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Emmy-Nominated Writer: Why Documentary Films Matter

“Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must change.” – Bertolt Brecht

Human beings are story machines. Although emerging technologies continue to present exciting (and sometimes alarming) prospects for immersive storytelling, we don’t need to strap on a virtual reality headset to experience empathy. We are the original empathy machines—and modern science shows us how.

In the mid-1980’s, cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner advanced the claim in Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (Harvard UP, 1986) that human beings are twenty-two times more likely to remember a story than fact.

What’s more, research by scientists like Paul Zak has confirmed that stories even alter our brain chemistry, by catalyzing in our bodies the release of oxytocin (the bonding, or love, chemical), cortisol (the stress hormone), and dopamine (that extra kick of excitement you feel when you experience something new—it acts like a save button in our brain).

I talk more about these chemicals, that I like to call the OCD of insanely great storytelling, in my 2014 and 2015 TEDx talks, “Hardwired for Story” and “Write and Wrong.”

Then, there’s the fascinating research conducted by Uri Hasson of Princeton University. Hassan has been able to prove that stories can cause your brains to fire on all cylinders, in contrast to those boring powerpoint presentations that put your brain to sleep. He explains how the brain activity of a person listening to the a story is almost identical to the brain pattern of the person recounting it, or, even, to the person experiencing the events for the first time.

What this means, is that human beings can share memories and experiences through story. Ever felt “like you were there” when reading a book or watching a movie? That’s because, to all intents and purposes, you were. Felt your heart pounding? Experienced distress? Choked back a tear or two? That’s neural coupling at work.

This happens with books, too. It’s not a process reserved for visual art. I remember the first time I read Elie Wiesel’s Night. Tears welled up in my eyes. Terror filled me as we entered the camps. I felt distress, overwhelming suffering, and couldn’t bear the thought that all of this was true, and now, very real to me. When I put down the book, I felt like I had walked with Elie Wiesel, and I was determined to do my part to ensure something like the holocaust never happened again. I was changed; I was activated.

That’s the outcome I seek when working on a documentary film, like Liberated: The New Sexual Revolution—activation.

I want people to walk away from the film ready and determined to do something as a result of the story experience they’ve lived. It’s not about shock value; it’s not about portraying our vision of the world and asking others to buy into that vision. For me, it’s about ethically representing the truth of the story that presents itself, wrestling against bias, and presenting to the world the experience of the reality with which the camera is presented.

As Lady Philosophy points out to Boethius in the Consolation, we cannot tend to the maladies of the soul and apply the right medicine unless we first identify the sickness. When faced with difficult storytelling about gnarly issues, I remind myself of that principle.

In calling out the injustice, and in exposing the lie, the documentarian has the ability to reveal to millions of people that the visions of the world shaped by modern media empires “have no clothes,” and leave us hungering for more. They leave us hungering for a better, more holistic vision of human beings, the world we inhabit, and the shaping of culture.

Of course, every work of art is to some degree subjective, shaped by the vision of the director and the whole creative team. But at the end of the day, documentary film presents a unique opportunity to present the gritty, raw, reality of our world, and to invite others into a process of experience and evaluation so that they can answer the question: what do you think now? Is this the world you wish to live in? And if not, how do you want to be the change?

At the beginning, that’s probably what distinguishes the world of social-impact filmmaking from every other form of filmmaking. By presenting the raw, honest, truth around an issue, we offer the viewer the opportunity to confront the facts, and make their own decision. The goal is not to indoctrinate, rather it is to reveal — and challenge.

Hitchcock described the difference between narrative filmmaking and documentary filmmaking in no uncertain terms: “In feature films, the director is God; in documentary films, God is the director.” Far from asserting control over the subject, the documentary film team is called to submit to a higher truth. They are pressed into the service of the story, and of others.

At every step of the way, they consistently wrestle with the decision of what to show and what not to show (and not only due to legalities). For society to change, for the needle to shift, we need courageous filmmakers who insert themselves into culture, check their egos at the door, and are willing to follow the lead that the story presents. Even when it gets tough.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mythopoiea, he calls man a “sub-creator,” emphasizing that storytelling is an act of creative submission and humility. Standing behind the camera, the documentarian has one task to honor: to get out of the story’s way, and allow the supreme architect to do the rest. It is a daunting task, and it is worthwhile.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that, “all is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to stand by and do nothing.” LIBERATED is a timely invitation, amidst the swell of #ItsOnUs, #MeToo, and #TimesUp, to take a stand against the rising prevalence of sexual violation, and stand for a more holistic vision of women, men, sex, and love.

The only question that remains for the audience, is whether they will stand by and allow the dominant cultural narrative to play out, or take a stand against it, and contribute to a discussion about what our world might look like instead. A world in which human beings are worthy, valued, and cherished in their diversity, beauty, body, and spirit.

Sarah-Jane Murray is an Emmy-nominated and award-winning writer and filmmaker, and the Executive Producer of Liberated: The New Sexual Revolution. Her work has been acquired by major distributors, including PBS and NETFLIX. A tenured faculty member at Baylor University, SJ is the founding co-chair of the NEXUS working group on film, media & story, and has spoken and curated panels for the White House and the United Nations.

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