The Construction of Orientalist Discourse in the Documentary Series on the Digital Broadcasting Platform Netflix

The Construction of Orientalist Discourse in the Documentary Series on the Digital Broadcasting Platform Netflix

Hüdai Ateş, Alev Fatoş Parsa
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-7180-4.ch002
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Developing technology and communication opportunities show that the audience can access fiction and documentary films more easily than in previous years. This research reveals the extent of globalization with the development of communication technologies and how orientalism takes place in documentary films through a netflix documentary. The orientalist perspective is transformed into a global perception through documentary films and documentary series on digital platforms, World's Most Wanted, Samantha Lewthwaite: The White. In this documentary, how the orientalist elements take place and how Islam is portrayed as a terror religion is revealed with the method of semiotic analysis, and the meanings created by the written-audio codes are revealed.
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“Everything is known through its opposite” … Explaining almost everything, this aphorism also clarifies the reason for the existence of the concept of Orientalism which was systematized by Edward Said and which refers to Western view on the East, their values, and the way they evaluate the East for the last three hundred years. The Eastern societies that had been colonized since the 18th century gradually lost power against the West and were dragged into a mentality that accepts the central position and the attitudes of the West. While defining themselves, these societies have considered the question of how modern they are as an equivalent for the question of how Westernized they are or they seem; and tried to define themselves through Western civilization. This accepted superiority of Western civilization has gradually been perceived as an almost natural, internal process by Eastern societies.

Following the accumulation of knowledge that lasted for years after the Age of Enlightenment, the West transformed itself into a merely universal subject of knowledge by stigmatizing other societies in different fields. At the heart of the process of constructing the perception of “we” and “they” lie exclusion and differentiation. This process that begins at society level with looking down on those apart from themselves moves down to individuals; while doing this, different criteria are used in different fields. Perhaps the most common one of these criteria is the comparison of cultural values. The comparison of cultural values is conveyed and imposed to the society by means of art and literature. With the development of communication technologies, the East-West dichotomy and the Orientalist discourse that started with painting and literature have passed on another dimension via films, news, the media in the internet environment with different structures, and finally, via digital platforms.

The media, by its nature, influences to a great extent the way people think, perceive, and live. At the same time, it constitutes one of the most important means of representation as well. Every visual-audial message placed on the media constructs a new reality in the minds of the viewers. Discovering to use the media much better functionally earlier than Eastern societies, the West managed to spread much more effectively and rapidly the perception of reality it wanted to construct concerning the East-West dichotomy which is one of the dichotomies existed all through human history. It is evident that there is no other type of program on the media and the digital platforms than documentary films and documentary series that claim to represent reality. By their nature, documentary films claim that they convey or reveal the reality; they are transporters of culture, transmitters of values. Reproducing knowledge within the process of establishing connection with reality, they produce new forms of representation as well. This study scrutinizes how the East is represented with the Orientalist point of view in documentary films. In this context, a five-episode documentary series named The Most Wanted (Netflix/2020) has been selected by goal-oriented sampling among the documentary productions on digital platforms; and the study discusses how the narration and the meaning is constructed through the phenomenon of religion and how orientalist values penetrate beneath the surface in the episode “Samantha Lewthwaite: The White Widow” which is the third episode of the series. In the documentary, the crime of terrorism is told from a Western director’s perspective through Islam. Through semiotic film analysis, the study puts forward the connection of the discourse used in the documentary series with the signs and presents in a table how the Orientalist images and the associations or myths created by connotations are constructed. As a result, it has been revealed that the documentaries on the digital platforms are also influenced by Orientalism, and that it is tried to make the audience discredit Islam. Based on the thought that everything exists with its opposite, the study tries to uncover the paradoxical contradictions between the East and the West along with the dichotomies and conflicts that are open to discussion and that do not contain a certain judgment in this documentary series.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Globalization: The process of interaction and integration among people, companies, and governments worldwide. Globalization has accelerated since the 18th century due to advances in transportation and communication technology.

Netflix: Netflix, Inc. is an American over-the-top content platform and production company headquartered in Los Gatos, California. Netflix was founded in 1997 by Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph in Scotts Valley, California.

Documentary Film: A documentary film is a non-fictional motion-picture intended to document reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction, education, or maintaining a historical record.

Orientalism: In art history, literature and cultural studies, Orientalism is the imitation or depiction of aspects in the Eastern world. These depictions are usually done by writers, designers, and artists from the West.

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