Alexander Glover uncovers the audience’s desire to stay woke.
Blackfish. Super Size Me. Making a Murderer. You’ve probably seen at least one of these.
Our desire for facts over fiction is increasing at a steady pace in the last few years. You could look to 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11 as a focal point in this shift to a larger demand for documentaries. The film arrived at a time when the public was confused and angry at the government and wanted to know what was going on.
Michael Moore, known as “America’s favourite whistle-blower”, directed Fahrenheit just two years after the equally provocative Bowling for Columbine. Bowling was Moore’s rally against gun laws in the US. The director takes serious issues like war and violence and delivers them in easy-to-digest forms that appeal to mass-market; one review even labeled Bowling as ‘hilarious’.
Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, released last year, reached audiences at a time of similar confusion and anger. The documentary focuses on the racial inequality that exists in the United States. The message conveyed is harrowing, impactful, and even enraging. The truth of its tale makes it especially brutal.
Such is the power of the documentary. A good documentary can be funny or infuriating; either way, they make the audience feel. The lack of depth in news media and the detached nature of fiction means that documentaries can often evoke far more authentic emotion from us.
A good documentary can be funny or infuriating; either way, they make the audience feel.
Documentaries are much cheaper to produce than studio features and with more demand for facts than ever before (see: John Oliver, TED talks), there should be a lot more documentaries coming our way. In fact, the number of documentaries at Cannes doubled in five years to 16% in 2013 according to the film festival’s director, Jerome Paillard.
Netflix is at the forefront of this trend. After the huge success of 2015’s Making a Murderer, the latest news from the streaming giant has announced that an eight-part series about the disappearance of Madeleine McCann is on the way.
Crime documentaries are certainly at the forefront, due to their investigative and thrilling content, but it’s not just murders and kidnappings that grip audiences. Nature documentaries that explore the hidden wonders of the world such as March of the Penguins and David Attenborough’s Planet Earth capture the audience using beautiful imagery. Nature documentaries allow access to sights we wouldn’t get to see otherwise. Planet Earth, regarded as one of the best TV shows ever made, illustrates what can be achieved with a large budget.
Crime documentaries are certainly at the forefront, due to their investigative and thrilling content, but it’s not just murders and kidnappings that grip audiences.
Big name artists and stars draw more attention to the genre. This was seen by the popularity of Amy, the documentary detailing the downfall of Amy Winehouse, and Exit Through the Gift Shop made by graffiti artist Banksy which received critical acclaim. Netflix is now full of movies and series by well-known documenters such as Louis Theroux, Reggie Yates, and even Russell Brand. The streaming service offers a larger platform than ever before for documentary makers. With viewers eager for new viewing material, filmmakers can spend more money creating documentaries, as they know there is an audience waiting.
Nevertheless, unknown creators with smaller budgets can still make an impact as seen by Brave Miss World, A Syrian Love Story, and Dark Days. All that’s needed to succeed are interesting facts. If you can express them in a way that’s dramatic, funny or thought-provoking, people will listen.
Sports documentaries are also gaining popularity, with ESPN’s 30 for 30 series leading the way. The likes of Iverson, Hoop Dreams and biopics about Lance Armstrong have also been well-received. Dramatising some of the biggest moments in sport allows fans to relive them and younger generations to discover their magic through a new medium.
One of Michael Jackson’s last contributions to pop culture was 2009’s This Is It. The production crew followed Jackson as he prepared for sold-out shows in London scheduled for summer 2009. Its success demonstrates the rich and famous’ ability to capitalise on the growing popularity of the medium. Record labels have since been pushing for more “rockumentaries.” Cinema audiences have been given Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, One Direction: This is Us and Katy Perry: Part of Me.
Then there are the documentaries trying to change how we think. Super Size Me came out in 2004 and caused a storm in the food industry. By calling out the market leader, McDonalds, the documentary created a ripple in the fast food sector, the effects of which can still be seen today.
Maybe documentaries make us feel smarter in a time when we are looking for enlightenment of the facts.
Others have followed suit with the likes of Food Inc. and What the Health questioning our diets while Cowspiracy and Earthlings highlight the impact of our consumption. Many of the filmmakers behind these docs use shock tactics to startle an audience, something which can’t be achieved as easily through alternative channels. We have also seen a positive influence from documentaries such as Blackfish. Since its release in 2013, SeaWorld’s profits have fallen dramatically thanks to what the company calls ‘brand challenges’.
Maybe documentaries make us feel smarter in a time when we are looking for enlightenment of the facts. The best documentaries will stimulate constructive conversation amongst viewers who oftentimes feel compelled to spread the message further.
Perhaps the world’s obsession with reality TV has further blurred the lines between fact and fiction. Regardless, in a world where we often can’t decipher factual news from satire, it makes sense to create documentaries that remind us that “you couldn’t make this stuff up.”