Over the course of the past two terms, I’ve been trying to find a research topic (as one does in grad school), and though I went through multiple iterations of similar ideas, I’ve recently taken note of my interest in narratives in which stories that are told can be incredibly powerful and yet malleable. Documentaries, in particular, include video clips and music which are framed and edited to deliberately tug at our heartstrings. These carefully made media pieces are a type of window to a world we normally wouldn’t have access to which then makes us feel things that we usually don’t. There is intention with every second that plays on the screen. And because we label some films to be documentaries, we believe the things that are said to be true. After all, the Google definition of a documentary is “a movie or a television or radio program that provides a factual record or report.” But it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that documentaries are made by people with certain perspectives and worldviews. It’s even possible that facts are selected out of context to sway others into believing the desired message. To deceive people into thinking what you want them to believe seems taboo but it happens all of the time, as it is an inherent trait of telling a story.
Oregon State University celebrating 150 years of excellence being one of two schools in the nation with land, sea, sun, and sky grants. During the two-week long observance of OSU’s Sea Grant, there was a screening event of “Saving Atlantis,” a film created by researchers, some of whom are OSU affiliated, and filmmakers around the world to spotlight the increasing concern of declining corals and the humans that rely on that ecosystem. For those who would like a run-down of the coral crisis, here it is. Climate change and other human-induced damage poses multiple challenges for corals. Rising sea levels makes it more difficult for the symbiotic algae living in corals to photosynthesize. The deeper the coral is located in the ocean, the farther away from the surface the algae can collect sunlight to produce energy. Tourism and recreation attracts people, which is great for a country’s economy, but detrimental to the corals if not properly managed. Broken coral contributes to a loss of natural coastal protection from storms and inclement weather. Local artisanal fishermen harvest in the reefs for they know what species live in certain parts of the coral, but destruction and loss of corals equate to poor ecosystem health, and thus lower populations of fish ultimately affecting those that rely on fishing as a method of subsistence.
Since I’ve been honing in on narrative and rhetorical analysis, I’ve been even more open to considering different viewpoints of a given topic. This isn’t to say that saving corals is not a priority because it certainly is important. However, it’s important to remember that context and framing are key. The narrative of “Saving Atlantis” isn’t anything too outworldly, but in this day and age where visual media is a source of information, it’s essential to be critical of any persuasive media that you come across. For example, take a look at the cover image for the documentary below. What does the cover say? What message does it imply? What tone does it give off? Though I’ve seen the film, a first impression might read as people in coastal communities in developing countries (because they’re always the ones getting the brunt of environmental issues) looking outwards to find help in saving the corals that they rely on. The title can refer to people in developed countries needing to step in and play the role of the savior. Monochromatic blue hues feel somber.
It is said that you can’t judge a book by its cover, though its cover can be designed to attract you, especially if it only got its looks to get your attention. But can you see the substantial responsibility the framing of a narrative can have?
I’m curious to know if the saying, “Timing is everything” holds true. If the film wasn’t created or if it was shown at a different time other than for the Sea Grant festival, would it have the same impact? Was it simply a coincidence that the film was presented during the Sea Grant festival or was there meticulous planning involved? Unfortunately, the corals serve as the canary in the coal mine, and we may be at the brink of a point of difficult return. The message of saving corals and Atlantis has to be done somehow. I suppose the urgent recovery that needs to be done has to start one step at a time. We can’t make changes at hyperspeed, and so we can only make do with what we have which also happens to be a powerful choice—allowing ourselves to use media to assist with our own decisions rather than drive our beliefs.