tv series

The future of TV – where documentary meets fiction meets mocumentary

We’ll be seeing more pre-enactments in conversation with actual documentary in television series and films in the not too distant future.

The National Geographic Channel is known for its nature documentaries, not for fictional television programming. But the recently launched TV mini-series Mars seems to mark a distinct move away from their regular programming. This series combines “real” documentary with fiction and mocumentary in a formula that is not only different from NatGeo’s regular offering, but also from other series currently available on conventional broadcast and streaming platforms.

The six-episode series stands at the centre of a multi-platform, multimedia Mars-focussed project. National Geographic magazine’s November issue featured a Mars cover story. NatGeo has made an eight-lesson Mars school curriculum guide available for free online.

They have published two books about Mars, one aimed at adults and one at children. Their website offers a slew of online resources including interviews with the cast and crew, exclusive SpaceX rocket test footage and an interactive Mars surface map.

From bird hide to premium TV?

In recent years the number of television series available on conventional broadcast and streaming platforms has grown exponentially. The downside for TV channels of the over-abundance of choice has been that audience attention and viewing loyalty has become diluted. It has become increasingly challenging to capture and retain viewers.

Mainstream Hollywood movies have grown progressively more formulaic. Big studios and distributors hedge their bets on sequels, remakes, tested formats and building so-called “universes” like that of the Marvel superheroes. These formulas are supposed to draw audiences that want to repeat past positive experiences rather than be challenged by new perspectives in independent films.

Enter premium television. The big-budget, high production-value, star-studded television series that exemplify this phenomenon completely changed previously held perceptions that A-list actors, writers and directors simply don’t work in TV. Kevin Spacey, though he has had a stellar feature film career, has now become almost synonymous with Netflix‘s House of Cards.

Award winning Stephen Soderbergh produced and directed The Knick for Cinemax. Stranger Things (also Netflix) captured the imaginations of young and nostalgic viewers. Most recently Westworld blazed a trail to the top of HBO’s production slate and became an overnight phenomenon with fans around the world.

Capturing primetime audiences

So, is the ambitious, expensive and multi-layered fiction-nonfiction hybrid production Mars an attempt by NatGeo to capture some of this premium TV audience? What differentiates the series is the combination of three narrative layers to tell the story of manned missions to Mars. The first layer – real documentary – is set in 2016 and makes use of the expository mode to combine sit-down interviews with archive and contemporary B-roll (cutaways or visual evidence).

The second layer is fictional – a projection of what a future manned mission to the red planet may look like. Set in the 2030s, it starts in 2033 with the launch of the first mission.

The third layer can be characterised as mocumentary, since it uses the conventions of expository documentary (interviews and B-roll). But the interviewees are fictional characters and the B-roll is scripted and fictionalised. The amount of screen time devoted to this layer diminishes as the series progresses, so that there is only one mocumentary interview clip by the final of the six episodes. Arguably this layer forms part of the second, fictional layer, but I believe it’s worth highlighting because it occupies a position between layer one and two – though the content is fictional like that of layer three, the form is borrowed from documentary, mirroring that of layer one.

Layer 1: Documentary

For the 2016 segments the views and experiences of scientists, researchers, thinkers, entrepreneurs and others involved in space travel are woven together. It paints a picture of the history of space travel, where we find ourselves right now, and the manned space travel that is planned for the not too distant future.

It’s clear from quite early in the 2016 segment that it’s in fact a real documentary when entrepreneur, inventor and space explorer Elon Musk, a man with designs on colonising Mars, is interviewed.

Layer 2: Fiction

The fictionalised manned space mission, set in the 2030s, is scripted, making use of actors, sets, visual effects and the other conventions of fictional film and television production. The scenarios are clearly based on thorough and extensive research, however.

In relation to the first layer, these scenarios fulfil the same function that dramatisations of past events, or reenactments, would in conventional documentary. But, since the events are projected rather than historical, it would be more appropriate to call them “pre-enactments” instead.

Layer 3: Mocumentary

The third narrative layer, which includes scripted “interviews” with the characters of the fiction layer, serves to inform one’s understanding of the personal experiences of the Mars mission crew. These “interviews” are used to provide an excuse for exposition and as a short cut to establishing the characters before the audience is launched into the drama of the Mars mission.

Here documentary devices are used in the service of fictional storytelling. This layer is, arguably, the least compelling and most dispensable of the three.

Juxtaposition and the suspension of disbelief

The effects of combining the narrative layers and their respective storytelling modes are multifold. The 2030s pre-enactments visualise the science and technology discussed by interviewees in the 2016 documentary segments, showing their applications and implications.

The 2016 documentary lends credence to the 2030s fictionalised projection. The latter becomes more believable because we know that the technology to achieve what we see in the fictional scenes is already in development in 2016. And in the inter-cutting of the two layers a conversation is created that highlights various themes and dynamics that are explored in both.

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‘Before Mars’.

There is a strange tension in the series between suspension of disbelief, as one would expect from fiction, and intellectual engagement, as one would expect from a scientific documentary. This stems from the constant interaction between the documentary and fiction segments.

When watching a fiction segment, scientific research comes to life in a way that encourages suspension of disbelief. Drama conventions like interpersonal conflict and internal struggles are combined with action devices. These include visual effects, dynamic camera movements, fast cutting and suspenseful build-ups to climaxes.

The score enhances the dramatic and thrilling moments in the film. The haunting theme song by singer and composer Nick Cave that accompanies the aesthetically pleasing title sequence sets this up from the beginning of each episode as high production value fictional television programming.

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The ‘Mars’ soundtrack.

The idea of combining fiction and nonfiction is, of course, not new. Errol Morris pioneered the use of dramatic reenactments to illustrate interviewee testimony in his groundbreaking 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line. The feature film District 9 (2009) uses mock interviews with fictional “experts” to set the scene for its science fiction action.

Recently documentary filmmakers have questioned the divide between fiction and nonfiction through their choices of subject matter and application of form. In the documentary Elena (2012), for example, Petra Costa shifts effortlessly between history and memory, fact and fantasy to tell the story of, and process her own feelings about, the disappearance of her sister.

What makes Mars worth taking note of is that it combines fiction and nonfiction elements in a way that places them in balance. They inform and enhance each other without the one being foregrounded over the other. And the end result is both entertaining and scientifically grounded.

I’ll hazard my own projection here: we’ll be seeing more high budget, thoughtfully scripted and well acted pre-enactments in conversation with actual documentary in television series and films in the not too distant future. Certainly before we walk on Mars.

Liani Maasdorp, Lecturer in Screen Production and Film and Television Studies, University of Cape Town.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

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During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.