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.

Play
‘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.

Play
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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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that 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. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. 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.