Documentaries and Cheer

posted by Jeff | Saturday, February 15, 2020, 11:15 PM | comments: 0

Diana and I recently finished watching the 6-hour-ish documentary series Cheer on Netflix (or "docuseries," as apparently everyone involved in it is contractually obligated to say), and it was amazing. I thought while stream-surfing that maybe it was a reality show, but no, it was a bona fide documentary, and it was great. I went to a high school that actually took cheerleading seriously as a competitive sport, even if it wasn't in a local context, so I've always looked at it as a legitimate athletic endeavor. The documentary only reinforces that stance. I ended the series feeling like I wanted to adopt every single one of those kids and hug them and tell them that they're awesome. That's the mark of an effective documentary.

I've always had a thing for documentaries, and it somewhat relates back to the concept of "gonzo journalism" that Hunter Thomas brought about back in the day. The idea that you could observe something while influencing and participating in it, and still tell a story about it. For documentary film and television, this came about arguably with the start of MTV's The Real World. That's when they said, "This is the true story, of seven strangers, picked to live in a house, work together, and have their lives taped. Find out what happens, when people stop being polite, and start getting real." This was technically a documentary, but it was also a contrived and made up reality. Of course things get uncomfortable when you force a racist and a black activist to live together. There's nothing about it being "real" when you force it.

Documentary in its more pure form observes a situation that would have happened whether there were cameras there or not, and it's infinitely more satisfying, if somewhat voyeuristic, to see. Cheer checked all of those boxes. Our personal relation to it was that we stayed at a Daytona hotel next door to the band shell where the cheerleading championship took place. (For the record, Daytona, and those hotels, are a total shit hole.) We were there possibly around the time of the Cheer doc. I can't stand things like Survivor or The Bachelor, but Cheer was legit, because it wasn't contrived for TV.

I wish there was more of this on TV/streaming services. Unless you're a robot, documentaries are an instrument of empathy creation for your fellow humans. I think that's valuable. It's also the kind of thing that I aspire to. In high school I followed around a cheerleader during tryouts to show what that process was like, and that aired on cable access. In my first real job, I followed around high school freshman to show what it was like to start high school in an over-crowded school. I did a mini-doc after the fact to talk about the creation of a roller coaster. It's my thing even if I haven't pursued it on purpose.

The upside of the streaming-ization of TV is that there's more of this available than there used to be. That's exciting. I love documentaries.


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