In Defense of Vice Documentaries

When Vice documentaries first got famous, I remember the anger from former West Africa-based colleague journalists (mostly female) concerning one of the new genre's early hits about allegations of cannibalism amid Liberia's brutal civil war.

While cannibalism may not be one of the most savory aspects of Liberian culture, and while the film may be somewhat testosterone charged, and the reporters not as brave as they make themselves out to be (also the timing of the war itself and the alleged cannibalism seem hazy), it must be said it's a full-length documentary available on YouTube with four-million views and counting for a content company, Vice, that is profitable.

And the hits keep coming for Vice's documentaries, which range from the globetrotting to the inward looking, gimmicky, groundbreaking, investigative, rehashed, sensationalistic, but always with lots of qualities, easy watchability and almost always effective storytelling. Sure there a lots of gun and drug and sex centered stories, but many of the documentaries (which don't have a lock defined time which is nice) also delve into important activist issues and places of the world with very little western media interest.

One of my favorites I've seen so far is the 21-minute White Student Union at Towson University, near Baltimore, MD (the union's blogspot here) where the filmmakers let the looked-into characters and their detractors define themselves. I believe that's the mark of a great documentary when the filmmaker breaks down barriers, goes behind the scenes, and lets protagonists bury or elevate themselves with their own words and actions.

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