers of “Blackfish” were intending to do with the aim to provoke a reaction and inspire change.

Gleyzer’s remark echoes the Magic Bullet theory, which implies that “mass media has a direct, immediate and powerful effect on its audiences”. This theory suggests that the message posed is a bullet, fired from a “media gun” into the viewer’s head. This is similar to the Hypodermic Needle Theory which originated from the use of political propaganda posters during the Second World War. It argued how information can easily be “injected” into passive audiences by the mass media to affect their opinions and beliefs. Analysis of some of the most provocative images from “Blackfish” can be found in Appendix Two.

George Gerbner argued that the mass media can cultivate attitudes and values which are already present in a culture. The Agenda-setting theory predicts that if audiences are exposed to the same points of view and issues, they audience will place more importance on those same issues. The propaganda posters of past certainly tried to manipulate public opinion. In his reception theory and decoding positions, Stuart Hall labelled this as the “preferred reading”. Of course, the audience is no longer considered to be passive because only some viewers choose to listen to the message. This links in with the confirmation bias theory,  which suggests that a person will watch a documentary such as “Blackfish” with an agenda, to confirm what they believe about the world is true, in this case concerning of the terrible captivity and mistreatment of Orcas.

Active audience theories argue media audiences are actively involved in the semiotic process, making sense of the message within their personal and social beliefs. The Uses and Gratifications Theory, proposed by Blumler and Katz, states that audiences are actively involved in determining what media they engage with and how they respond in order to gratify specific needs or desires. “Blackfish” would appeal to audiences who already want to achieve self-actualisation, a term used by Maslow in his Hierarchy of Needs, according to their sense of morality or their environmental concerns. The success of the documentary will be determined by the audience’s world view and “mindset”. For example, the 10-episode BBC series “Life”, broadcast in 2009, covered the different environments and species throughout earth, and proved to be the most popular series of wildlife documentaries. It met the needs and desires of the audience who are interested in nature. “Blackfish” confirms existing bias and beliefs that all animals are mistreated in captivity. Wildlife protection organisation PETA published an article on their website named “Have Netflix? Watch Blackfish!” This is a form of the selective exposure theory: audiences who are involved with PETA are likely to strongly believe that animal protection is important and, therefore, are likely to go and watch the documentary.

In terms of an active audience who are engaged with the moral panic of orcas, the use of social networks can aid in spreading awareness even further. This horizontal media interactivity occurs when active audiences feed into the news events and moral panics through user generated content. These platforms, such as Facebook and Snapchat, allow audiences to voice their opinions online to other users, making the subject a talking point. For example, the hashtag #orca still trends on Twitter. This huge amount of content generated by the audience reinforces Cowperthwaite’s agenda with “Blackfish”.

This is especially true if they can get a “cyber star” actively involved. This is a user who has a large social media following. The charity “Water Aid” used this technique. They featured the popular actor Hugh Bonneville from the multi-award-winning series “Downton Abbey” in one of their video advertisements. Bonneville is seen talking to the camera in order to speak to his audience directly, telling them how and why they should donate money to “Water Aid”. He also wrote an article for Huffington Post about the charity encouraging people to donate.  In terms of “Blackfish”, celebrity endorsement has helped raise awareness of the film and the general issue of the orca’s health. In 2015, Harry Styles, the famous lead singer from the global band One Direction, publicly told his fans “Don’t go to Sea World” when playing a show in San Diego.  To add to this, “Game of Thrones” star Maisie Williams captured the moment on camera and posted it on the social media site Instagram quoting what Harry said while adding “you heard him ladies and gents”. See Appendix Three. SeaWorld responded on Twitter,  but the celebrities’ message was heard loud and clear by their fans. This form of Two-step Flow (see Appendix Four) endorsement was not intentional by Cowperthwaite, yet the reality of the moral panic naturally spread to a mass audience rather than the narrowcast of the environmentalist lobby. This is the very definition of “viral”. It is how documentaries can best promote their propaganda.

Authorial Intention

With an active audience eager to engage with media texts, the product still needs a “creative treatment” to be effective. “Blackfish” delivers a very didactic argument, evoking pathos towards the orcas in captivity so the audience can easily agree with the filmmaker’s argument and agenda. This singular point of view is epitomised by the footage of the orcas in small tanks (see Appendix Three) and an incredibly sad animation of how they are captured in the wild and brutally stolen from their mothers. This animation was juxtaposed with archive footage of fishermen capturing the baby orcas, while the mothers were thrusting in the water and calling out for the babies by making loud noises. The non-diegetic score helps manipulate audience reaction and creates sympathy towards the orcas because audiences can emotionally relate to the distress they were showing.

Documentary and Form

Bill Nichol’s “Representing Reality” explains how documentaries naturally branch off into six different styles.  These include the observational, the reflexive, the expository, the poetic and the performative. Within our postmodern media landscape, these could easily be hybrid genres. An example of a performative documentary would be “Catfish”, in which the producers interact with their audience and are filmed throughout the documentary. An example of an observational documentary would be David Attenborough’s “The Hunt”, which goes by the “voice of God” format where he narrates whilst animals are hunting in the wild. “Blackfish” tends to be an expository style of documentary, as it exposes unreported events which occurred at Sea World and the truth about the mistreatment of orcas. The producers chose this style of documentary to make “Blackfish” informative, yet the exposure of the true events using enigma codes makes the documentary seem exciting and captivating, which is a great way of maintaining audience attention.

The producer and director Gabriela Cowperthwaite keeps herself away from the camera with different key characters explaining their opinions and stories without her interaction. This unmediated representation of events creates trust with the audience and displays Sea World in a negative light, due to the persuasive voices telling their own stories. These interviews deliver the film’s didactic argument. Interestingly, the introduction to the film shows footage of many different people explaining their perception of Seaworld in a positive light. We are told a briefly about personal experiences people had in their childhood and how fascinating they found the shows. This is the perception the audience is expected to have before watching the documentary.

Narrative Technique

Aristotle defined plot as “the arrangement of the incidents”. It is not the story itself but the way the incidents are presented to the audience. The inciting incident, as defined by McKee, in “Blackfish” is the attack of Dawn Branchau. With the positive representation of Seaworld in the opening segment, it makes the attack all the more shocking. Shock tactics are an effective marketing strategy. Enigma codes are then used to intrigue the audience by withholding information.

“Catfish”, another incredibly successful documentary, only reveals the true identity of the online persona at the end of the film, keeping the audience guessing until the climax. These plots have then been constructed in an enticing way because it allows the rest of the story to unfold while leading up to the reveal, in my primary text, the awful attack on Dawn. This narrative technique also follows Todorov’s theory with the equilibrium of a positive representation of Sea World at the start and then the disequilibrium of the animals’ cruel treatment.  The documentary urges the audience to demand that the equilibrium is restored and the orcas are set free.

Vladimir Propp proposed seven broad character types were present in most fairy tales. “Blackfish” presents Sea World as the clear “villain” and the audience are persuaded to hate the institution. We are the heroes that can set the “damsel in distress”, the orcas, free. The interviewees are the “donors”. Even though the documentary does not follow Propp’s four morphemes relating to narrative functions, the use of his character tropes makes the plot more recognizable to the audience and helps the factual events seem more like a story. Documentaries must deliver their propaganda in these accessible archetypes.

Media Industry

Documentary producers are key in creating a message that can alter the way audiences think and behave. However, there needs to be a platform to broadcast the show. In terms of “Blackfish”, Netflix has become the major opinion leader and the institution which has allowed Cowperthwaite to broadcast her important message on animal protection to wide audiences.

Documentaries need to be entertaining and investigative with a current reconstructive narrative if they are to succeed in their propaganda. Celebrity endorsement also helps to get the message across to the audience. Netflix’s entrance into the world of original programming offers documentary makers new opportunities to spread their ideas to mass audiences and affect changes in society.

In 2014, Netflix said it was investing $3 billion in original content and was focusing on issue-driven documentaries that drive international viewership. This means that if producers or filmmakers with a certain motive to shape audience opinions were going to make a documentary, now is still the perfect time.

Appendix One – Independent Filmmakers

“Blackfish” was written by Gabriela Cowperthwaite with the help of Tim Zimmermann and Eli Despres.  Cowperthwaite wrote a treatment of the film, and her long-time friend and executive producer Rick Brookwell put her in touch with first-time executive producers Judy Bart and Erica Kahn, who funded the film and aided its production. “Blackfish” was produced by Manny Oteyza, who is a graduate of the American Film Institute Producing Programming and owns the production company Manny O Productions. He has produced over 50 hours of documentary programming for various Discovery Networks. Channels include Planet Green, the Military Channel, the Animal Planet and the National Geographic Channel.

Cowperthwaite said that as soon as she brought Oteyza on board as her producer he soon became her “right arm”, although, the process begun with Cowperthwaite and her associates not having “the foggiest clue” about what story they were about to embark upon. These associates must have believed in the message Cowperthwaite was trying to put across and the potential of the information they were yet to discover. Suspicions and controversy must have already existed among these producers, especially enough for a large group of people to work together and investigate the truth for broadcast material.

It was not easy for these independent filmmakers to get their text screened at the Sundance Film Festival. In 2013, a total of 1,694 feature documentaries were submitted and only forty documentaries were selected – a success rate of 2.4%. Therefore, it can be very difficult for these products to find a platform so not every agenda will get a chance to be heard. “Blackfish” was very lucky.

Appendix Two – Audience Positioning

In an interview with Dave Duffus, OSHA Expert Witness and Whale Researcher, the audience learns how the orca’s dorsal fins are “flopped over” due to stress and aggravation of being held in captivity. His statement is backed up with the juxtaposition of archive footage of orcas in the wild alongside footage of the orca recorded in Seaworld. The first image shows the flopping fin.

whale with flopped fin

The studium is of the orca among an audience on a podium out of the water, but the punctum that pierces the viewer is the dorsal fin flopped over. Duffus identifies this trait as a key signifier for the viewer to look out for and then anchors its terrible meaning, especially when we see their full fins in their natural habitat:

whales swimming in the wild with the fins upright

The preferred reading here is one of anger towards the physical demise of the orcas. This is reinforced by an aerial shot of their small tank:

This small talk is an obvious contrast to the footage of the orcas swimming in the wild waters. This use of footage, facts and stories constructed closely together follows the hypodermic needle theory because the audience are injected with the didactic argument “Blackfish” is trying to create, shaping the audience’s opinion against the captivity of these animals.

whale in captivity

Appendix Three – Going Viral

The “Game of Thrones” is a worldwide television broadcast phenomenon; being named the best television drama series 2015 at the Emmy Awards in Los Angeles. Therefore, when one of its leading ladies posts in favour of the filmmaker’s agenda, it is going to spread the message. At the time of writing, over 46,000 likes and 2,066 comments demonstrate how engaged her audience became to the story.

screenshot of Instagram post
Screenshot of Instagram Post

Appendix Four – Two-Step Flow Theory

Katz and Lazarsfeld argued that persuasive media texts are filtered through opinion leaders who are in a position to “influence” the targeted audience through social networks and peer groups. Opinion leaders are quite influential in getting people to change their attitudes and behaviours, which improves our understanding of how the mass media can influence decision making. In contemporary reading of the two-step flow theory, celebrity endorsement is the new power in promoting ideas.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!