Documentaries and the Crafting of a Narrative

Subjectivity & Objectivity

One of the defining characteristics of documentaries is that they capture reality and many attempt to deeply investigate cultures, historical events, and people. They can be incredibly persuasive and informative in the stories they explore, but an aspect of documentaries that is increasingly questioned is that sometimes —rather than documenting —they appear to fabricate their own stories. People go into documentaries expecting truth, but in these instances, documentarians are instead envisioning themselves as storytellers who inform as well as entertain. As a result, they are presenting manufactured stories that are skewed towards their bias. It is a valid thing to do when stakes are shown to audiences and the documentarian does not pose the film as being the only version of truth, but more often than not the audience is left in the dark and the context behind the truth is lost.

Documentary filmmaker Travis Beauchamp is a filmmaker who oriented his work towards a subjectivity instead of a sense of objectivity, and this skewed perspective is apparent in his recent series Metagame (2020) which follows the Super Smash Bros. Melee competitive community. Alternatively, his previous series on the same community, The Smash Brothers (2013), is a more fact-based and unbiased examination—though it does fall into some of the same unfortunate patterns. As a member of the competitive scene myself, it was clear to myself and many others that were excited for the new series that context was eschewed in favor of a traditional “good guy, bad guy” narrative.

What Makes a Documentary?

Although many documentaries tend to fall in between the lines, documentary has itself been divided into six different modes. Each mode carries with itself a set of pros and cons, and because of this trade off a lot of documentaries toe the line, dipping into other modes to strengthen the validity and theme of the film. Many documentaries, though they are not 100% in the reflexive mode, they understand the worth of what being reflexive adds to their film. Reflexivity is an important part of storytelling that can often be disregarded in favor of isolating a specific point-of-view that minimizes other perspectives. Due to this, many early documentaries should have been spared such strict categorization.

Nanook of the North (1922) claimed to be an authentic examination of the Inuit people in the Arctic circle, but behind-the-scenes much of what was put in the film was orchestrated by the filmmakers. To the degree to which the filmmaker is willing to show, reflexivity communicates to the audience the filmmaker’s influence and reveals documentary to be nothing more than an interpretation of something. This reflexivity was periodically present in The Smash Brothers—and was appreciated by fans—and was absent in Metagame. What took reflexivity’s place was creative editing choices and leitmotifs, contributing to a misleading narrative that upset fans in the community.

The Narrative in Smash Brothers

The Smash Brothers focused on the Super Smash Bros. Melee competitive community that emerged shortly after the game’s release in 2001, particularly focusing on seven of the greatest players and their unique storylines. In addition to a multitude of interviews, its nine episodes covered much of the community’s tumultuous history via archival footage. Following the release of the series, the competitive scene saw astronomical growth and entered its renaissance, of sort with many new players citing the documentary as the reason they began competing, including myself. Even though in retrospect it pushed a particular narrative above others, it was still transformative for the community. The series was a minimal, yet endearing, tribute that reached the hearts of the grassroots community, and the filmmaker’s presence throughout helped make it feel incredibly personal.

Alternatively, Metagame is currently not being perceived in the same favorable light. Beauchamp’s presence was felt much less and rather than every episode focusing on a specific player, the six players at the heart of the new series were intertwined into a confusing mess where some received highly favorable framing while others were painted as villains or seemed to be forgotten entirely. From 2011-2015, five players had all cemented themselves as nearly unbeatable, the top echelon of the game, and they became known as the “Five Gods.” This period was distinguished by their dominance and the little rivalries that emerged between the gods and the lower-leveled players that were threatening them. At the end of this period, one particular player emerged as being a major threat to the success the top five had established, and this narrative was one of the main plotlines of the series. Rather than dive into the nuance and complexities of these rivalries, Beauchamp instead paints them in broad strokes, opting to hyper focus on two players and portray as sympathetic and characterize the rest as villains. Set to lighthearted and dramatic music, the “good guys” are given the majority of the series’ interview time to discuss their mentalities and the pitfalls they experiences; meanwhile, the “villains” perspectives are continually failed to be given and are presented alongside exaggerated “evil” music. This issue can be boiled down into one particular moment in the series. Much of the language used in the community at the beginning of the decade was reprehensible by today’s standards as it was very misogynistic and homophobic, and it has since been erased from their vocabulary. Despite the fact that all of the subjects of the series engaged in this kind of language, one of the “villain” subjects use of these words was shown in a disparaging way while the sympathetic “good guy” subjects use of the same words was absent.

The Narrative in Metagame

Metagame is just one particular entry in the larger canon of documentary film that can be used to highlight an issue in the filmmaking process where narratives can be crafted in the editing room and valuable context and perspectives can be lost. The reception Metagame received from community members was largely negative because of the skewed perspective that was presented. Had Beauchamp been more reflexive in the series, it could have been understood differently as being a specific outsider’s interpretation of the inner workings of the competitive scene and been given more credence from within. Instead, his presence was largely removed, and what could have been a telling of the complex and multifaceted history of the players and scene was instead turned into a simple good vs. evil story that turned nuance into black and white characterizations. The issues that Metagame ran into are not unique in today’s modern world where narratives can be altered to fit into one’s interpretation of the world. You can see similar things happening in regards to vaccine misinformation spreading. People are more critical of facts than ever before, and it is important—both from a storytelling and truth perspective—that intent and bias be made clear. Documentaries and informative media can do a lot of good, and the best way to do that is to make things transparent. Clarity does not mean that you are sacrificing nuance, instead you are investigating it more effectively.