The Sensitive Person’s Guide to Watching (Tough) Documentaries…and Hard Things

Before I start, I want to take a second to say hi to the newest readers. Hi, Lorie, Brianna and Daniel!

Okay, let's start.

Picture the scene. It's 10:00 p.m. I'm lying in bed, with the lights turned off and the door slightly ajar. I'm clutching a box of Kleenex and around me are strewn wet,  pathetic pieces of tissue. My roommate walks in and turns the light on.

Her: Why are you in here with the lights off? Are you alright? Did something happen to your family?

Me: No, no, sniff...I'm fine. We watched this documentary in my Global Health class today on Child Soldiers. There's just...sniff sniff...there's just so much injustice in the world, you know?

Her: O...kay. You want me to bring you anything?

You've just watched in your mind a dramatization of what happens when I watch a tough documentary. Though I don't really cry myself to sleep about the injustices in the world, I do have a hard time sitting down to watch and talk about them. I am a sensitive soul with an over-reactive imagination. When I watch something dark and depressing, my mind creates an uber-version of it, making the scene more and more elaborate every night. I often won't be able to sleep for weeks.

I also get angry and sad and angry and sad again. How did you feel after reading The Diary of Anne Frank? I wanted to scream and punch someone in the face. I was a feisty 10-year old.

I realized that I wasn't alone in this avoidance of the "tough stuff" when one of my friends proudly told me that she no longer watched the news because they "just can't seem to know how to tell good news". It dawned on me that there might just be other people like us out there who wouldn't go near the hard stuff with a ten-foot pole.

Yet, we must watch the hard stuff. We must be aware of what's happening in the world around us. Ignorance is sadly not bliss. If you can relate, this is for you or the sensitive person in your life whom you have to bribe every time you want them to watch a documentary with you.

What should I bring?

Other than a pack of tissues, you should bring a notebook and a pen. I'll explain why in a second.

What should I expect?

Not every documentary is hard to watch. Some will even make you cheer at the end. If you are watching a tough one though, and you get to a hard-to-watch scene, It's okay to bow your head for a minute , to take a breath or say a silent prayer. If you just can't handle it, it's also okay to step out for a minute to compose yourself before coming back in. If you know you might be stepping out for a bit, sit in the back, near the door or in an aisle chair. You don't want to be stuck in a middle of the auditorium, feeling trapped.

How can I get out of my own head and make the most out of the documentary?

Remember the notebook and pen that we talked about? Take it out. Time to answer some questions.

1. What is the issue? Every documentary covers an issue or a problem. It's usually laid out at the beginning with lots of facts, stats and dates. Write it down in 1 sentence.

2. What does the filmmaker say is the cause? Documentaries also cover the "why" along with the "what" of an issue. This will probably be the "history lesson" portion of the documentary. It may be in the form of old, black and white footage or interviews of experts on the subject or eyewitnesses. This is also, in many cases, the tough part of the documentary. It's the filmmaker's goal to convince you that the issue just didn't happen by itself.

3. Are there solutions being suggested? If so, what are they? Most documentaries seek to provide viewers with ways to get involved and take action. Others might not.  If they do, write down their suggestions as bullet points. They usually are tied to a website or direct viewers to a site with more information. Write it down as well.

Now that the documentary is over, I've cried/punched a wall/kicked a cat/let out a few expletives and I'm a little depressed. What now? 

Time to do some research on your own.

1. Find the filmmaker's bias. We all have it. Our environment, upbringing and ideological frames of reference impact the way we view the world. The filmmaker's bias will reveal itself in the words that are used. How many times are words like "alleged", "accused" "supposedly" used? How many members of the Government vs. Civil Society members  are interviewed? How many men vs women are interviewed? Do some digging on the filmmaker. What is their cultural heritage? What school did they go to? What did they say was their motivation for making this documentary?

2. Time to fill in the gaps. Has anyone else written on this same subject? Has any university done research on this issue? Do they agree with the filmmaker's point of view? Why or why not?

Okay, now what do I do with all this information?

Well, here are a couple of responses you may have to this documentary. You can check which one applies to you:

1. Now, I know. 

2. Now, I know and I want to host a viewing party so that my family and friends can know too. 

3. Now, I know and I want to donate money to this organization 

4. Now, I know and I want to volunteer with an organization that works on a similar issue in my community. 

5. Now, I know and I want to act differently. 

I realized that the reason why many of us would rather do anything else than sit to watch something tough is because of the feeling of helplessness that we feel afterwards. There is plenty to be done but sometimes, there is nothing that you as an individual can do.

I love the recent GoogleTalks interview with Anderson Cooper. He had this to say about his work: "A lot of compelling stories in the world aren’t being told, and the fact that people don’t know about them compounds the suffering. To me, there is value in bearing witness to what is happening to people who are living their lives with great dignity in the face of horror." 

Bearing Witness. The dictionary calls it "Attestation". Standing as a witness for someone or something. I think, as we bear witness, we validate the existence of others who may feel invisible and non-existent in our world.

Even if for now all that we can do is bear witness for the existence of a fellow human in his or her plight, we are doing something worthwhile.

Photo courtesy of :Salihan

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3 Responses to The Sensitive Person’s Guide to Watching (Tough) Documentaries…and Hard Things

  1. Akhila says:

    This is a great post on an important topic- I do agree that a lot of people get depressed when reading the news or hearing about all the problems in the world, and we need to find a way to address that. I always find that hearing inspirational stories from social activists and leaders, as well as taking action myself, mitigates some of this depression.

  2. Makafui says:

    Absolutely, Akhila. I make it a practice these days to watch the story of a social activist/social entrepreneur at least once a week. It motivates and inspires me to be excellent in whatever I do. Sometimes, in our 20s Somethings jobs that usually have the word “assistant” in it, it’s hard to see how what we do matters. These stories encourage me to find meaning and to pursue it.

  3. Pingback: 5 Ways To Make a (real) Concrete Difference |

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