The rise of Documentaries
Jack Walton gives us an insight into the rise in popularity of documentaries.
It’s 2018 and Alex Hornold dangles harness-free from a rocky mountain face 3000 feet above the ground. Against the backdrop of beautiful sweeping vistas of Yosemite National Park, his life teeters in the balance. Cinematography, suspense, and sodden palms to rival any film of any category at all that year. $30 million at the box office and an Oscar in the cabinet. Free Solo; it’s stunning, exhilarating and it leaves you feeling literally, physically sick.
But documentaries weren’t always this damn sexy, were they?
In the antediluvian days of pre-Netflix, it worked like this. Real films were for the cinema – the big screen, popcorn, and weekends – portals into other universes. Documentaries were better at home on heavy-backed TV’s on wheels in Year 10 History Classrooms. Informative perhaps, for those not busy napping or crafting paper airplanes, but ultimately tired and dull. The unglamorous swotty siblings of Hollywood glitz.
And if a documentary wasn’t scholarly, it was probably just a bit odd. Hosted on unknown channels at unseen hours, vacuums of cinematic flair. Often arranged into lists. The World’s Worst Serial Killers. The World’s Scariest Roller Coasters. The World’s Dirtiest Drain Pipes. Etc. These were outcast creations respectable society wanted little to do with, cultural antecedents to the Youtube Rabbit Hole.
In a genre once compared to “spinach” by Morgan Neville, the adoption of the visual and storytelling properties of good drama has created a recipe for something not just tastier, but far more commercially viable.
All has changed. A Netflix-catalysed transformation of the genre has seen documentary filmmaking gain considerable ground across the past few years, taking interesting real-world stories and applying a sheen of high production value, creating an aesthetic synonymous with the streaming service. The likes of 2016’s 13th, highlighting racial injustices in the American carceral system and 2017’s Icarus, looking at doping in professional sport, adopt the feature-length format, whilst episodic productions, customised for a binge-happy generation, are becoming increasingly prevalent – particularly in True Crime. In a genre once compared to “spinach” by Morgan Neville, the adoption of the visual and storytelling properties of good drama has created a recipe for something not just tastier, but far more commercially viable.
The capacity of documentaries to congeal with their moment in history, influence it and affect change, is a key reason for their growing success. Gone are the days of grainy footage of troops trotting off to the battlefield, epochally irrelevant and thus banished to the graveyards of the History Channel – the documentaries of the new era can be political weapons or banners of justice. In highlighting the inhumanity of the sea-park industry Blackfish (2013) was able to severely tarnish the reputation of Seaworld, as well as damage its financial performance by $15.9 million. Eventually, the company ceased its Orca breeding program and pledged to phase out all live Orca shows.
Making a Murderer in 2015 and Tiger King in 2020 proved definitively the newsmaking power of documentary film. In both of these years, the white noise of fury at potential injustices in the cases of Stephen Avery and Joe Exotic (plus Carol Baskin) was an omnipresent feature of the online world. The former eventually won the right to appeal his sentence. The latter was discussed by President Donald Trump at a White House Press Briefing. In a society measured by trending statistics and Website hits these series were able to transcend their format and become events of cultural significance.
It’s worth noting that despite its significance in the genre’s growth, Netflix isn’t point zero for documentaries done well. Werner Herzog’s philosophical meditations on the oddity of human existence in the likes of Grizzly Man (2005) and Into the Abyss (2011) have long-since invested the form with a deep poetic beauty. And Michael Moore’s bombastically hilarious but equally poignant works such as Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and Roger‘n Me (1989) laid the groundwork for the socially conscious, and highly stylised documentaries we now see everywhere. These, and others, are true documentary auteurs.
If the current rate of growth is anything to go by, the future of documentary filmmaking is extremely bright, with mainstream directors like Edgar Wright now wanting in. His new film, The Sparks Brothers (2021) following the creation of rock-pop ground Sparks, has been released to critical acclaim this month. For a format dredged from the depths of drudgery not long ago, it isn’t bad going.