Nanook of the North

The medium of documentary film is young but is rearing its head as the most powerful of all art forms. One could argue that music and books are more potent forces, but does music teach lessons as pointedly and do books reveal life as visually and aurally as a documentary? Not in my mind.

I consider documentary films to be modern history books. I believe they will actually surpass history books in coming generations as the best tool for learning from the successes and follies of our ancestors. Unlike reading a book, documentaries allow viewers to see and hear life (albeit on a screen), thus creating a visceral experience that resonates more deeply. When shot and edited ethically, documentaries offer incredible insight into human beings and events as they are, rather than how an author chooses to present them. And, let’s be honest, how many kids are reading as much as they are watching videos today?

This leads me to the most important quality of documentaries: They are a positive step towards reaching beyond the dominant narratives of history. They shed light on the perspectives of a far wider portion of humanity than the royalty, military generals, and conquistadors of old, the CEOs, politicians, and pop-culture stars of today. And they inspire change by giving voice to underdogs, outsiders, do-gooders and all the rest of us.

There is a mighty machine that has churned over the centuries of human dominance. It is a machine based mostly on struggles for control of natural resources, land, and political power, as well as on matters of fate such as birthright. And one reason this machine has perpetuated is that it has also controlled the news and written the history books. The leaders of the machine have composed the narrative of history and slanted it to favor themselves. They’ve omitted large chunks of history that are violent, immoral, and flat-out blasphemous. And they’ve taken poetic license to paint themselves as heroes, even convincing themselves that they are heroes when a pragmatic approach would unveil them as liars.

In spite of the overwhelming power of the machine’s narrative as written by its leaders, I believe that this very machine that has led us into wars, environmental destruction, and concern for one’s self more than one’s neighbor might actually be changed thanks to documentary films. It’s not that documentaries present ideas or concepts or notions that are heretofore unheard of. It’s just that they do it more powerfully than any other way besides seeing something in the flesh. If an independent documentary can spur a person out the door and into a situation with new people and new ideas, it can generate positive change.

Documentaries won’t do it alone of course. Most of the onus is on us as viewers. People must watch and share and remunerate filmmakers sufficiently so they can sustain their craft. Documentaries must not be paid for, sold and manipulated by the machine. The leaders, yes-men and cogs of the machine must act on what they watch in independent documentaries, making changes to their lives and affecting positive change around them. And with time, as the scum of reality television and skewed narratives is left behind us and the truth of powerful and unbiased documentaries becomes the core of our historical ledger, we may find our world a better place.

Nanook of the North, made in 1922, was the first documentary film ever. It wasn’t until 1989 that the U.S. Library of Congress began preserving “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” movies in a National Film Registry.

Rob Jackson | Transcendental Meditation Contributor