For decades, feature-length documentaries were considered the lima beans of movies. (Sorry–if you really love lima beans, swap them out for whatever healthy foodstuff you can’t choke down no matter how good it is for you.) They were usually serious and important, and far too often dry and dull. (Plus they always wrecked your Oscar pool.) Something you watched because it was supposed to make you smarter.
(Fun fact: The first documentary was made in 1894 by William Kennedy Dickson, an employee of Thomas Edison. Fred Ott’s Sneeze is five seconds long and is a simple, single shot of another of Edison’s employees, Fred Ott. Sneezing.)
But just as the Seventies changed so much else about American filmmaking, they also loosened up and breathed new iconoclastic life in the documentary genre. And as filmmaking became cheaper and easier to do (especially with the advent of home video), documentary filmmakers didn’t feel they always had to address heavy, “Oscar-worthy” subjects with solemn gravitas and ponderous meaning. The topics could be lighter or focus on small, odd subcultures, and there was more flexibility in capturing real people’s real lives.
Here then are three reasons I love documentary films:
1) People Are Strange, and So Equal (and Sad and Noble and Inspiring) in Their Strangeness
Even as post-post-modern documentary filmmakers like Errol Morris turned their attention to lesser-known corners of society (such as pet cemeteries in Morris’ fantastic 1978 Gates of Heaven), the messages that arose from their films turned out to be just as, if not more, relevant and revelatory about who we are and how we live.
Unlike exploitative TV freakshows such as My Strange Addiction or Hoarders, the best feature documentaries use seemingly eccentric behavior to show us just how much we’re all alike. “People Are Strange” is the unspoken theme of many such documentaries (like the recent Catfish), but by extension, “We Are All People” and therefore “We Are All Strange.”
These sorts of documentaries can be fascinating, amusing, and very entertaining. But they also get at larger truths about how complex and often unclassifiable people’s behavior and lives really are. And conversely how even in unique subcultures (such as arcade gamers in The King of Kong, heavy metal rockers in Anvil, or live-action role players in Monster Camp), the same old human jealousies, bitterness, and ambitions exist alongside hopes, dreams, and inspirational kindness.
I’m also a big fan of documentaries about artists, writers, musicians, intellectuals, and other creative folks—peeks into how they wrestle with their muses, create their works, struggle to make a living, bang their egos against others, and simultaneously circumnavigate and draw strength from the flaws and foibles, obsessions and addictions that come with being human, whether you’re an antisocial genius or misguided dreamer (see American Movie).
2) Fight the Power
Documentaries have always had a strong muckraking tradition, with many filmmakers using the medium to uncover political and societal injustices or to passionately speak truth to power. And the humorous, “gonzo” personal angle that started showing up in ’80s documentaries like Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March soon found its way into reportorial or advocacy documentaries as well–the most famous example being Michael Moore’s first film, 1989’s Roger & Me.
With subsequent documentaries like Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 Moore popularized the idea of “stunt” documentaries, carried on today by folks like Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold) where filmmakers insert themselves into the subject matter, often using a somewhat humorous and fanciful “quest” to draw attention to larger, heavier issues.
That personal approach can sometimes turn off viewers, especially if they happen to not like or agree with the filmmaker at the center of the show. But whether a documentary takes an unconventional or more classic approach to exposing its subject, there’s no doubt nonfiction films that are fueled by outrage do sometimes change things. Sometimes public opinion on major issues is slowly swayed over time in part by emotionally charged films like Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman, or last year’s Oscar winner Inside Job.
Other films have a more measurable direct impact. Morris’ 1988 The Thin Blue Line played a major role in getting Randall Adams freed from prison where he was on death row for the murder of a police officer it became clear he did not commit. The recent release from prison of the West Memphis Three in Arkansas was due in large part to the national outcry stirred up by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s 1996 Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and its sequel. And officials in the Japanese fishing village of Taiji were shamed into discontinuing (at least temporarily) the slaughter of dolphins because of the 2009 documentary The Cove.
3) The Natural World is More Awesome Than CGI Can Imagine
One thing documentaries have always been good at is taking viewers to worlds here on Earth they may never have dreamed existed. Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 documentary Nanook of the North is still considered a pioneering masterpiece of the genre for its study of Inuit (Eskimo) culture. And legendary oceanographer and film maker Jacques Cousteau’s 1956 film The Silent World was a major breakthrough in animal and nature filmmaking.
These days continued advancements in camera technology allow filmmakers to venture into even more remote or daunting worlds here on Earth and capture amazing animal behavior up closer and more clearly than ever before. (Though I sometimes bristle at the anthropomorphic storytelling in some of them.) The result is eye-popping nature documentaries like Winged Migration, Microcosmos (insect life), March of the Penguins, and DisneyNature’s new line of films like Earth, Oceans, and African Cats.
But my favorite nature documentarian is the oddest and least likely: German filmmaker of existential despair Werner Herzog. Herzog’s not so much interested in nature and animals as he is in how humans interact with them.
His recent documentaries include the fantastic Cave of Forgotten Dreams (about the cave paintings at Chauvet, France), Encounters at the End of the World (about researchers working in Antarctica), and best of all Grizzly Man (about the tragic fate of amateur bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell), all of which examine man and nature with typical Herzogian tangents and dark, nihilistic humor. (Only Herzog would brilliantly end his study of ancient cave paintings with a meditative—but philosophically relevant—digression on albino crocodiles.)
Up Next: New Documentaries at redbox and in Theaters