How Documentaries Make You Want to Change the World

BCM310 Research Project



For the final BCM310 project I chose to do the digital artefact format of video. I believed at the beginning of this project that this would enable me the best use of the medium that I was researching; documentaries. I still hold this belief at the end of this project, as it enabled me to provide obvious examples to the research points and conclusions that I was making.

The purpose of this project began very differently to how it ended. My original idea was to ‘research how media changes society’, with specific examples from documentaries, and how they created social change.

Upon review of my project proposal this was deemed ‘too broad’, and as I began to research the topic, I realised this assessment to be only too true. I then had to narrow down my focus into something more manageable. Thus I began to investigate ‘how documentaries make people want to change the world’. This narrowed down my focus remarkably, as now I only had to research what aspects of documentaries can be attributed to inspiring people to want to make change.

I further narrowed my scope by only looking at ocean-based documentaries, as I was warned that to do another form of documentary may be jarring to the audience of the project. Furthermore this research within a single genre of documentary allowed me to more easily discover the patterns of production present in each film.

As such I discovered through secondary research and content analysis of the documentaries; Blackfish, The Cove, and A Plastic Ocean, that the three most obvious aspects of documentaries that are meant to create change by the audience are; empathy for animals, human fear for self, and confronting facts.

It is my understanding from this research, that upon seeing these three factors present in a documentary, certain people within an audience may feel inspired to create a change that helps rectify the issue presented. The issue of what change, or whether the audience acts on this change is irrelevant, only that they are inspired/motivated/want to.

From this research I put together a video that reveals this conclusion through clear examples from three ocean, oceanic-animal, documentaries.

The only con to this format was cutting down the extensive research I had done to a six minute video. I felt that I could have researched further, or explained more with more time, but I made my research as succinct as possible due to the constraints.

Other than that I feel that the format of video worked very well for this project, as the audience can feel the emotion present in the documentaries, and clearly understand the examples that back up my research.

Overall I enjoyed researching this topic, and creating the project. As I have experience with each other format made available to this task, I felt that this project enabled me to only further my video creation skills, which will certainly prove a valuable asset to my portfolio as I search for employment as a media producer.



Brown, M. (n.d.). What, Who and Why Should we Care?. [online] Environmental Activists. Available at: [Accessed 1 Jun. 2017].
Bush, M. (2017). A Plastic Ocean – The Film – Plastic Oceans. [online] Plastic Oceans. Available at: [Accessed 1 Jun. 2017].
Cowperthwaite, G. (2013). Filmmaker: Why I made ‘Blackfish’ – [online] CNN. Available at: [Accessed 1 Jun. 2017].
Finneran, P. (2014). Documentary Impact: Social Change Through Storytelling. Hotdocs. [online] Inspirit Foundation. Available at: [Accessed 1 Jun. 2017].
Gomez, P. (2010). Dolphin and Whales: The Cove and the Grind. [online] Ian Somerhalder Foundation. Available at: [Accessed 1 Jun. 2017].
Shelton, M. and Rogers, R. (1981). Fear-Arousing and Empathy-Arousing Appeals to Help: The Pathos of Persuasion.  Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 11(4), pp.366-378.


Blackfish: How media can change humanity

Super Size Me, 2004, The Cove2009, Bowling for Columbine2009 and The Age of Stupid2007.

Each of these documentaries changed the world in some way. Whether through, changing McDonald’s size options, reducing dolphin killings, ending handgun ammunition sales, or enacting a carbon reduction scheme around the world.


These changes in our society show the power of documentaries as vessels of revolution, and perpetrators of disruptive and dissenting media.

This socially-disruptive force is exemplified by the 2013 documentary Blackfish.

The feature-length film follows the story of Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old orca trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. In 2010 Brancheau was grabbed by the arm, and drowned by the 28-year-old killer whale named Tilikum.

It is revealed throughout the film that Tilikum had already been viciously tortured by other whales, and involved in the deaths of two other people.

But what is most powerful about this film isn’t the sad story of Tilikum or his trainers, or the fact that the film was produced on only $76,000, but the shock waves of change that reverberated around the world.

Previously to Blackfish orcas, or more sensationally named killer whales, were simply objects of attraction. People flocked to these sites of animal captivity to experience the unique phenomenon of witnessing an animal that we can see ourselves in.

As Miller and Bain reveal, with the ability to kiss, nod, listen, and wave, it is unsurprising that orcas are one of the world’s most intelligent animals. With one of the largest brains in the world according to Marino, and so we just can’t get enough of their human-like, intelligent, behaviours.

As academics Rowly and Johnson argue in their article Anthropomorphic anthropocentrism and the rhetoric of Blackfish’, there is the surface level of fascination with anthropomorphic animals, but if researched deeper there is the importance of how human perceptions of these animals shape our own existence.

[W]hile scholars such as Frans de Waal may question anthropocentric anthropomorphism as simply “wishful thinking,” anthropomorphic anthropocentrism suggests that there might be something to what humans are “wishing for” that becomes important to investigate if we are to understand the way anthropomorphic environmental communication artifacts symbolically construct meaningful human existence.”

This reflection back onto ourselves from the captured orcas featured in Blackfish may be the leading factor for its worldwide repercussions.

After the premier of Blackfish at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) formed the structure for a grassroots activism movement that eventually gained the attention of existing campaigns such as the Oceanic Preservation Societyand even celebrities such as Matt Damon and Harry Styles.

With these important social figures and mounting public pressure, in March 2016 SeaWorld announced it would no longer breed orcas, and would begin to phase out ‘theatrical performances’.

It was also announced in 2016 that SeaWorld would partner with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), despite a long history of criticism and accusation.

This activism result also indicates a change in human behaviour and opinion as a result of the documentary. Where once we focused on highly intelligent animals as our favourite viewing attractions, we are beginning to realise that if anything, these animals deserve freedom even more than others.

As Joel Manby, CEO of SeaWorld stated,

It’s clear to me that society is shifting. People’s view to have these beautiful, majestic animals under human care – people are more and more uncomfortable with that. And no matter what side you are on this issue, it’s clear that that’s shifting, and we need to shift with that.”

Despite this positive shift towards improved animals welfare, a sceptic’s eye must be maintained. In 2016 SeaWorld’s shares and profits dropped to a record low following the activism campaigns. This implies a strategy towards conservation to increase numbers, rather than raise the safety or lifestyles of these animals.

Regardless of the reasons behind SeaWorld’s changes, it is undeniable that the health, well-being and freedom of these captured orcas are gradually increasing as a direct result of Blackfish and the social change it garnered.

The film has also triggered an innovative progress in human thinking. We have finally realised that these intelligent animals can speak, feel, and think; without being bound to human practices of entertainment.

Suffering; why it needs to be seen

In an almost daily cycle since the beginning of the Syrian war in March 2011, people have published on the internet the shocking images of the atrocities committed during this time.


These are only a small portion of what is published online from the homes and battlefronts of Syria.

These images are published with the intention of inciting action. The war photographers, and citizen journalists of Syria wish to let the world see the horrors they endure daily, and hope for more help to come to them as a result.

This is not a safe practice, with 103 reporters, filmmakers and editors killed in Syria since 2011, as well as countless citizens.

Yet they persist, as the potential consequences of publishing these news stories and images include more aid, more awareness, and even the possible end of the war.

So why don’t we see these images constantly on the front pages of the traditional media of newspapers?

If these people are constantly risking torture and death for their efforts, should we not, at the very least, reward them with widespread exposure?

The internet is a great medium for spreading images quickly and in great volume, however, it lacks the impact that the traditional medias still carry. As academics Daniel Trottier and Christian Fuchs Routledge explain, online usage is extremely customisable; the public is easily able to pick and choose their online news sources and even specific stories, this leaves gaping holes that these important images can fall into. Comparatively, newspapers and other physical news sources force the exposure of these horrific events upon the sometimes willingly blind public.

This difference in impact is exemplified in the case of the photographs of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy who drowned escaping Syria with his family.


This image was circulated through most of the major newspapers in September 2015.

The image then incited major protests to the war, as well as countless donations, and campaigns for the Syrian refugees.

But these are not the first images of dead children to come out of Syria.

As of February 2017, 55,000 children have died in Syria as a result of this horrendous conflict. Yet we had not seen these images before Aylan’s death and we have seen almost no further images on major newspapers since that time two years ago.

This willing censorship by traditional news medias comes from the risk of compassion fatigue, describe by sociologist Keith Tester as the progression of

…becoming so used to the spectacle of dreadful events, misery or suffering that we stop noticing them.”

Yet numerous researchers and case studies have proved that the percentage of disturbing or violent images presented in major traditional news sources is almost negligible.

Further research from David Campbell also reveals that although it is possible for the images published online in high volumes to somewhat diminish the horror of the events in war, it is still much more important to be witness to these images. For if the public turns a blind eye to the atrocities presented to them in the name of distaste, it is equal to actively accepting the suffering of others without remorse.

Several studies have concluded that the images, and images with captions of war, and the casualties of war have a much larger impact upon the viewer than standalone text news pieces. This is further evidence towards the powerful results that can come when the public is forced to witness the atrocities of war.

This is why, despite the horror we may feel when looking at the suffering of the Syrian people, it is our responsibility to not look away. This is why no warning was presented at the start of this post.

It is only through seeing suffering that enough real empathy can be generated from our society to actually do something, to say something, that will finally this war, and the suffering of these people.

R/roastme: Proof That Not All Selfies Are Equal

The ‘epidemic’ of the selfie in modern cultural is perpetually surrounded by the themes of ‘narcissism’, ‘vapidness’, and ‘self-obessession’ (Saltz, 2014).

Discussions constantly rage over whether the selfie signifies that the younger generation is wholeheartedly obsessed with technology, or whether it shows empowerment for minorities.

However, there are examples of the selfie being used for more than vapid approval seeking from the netherworld of the Internet.

We have seen the power of movements that use the selfie to spread awareness or raise discussions on difficult topics.

The #MenInHijab movement recently arose in Iran as a show of solidarity for the women who feel oppressed by the enforcement of head-coverings. Especially when the penalty for not following the law can be fines or even imprisonment.

This is only one example of the multi-faceted reasons for any individual to take a selfie.

These highlight the fact that selfie is not always about the self.

It can also be for political gain; to become closer with the seemingly isolated younger generation.

One such example includes previous United States president Barack Obama. Who simultaneously received hate and love for his various political selfies.

Is it not evident that the selfie is more than an insipid vehicle for teenage distraction. When you have the most powerful men in the world taking a selfie, it is not for online attention, it is to publish messages of peace, of friendship, and of relating to the younger generation.

And yet, despite this, the wider public generally accepts the selfie as way to make one’s life seem more idyllic, more airbrushed than real life. As seen on the pages of hundreds of microceleberites or ‘instafamous’ individuals.


But what does it say about our identities and our culture, when we use the selfie, not to create a self-branded perfect lifestyle, but to tear ourselves down?

The R/roastme phenomenon introduced on Reddit in 2015 is a brutal opposition to the traditional use of selfies on Instagram.

The premise is this: upload a selfie, with a clear consent to be roasted.

(Reddit recently changed its rules so that phone ‘R/roastme’s we no longer accepted. This is to avoid someone photoshoping an innocent selfie to be roasted.)

Then, the Reddit community tears that person to shreds.

So what does this say about our so-called ‘narcissistic’ culture?

It means that we don’t have one.
‘Selfie’ culture is not about narcissism or self-obsession. Not every single teen that posts #beachbod picks is desperate for the attention and loving feedback of the strangers on the internet that comment on his or her image.
Sometimes the younger generation just likes taking a photo of themselves and saving it in their digital photo album that the world can see.


Sometimes the selfie can be used for greater social change.

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Sometimes it can be used to show the ‘real us’ rather than an airbrush version.
And sometimes, rather than seeking praise for our pretend perfection, we post images of ourselves online with the sole intent for others to find all of our flaws.


We do these things for a multitude of reasons.
Some people do want vindication, and some want vilification.
In the end it comes down to this:
The selfie can be demoralising or empowering;
It can be vacuous or serious;
It can be a vessel of social change, or of argument;
It can be beautiful, or it can be ugly;
But no two selfies are the same, and neither are the reasons behind them.
So rather than tear people down about how vapid and self-obsessed they are because they enjoy taking their own photo, how about we realise that a selfie, is not just about the self, but about all of us together.