There’s nothing like a good documentary. And the best documentaries leave you with the feeling that you have really experienced a slice of life that you would not have otherwise. But why are documentaries so important? There’s something about them that makes us want to watch. Maybe it’s because they are intimate or emotional. They can make us feel like we really know the people, places, and things they show.
1. Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction
In a world beset by Fake News and influencers vying for attention for products, it’s more important than ever to have insights based on real events and actions.
To have a real person at the heart of the conversation and narrative.
The great thing about documentary production is that truth is often stranger than fiction – meaning that what happens in the real world is more interesting, complex, and nuanced than what people make up in their imaginations.
Related: What Is a Documentary
2. Escaping Two Dimensions
Much of so-called factual television is two-dimensional. The same is true of the endless stream of three-star movies found on streaming services. They may entertain, but somehow they feel far removed from life.
The reason is that it’s difficult to develop complex characters in fiction, especially given the commercial pressure to follow rote plot formulas. They may entertain in a kind of emotional escapism, but in the end, there is no real connection.
With a documentary, on the other hand, you can put yourself in the world of real people struggling with real problems.
Their lives and solutions are nuanced because they face real problems and challenges that are sometimes (that is, when they deserve to serve as the subject of a documentary) inherently more complex and dynamic than in Hollywood or TV dramas.
3. A Kaleidoscope of Humanity
In this sense, the nonfiction film form of documentary is a wonderful and rich kaleidoscope of human experience, showing us how diverse and multidimensional we are, individually and collectively.
When you see somebody on the screen in a documentary, you’re really engaged with a person going through real life experiences. So for that period of time, as you watch the film, you are, in effect, in the shoes of another individual. What a privilege to have that experience.Albert Maysles, US documentary filmmaker (Grey Gardens, Salesman)
4. Unique Narrative Experiences
Documentaries are a unique art form, a unique creative medium that brings glimpses of real life directly into the audience’s consciousness. This is because in documentary storytelling real life is put into a dramatic or narrative form to work as a film.
They are powerful stories told in a powerful way when the filmmaker knows his craft.
Documentaries are compressed accounts that can take months or even years of research, observation, and work by the filmmaker.
Documentary filmmakers are almost always driven by a passion for the subject and come to conclusions and judgments about the subject at hand after an extensive research method and on-camera observation.
5. A Subjective View
A documentary, regardless of how it is touted by TV or other outlets, is always a subjective exercise and experience. It is an account of a subject told from the filmmakers’ point of view.
They are often very persistent in their search for facts and opinions from people who have direct experience with the subject or are involved in the story.
As a result, the message of a documentary is often very involved and multi-layered. Viewers of documentaries are often drawn in by this multi-layered storytelling and their ability to empathize with the issues.
6. Present the Human Face
Documentaries put a human face on an important issue.
For example, the 2002 film Bowling for Columbine put human faces to the Columbine High School massacre alongside the gun violence discourse, the 2012 film The Act of Killing put a human face on the perpetrators of the Indonesian mass killings of 1965-66.
Documentary film has a rich tradition of telling intimate stories that matter.
Casting for documentaries has become increasingly important as the medium focuses on humanistic stories that can have a greater social impact. Many of these films have proven crucial in depicting social movements and social justice issues.
The strong characters featured in modern documentaries serve to ground the films in strong human narratives. The films of Michael Moore, Robert Drew, Morgan Spurlock, and the makers of An Inconvenient Truth use documentary techniques to connect human dramas to broader social and political crises.
7. Emotional Impact
Well-made documentaries are packed with powerful emotion and drama. This is because it is the only way to construct a film that tells a story on the screen that resonates with the audience.
The usual rules of storytelling – character arcs, theme, pacing, narrative structure, etc. – apply to documentaries just as they do to feature films.
The emotional impact of documentaries will only increase as more and more documentaries find their way into virtual reality ( VR ) and VR becomes more prevalent. The reason for this is that VR is immersive in a way that apartment screens are not – as a viewer, you feel like you are participating directly in the action as the story unfolds.
8. Reveal Worlds You Thought You Knew (But Didn’t)
The beauty of a well-researched and made documentary is that it gives audiences new perspectives on familiar topics.
We all have pretty entrenched views about certain things, but documentaries are really good at revealing new things about history, politics, society, culture, and other important topics. That’s because a good documentary filmmaker will take a subject that is already reasonably well known and dig deep to find often surprising facts and insights. To plumb why the story matters.
That’s why it’s so important to ‘smell the story’ when making documentaries.
For example, a film I made about the Russian army in 1999 (Soldat) showed the barrack-room reality for conscripts – very different from how the Russian military was perceived at the time.
9. Show How the World Really Works
Much of how higher-level politics and geopolitics work is hidden from the public. Either because, frankly, they have limited interest in it. Or because it is in the interest of powerful people not to make these things transparent.
But a good documentary can shed light on these operations in a way that people can not otherwise see, by focusing on specific stories that matter and taking the time to understand them, to find witnesses, and to present what is happening or has happened in a compelling way.
10. Feature Amazing Individuals
One of the great privileges of making documentaries around the world for more than 20 years was that I had the opportunity to travel the world and meet and work with some of the most interesting people at all levels of politics and society.
For example, I had the great honor of shooting with Walter Munk for my last film, The Warning. Walter, who has since sadly passed away, was referred to as the “Einstein of the Oceans” by those familiar with his oceanographic work.
He was a key witness in the story of how the CIA and its Russian counterpart, the GRU, collaborated for several years in the 1990s to use top-secret intelligence platforms and data sets to help specially empowered scientists on both sides to better study and predict climate change. An incredible story that falls squarely into the “How the World Really Works” category above!
Documentary filmmakers work hard to earn the trust of the people they choose to portray in their stories.
In return, viewers of the films get to see things and people they would otherwise never see or experience. And hear a voice they otherwise would never hear.
Documentary filmmakers are masters of curiosity and a catalyst for empathy.
11. Expose Injustice and Wrongdoing
Documentary filmmaking is fundamentally guided by a democratic spirit and a desire to plumb the truth, no matter the situation being investigated or the story being told.
Every now and then, a film is made that can even influence policy and change the way we think about an issue. Even if they do not reach that high bar, documentaries often have a social impact by educating audiences and encouraging them to think differently about some aspect of an issue.
In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of essay documentaries about social issues. These films are an important hybrid form of film because they combine elements of the traditional narrative film with the journalistic work of documentary filmmaking, allowing filmmakers to make films that influence public debate.
Television and streaming networks like the essay form because it allows for far more pre-written pieces than is usually the case with documentaries, which means less risk overall that the production will not deliver a narrative.
12. Inspiring Stories
Documentaries can inspire with stories of struggles and the heroic ways people overcome them, such as the fight against AIDS in Swaziland.
Documentaries can also inspire with stories of triumphant human achievement, such as Apollo 13, a documentary about the crew that rescued a NASA mission to land back on the moon.
Some documentaries are both inspirational and educational, addressing topics as diverse as the environment and technology in modern society.
This inspiration can be cathartic – giving viewers the opportunity to find meaning in their own lives by examining the struggles and triumphs of others.
By sharing the experiences of others through the medium of a documentary, viewers learn that they are not alone.
14. Cross-Cultural Sharing
The role of documentary film in bringing cultures closer together – cross-cultural understanding – is one of, if not the most universal appeal of this art form.
This is important because the medium of film is a particularly effective platform for bridging the geographic and cultural divides that are often at the heart of conflict.
No matter how isolated and fragmented our individual circumstances may be, when we watch a documentary filmed in a foreign culture, we connect with the world in a way we cannot when we are expected to merely observe it passively from afar.
After the credits roll, the best documentary not only inspires and broadens our horizons, it also helps us see our own experiences in the context of the bigger picture.
Related: Why is Film Important to Society
15. Encourage Progress
A documentary film is also often a plea for progress and progressive values, reminding us how far we have come in such unprecedented areas of human endeavor as exploration, economic development, social change, and humanitarian progress.
As a documentarian, I have had the privilege of working in the Middle East, Asia, Russia, the Balkans, the U.S., and elsewhere while making the films I have made.
Although the subjects were often grim, because of the investigative nature of many of the films, I was always impressed by the willingness of other cultures to share, and I believe this was transmitted through the camera to the viewers.
16. Preserving History
Documentaries can preserve important events or parts of history – sometimes stories or archival footage that other people would rather bury.
This gives the world not only a better understanding of events in the past but also a glimpse of what we might face in the future. And we can better deal with it.
Documentaries can show us what a political system or religious philosophy means to people, which can inform us about the fragility of certain ideologies and beliefs.
Sometimes they serve as a source for academics and journalists, or even in a significant court case, as was the case when A Cry From the Grave was used as evidence at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.
17. Educational Value
Documentaries can educate people, including about health and wellness.
Scientific documentaries are an excellent way to communicate important scientific and technological discoveries and concepts to young people and old alike.
Natural history documentaries deepen our connection to nature as if we are discovering it for the first time, and this gives us a deeper understanding of its fragility and beauty, as well as a sense of the threats facing it.
18. Entertainment Value
It’s not all about serious topics.
Documentaries can enrich our lives with laughter and entertainment. They may not always be funny, but they can be entertaining and give us a different perspective on important issues through humor – either that of the participants or the filmmaker’s narration.
An observational documentary, especially, excels at this.
Ditto music documentary, and mockumentary.
19. Inspire Conversations
Documentaries can stimulate and inform discussion, dialog, and debate. In a school setting, films can contribute to discussions about human values and character, ethics, critical thinking, and environmental protection. and social responsibility.
These conversations do not just happen face-to-face. Documentaries can also be shown and discussed on websites, blogs, and social media, and these platforms can provide a forum for these discussions.
20. Inspire Other Creative Work
Very often, material from a good documentary finds its way into fiction or academic works.
Or in photography, art, and music.
Important Documentary Filmmakers
- John Grierson
- Werner Herzog
- Errol Morris
- David Maysles