Happy New Year, Losers: The Dangerous Rise of the Sympathy Doc

if I had my way I would tear this building down

Before their project begins, a documentarian reckons with at least as many ethical considerations as technical ones. For example: How much of a presence should the filmmakers have in the movie? What is the proper balance between respecting a subject and making sure the truth of it is shown? Will a deliberate narrative structure enhance the clarity of the film or inhibit it? A documentary is as much of a philosophical undertaking as an artistic one, and no two films will have the exact same set of answers to these and many other questions the form will ask of them.

Netflix’s Afflicted takes a different approach: it sends all those moral quandries straight to Hell and dives headfirst into a psychological thriller narrative that the filmmakers constructed more or less wholesale out of the experiences of its subjects. The show follows seven people burdened with curious maladies and asks if maybe these poor souls are not simply psychologically distressed and making it all up, or else maybe confusing their weird diseases for intense manifestations of more common ones. In other words, the hook of the show is essentially Are They Sick Or Are They Crazy?

This narrative trickery would almost be impressive if the impact of the show’s recklessness were not so blatantly contemptible. The program has been rightly, widely pilloried (not least of which by the show’s characters themselves) for spreading dangerous medical misinformation, inciting vitriol from its audience against the people it claims to humanize, and completely disregarding the search for truth in the interest of cheap drama.

But the curious thing about Afflicted is that it’s not really an aberration in this regard; it’s simply blunter and more tasteless in its aims than those of its contemporaries. I’ve taken to thinking of movies like Afflicted as cinema of sympathy (or “sympathy docs” as I’ll refer to them for the rest of the essay, for brevity’s sake). The difference between empathy and sympathy is a crucial one here. Empathy requires a heartfelt and genuine connection to another living creature, which these movies do not have. Empathy implies comraderie; sympathy, condescension.

Sympathy docs exist less to educate or even to tell a story as much as they do to elicit pity from the viewer. They traffic in sentiment and misery without ever amounting to more than a cheap tug of the heartstrings. Afflicted is in many ways just a natural consequence of this filmmaking philosophy run amok, and I fear that as more documentaries inhabit the space of “content” as opposed to traditional film, we will only see this trend grow more profoundly worrisome with time.

Recovery Boys, also a Netflix exclusive, is a much warmer and far more competent sympathy doc than Afflicted. Set mostly on a rehab complex in West Virginia, it follows a handful of opiate and heroin addicts on their journeys through addiction, relapse and recovery (in varying order depending on the character in question). It has sweeping shots of beautiful Coal Country landscapes and a comforting ambient soundtrack; when its characters become emotional the camera focuses on them but never gets uncomfortably close. Nothing in Recovery Boys suggests that its characters are being exploited, or that their stories are being manipulated to a desired outcome through selective editing.

And yet it’s still difficult to come away from the picture without wondering what the point of it all was. Even though several characters are on parole or have been to prison, and several others have been hospitalized for overdoses multiple times, there’s little screentime spent on how these characters interact with drug enforcement policies or the healthcare system, which is strange considering that these cannot be small factors in their lives. Clearly the scope of the film is focused on the intimacies of the characters’ lives as opposed to the structural issues compounding their addictions, but it’s suspicious that the filmmakers and their subjects have no opinion on these matters save for a couple of fleeting grumbles.

If the filmmakers won’t supply a broader context, then the viewer must be left to their own inferences, and Recovery Boys gives us sadly little to chew on. What is the movie trying to communicate: that heroin is a terrible drug, that rural America is gripped by an opioid epidemic, that addiction is a tough road to conquer? I already knew these things. I’d venture that most people who would choose to watch this movie already know these things as well. Yet even still we’re treated to scenes of a weeping father lamenting that he can’t see his children yet, or a relapsed addict slumped in a heroin daze drooling about how good it feels to get high.

Divorced from purpose, the sadness of this imagery becomes an end unto itself. It doesn’t matter if you left the movie understanding more about addiction or not; all that matters is whether the movie managed to upset or discomfit you by the time the credits rolled. If it did, congratulations: the sympathy doc has accomplished all it wished to do.

Most sympathy docs are not feature length films; it’s far more common to see one scrolling across your Facebook feed than your Netflix queue. These browser-friendly documentaries do the opposite of movies like Afflicted and Recovery Boys: instead of denying you context, they tell you exactly what you’re supposed to think. Vice Magazine in particular has a notoriously longstanding reputation for cranking these things out hand over first. Their formula is as consistent as it is perplexing:

1. Identify the subject of a unique crisis or tragedy.

2. Engage with them on intimate terms; get an understanding of the subject’s personhood; film some real-time examples of how this predicament is affecting their life.

3. Now just kind of…leave.

Whether they’re about a mom traveling miles to see their daughter in a mental hospital or a Crip engaging in a bloody initiation ritual, Vice’s bite-size sympathy docs are always big on drama but low on insight. We get little sense of these individuals’ inner worlds or the essence of the circumstances that make them what they are; instead, the filmmaker squeezes as much woe and strife out of their limited runtime as they can, then moseys off for ever-darker pastures. It should be noted that many of Vice’s longer documentaries are not like this — I would recommend Heavy Metal in Baghdad or This Is What Winning Looks Like to almost anyone looking for rigorous, incisive filmmaking. But these shorter movies are difficult to excuse; they do a disservice not only to their audience but to their subjects, who I must assume wish to be understood beyond glimpses from the morbidly curious.

Of course, Vice is far from the only media company that indulges in the worst elements of the sympathy doc. ATTN: is an outlet as obnoxious as its name implies, mainly peddling in quick videos that purport an educational element but do little besides muster superficial outrage or reaffirm already-held viewpoints. Social media is infested with such forgettable outlets, their names as numerous and slippery and transitory as the feelings they elicit.

And therein lies the danger of the sympathy doc: it doesn’t just cheapen its subject, it cheapens your reaction to it as well. The long-term effect of these things is emotionally corrosive. If everything exists only to elicit a response, it gets harder and harder to discern what is worth responding to. And what are values if not actions and reactions? A person can only be manipulated so much before this manipulation begins to take hold of them. Sympathy docs are harmless individually, but en masse they threaten not only an understanding of the world but an understanding of the self.

So then what separates an emotional but substantive documentary from the likes of a sympathy doc? In short, it’s when the emotion is a product of the filmmaking, not its goal.

Take Blackfish, an exposé about the mistreatment of Orca whales at Seaworld, or The Keepers, a Netflix miniseries that digs deep into a nightmarish scandal of sexual abuse and murder at a Boston Catholic school in the 1960s. While their subjects are highly charged, these documentaries aren’t about making the viewer feel one way or the other, but about exposing injustices. The viewer’s distressed reaction is a natural outcome of the things they’re seeing and hearing, and because these movies are so vigorously researched and so rich with detail one feels as though they’ve truly entered an area of the world they were heretofore ignorant of. While these movies are emotionally exhausting to watch, one feels as though they’ve been given as much as has been taken from them by the time they’ve ended.

Not all documentaries need to have a pointed message in order to be successful and illuminating. Hoop Dreams, one of the most profitable and beloved documentaries of all time, leaves its messaging about racial and economic inequality to be mostly implicit, allowing it to form the environment of its story as opposed to having a commentary on these issues be its end goal. My personal favorite documentary of all time, Warrendale, has no narration, no music and doesn’t feature so much as an interview with any of its subjects. The movie is a completely unfiltered look at a tempestuous home for emotionally damaged children that ends on an ambiguous note, without any of its characters ever taking the role of the “lead” and with no real narrative arc to structure it. It’s a pure explosion of harrowing intimacy with no agenda other than to create a connection with its characters, and it manages to be both difficult and rewarding without even a hint of preachiness.

Just as a feeling without a reason attached to it is often the result of disordered thinking, a movie with emotions that aren’t latched to something real will always feel trite and manipulative. Responsible, well crafted documentaries understand that the subject comes first, and if properly explored and illustrated, the desired emotions of the viewership will follow. It’s not always easy to explain the difference between this type of movie and a sympathy doc, but it’s always easy to feel when you see it.

Way the hell back in the 11th century, master poet Wei T’ai advised his contemporaries that “poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling, for as soon as the mind responds and connects with the thing the feeling shows in the words; this is how poetry enters deeply into us.”

The growingly popular sympathy doc may be resplendent with feeling, it may even play successfully upon your feelings, but without some kind of genuine artistic or journalistic insight it will not only bring nothing to your life but actively harm your perceptions in the long run. Things like Afflicted, documentaries that play fast and loose with truth and meaning in order to pull something, anything out of the viewer, are only going to become more prominent if they aren’t recognized and denounced for what they are. They’re difficult to resist — people wouldn’t make them or watch them if they weren’t compelling — but please, please try not to fall for this bullshit. These movies put your time, your mind and your natural empathy all at risk.

Writer, media critic, and thinker of thoughts based out of Austin, TX. Get in touch at chrismichaeljones@gmail.com, or follow on Twitter at @CJIsWingingIt

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