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Real Stories Redefined: The Documentary Revolution 

You know it’s getting wild when real-life tops fiction in the juicy plot department.

A camera films a protest.
Credit: Shutterstock/EvaL Miko

Recently, documentaries have been spreading throughout the world of cinema like wildfire. What is fanning the flames that are causing audiences to choose fact over fantasy? 

The Documentary Renaissance

In recent years, documentaries have experienced a remarkable resurgence, capturing the attention of mainstream audiences all over the world. This genre, once considered niche, is now celebrated for its ability to blend education, entertainment, and storytelling. (Let’s also be real: documentaries are usually kind of messy. And who doesn’t like to focus on someone else’s messy life so they don’t have to focus on their own).

The public’s growing appetite for authentic, real-life stories has propelled documentaries to the forefront of popular culture. This has led them to critical acclaim and prestigious awards at events like the Oscars and Sundance Film Festival.

Technological advancements have significantly contributed to this renaissance as well (more proof that robots are taking over the world). The introduction of drone footage has revolutionized the way filmmakers capture and present their subjects. Drones offer stunning aerial views that were once impossible or disgustingly expensive to achieve, giving audiences a whole new perspective.

A White Helmet looks toward the smokey sky with a building on fire in the background.
Image from The White Helmet documentary, which uses VR technology. Credit: The White Helmets/Netflix.

Similarly, 360-degree cameras and virtual reality (VR) technology have introduced new ways to immerse audiences in the documentary experience. These tools allow viewers to explore environments in every direction, creating an interactive experience that traditional filmmaking methods cannot match.

This technology has been used in projects like The White Helmets, which offers a VR experience alongside the traditional documentary. This places the viewers in the middle of the action and deepens their emotional connection to the story as they follow these rescue workers through conflict zones in Syria and Turkey.

Why Audiences are Flocking to Real-Life Stories

We are in an era drowning in fictional superheroes and fantastical universes (I’m staring directly at the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes), and audiences are increasingly flocking to documentaries. Why?

The public’s hunger for real-life stories comes because they provide a stark contrast to the predictable narratives of traditional fiction. Documentaries offer a window into the real world, presenting a more authentic point of view that we don’t often see in the mainstream of entertainment. In an age of digital manipulation and curated perfection, it makes sense that more and more viewers seek realness.

Phone screen with the Ashley Madison promo of a woman holding her finger up and shushing beneath the "life is short, have an affair" tagline.
Ashley Madison is a dating app for married people looking to have affairs. It inspired the Netflix documentary, Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies, and Scandal. Credit: Shutterstock/T. Schneider.

If we’re speaking the truth, the real world is crazy enough to surpass some of the most outlandish fiction. You don’t need to go to fantasyland when you could just plop a camera crew right out on the street and watch the world work. 

On the flip side, in a world rife with social and political turmoil, documentaries provide a form of escapism. They allow viewers to immerse themselves in different lives, cultures, and experiences, offering a form of comfort and connection in these trying times. (As I said before, it’s nice to see other people’s messes instead of your own or, at the very least, see that you’re not the only one on the struggle bus). 

Streaming Platforms: The Game Changer

Streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and HBO Max have played a pivotal role in this resurgence. Documentaries that were traditionally confined to film festivals, limited theatrical releases, or specialized TV channels, now enjoy newfound reach and popularity thanks to these digital platforms.

Netflix, in particular, has become known for its high-quality documentary content. The platform has invested in original documentary productions that have gained massive viewership and positive public responses. 

Amazon Prime and HBO Max have followed suit, offering massive libraries of documentary films and series that cover a wide array of subjects, from social justice and environmental issues to personal stories and historical events. 

Close up of a tv remote with YouTube, YouTube Music, Prime Video, and Netflix buttons.
Credit: Shutterstock/ymgerman.

These platforms have not only increased the accessibility of documentaries but have also enhanced their production quality. With substantial budgets and advanced technology at their disposal, streaming services are producing documentaries that rival fictional films. This has led to a surge in viewership and a newfound respect for the genre, proven by the success of titles like Making a Murderer, The Social Dilemma, and Tiger King.

Streaming platforms also draw greater engagement and discussion among viewers through their interactive and user-friendly interfaces. Features such as reviews, ratings, and social media elements allow audiences to be part of a bigger community. (A win for all those who don’t have friends, woohoo).

This heightened access has skyrocketed the popularity of documentaries and has also shown their importance as tools for education, awareness, and social change.

Impactful Documentaries of Recent Times

In recent years, several documentaries have not only captivated audiences but also sparked significant discussions and influenced public opinion. 13th stands out as a powerful example, exploring the nitty-gritty of mass incarceration in the United States. 

The documentary’s compelling narrative and thorough research have brought critical attention to systemic racism and the prison-industrial complex. So naturally, dialogue and activism regarding racism saw an uptick after its release.

It also saw a resurgence of attention during the Black Lives Matter movement, further showing how documentaries can amplify social issues and catalyze change (life imitates art and art imitates life).

Malayan Tiger, the focal point of the Tiger King documentary
Credit: Shutterstock/Djohan Shahrin.

Another influential documentary is Tiger King, which delves into the bizarre and controversial world of big cat breeding and its eccentric personalities. Beyond its entertainment value, Tiger King exposed serious ethical concerns about wildlife exploitation, leading to increased scrutiny and legal actions against the individuals involved. 

Furthermore, the series’ viral success demonstrates how documentaries can capture public fascination while shedding light on important issues. (Also, if you weren’t watching Tiger King at the start of the COVID lockdowns, what were you doing?).

The Social Dilemma, a documentary-drama hybrid, explores the dangerous human impact of social networking. It cuts between real-life interviews with dramatized sequences to show the horrifying impact of social media on a fictional family. 

The film focuses on the psychological manipulation of users through algorithms that exploit human behavior and shows the contribution to issues such as mental health problems, political polarization, and misinformation. The documentary then concludes with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own technology. Even they live in fear of what they have created.

True Crime: The Genre That Captivates

True crime has emerged as a dominant genre in documentary filmmaking. It has an ability to captivate audiences with its blend of real-life intrigue, suspense, and psychological depth. The genre’s rise in popularity can be attributed to several factors that resonate deeply with viewers.

One of the primary reasons for the true crime phenomenon is its storytelling appeal. True crime documentaries often feature complex narratives filled with twists and turns. They are known for drawing viewers into a world where the line between good and evil is blurred.

Maggie Nichols, a gymnast at the center of the documentary, Athlete A, does a wolf jump in front of American flag.
Maggie Nichols, former USA Gymnastics team member who was known for a time as “Athlete A.” Credit: Athlete A/Netflix.

Athlete A details the story of the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal. The documentary highlights the systemic failures within USA Gymnastics and the US Olympic Committee, revealing how these institutions prioritized medals and reputation over the safety of their athletes. 

Through interviews with survivors, journalists, and key figures involved in the case, Athlete A sheds light on the culture of silence and the efforts to hold those responsible accountable, creating a compelling story and making it another documentary that spearheads social change.

Another factor driving the popularity of true crime is the public’s fascination with the criminal mind and the real-life stakes that add a layer of intensity and engagement that fictional crime stories often cannot match.

Series like American Murder: The Family Next Door have grabbed audiences by the neck in their meticulous unraveling of cases over multiple episodes, creating a binge-worthy experience that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats.

The Watts family, the center of the Netflix documentary, American Murder: The Family Next Door, smiles at the camera.
The Watts Family is the center of American Murder: The Family Next Door. Credit: American Murder: The Family Next Door/Netflix.

People get a thrill from exploring the human psyche. For some reason or other, the dark curiosity about the morbid and macabre things that humans are capable of proves to be a fan-favorite in the documentary community. But how far is too far when it comes to what documentaries show? What is the downside of this rapidly rising genre?

Challenges Faced by Documentary Filmmakers

Ethical dilemmas in storytelling pose the most significant challenges. Filmmakers must balance the need for truthful representation with the potential impact on their subjects’ lives. This can be particularly tricky when dealing with vulnerable individuals or communities, wherein questions about consent, privacy, and the potential for exploitation are always present. 

Filmmakers must navigate these issues carefully, ensuring that their work does not cause harm or misrepresent the truth. Ethical storytelling requires a commitment to transparency and sensitivity, which can conflict with the desire to create a compelling narrative. There is a fine line between doing a story justice and exploiting it–another thing for filmmakers to consider.

Young boy with a bike stands barefoot in front of a pile of rubble in Gaza.
Filmmakers must think about what is ethical to record and broadcast to the world in certain situations. Credit: Shutterstock/mehmet ali poyraz

Filmmakers must also spend considerable time and effort focusing on finances. They have to pitch their projects to potential investors and frequently encounter rejections. This financial instability can delay production timelines and limit what filmmakers achieve, forcing them to make tough decisions about the quality of their work, which then damages the integrity of the story.

Another major challenge is gaining access to subjects and locations. Documentaries require filmmakers to immerse themselves in their subjects’ lives, which can be difficult if the topics are sensitive or controversial. (Hitting someone with “tell me all your secrets” usually isn’t enough, unfortunately).

Moreover, gaining permission to film in certain locations, such as prisons, war zones, or private homes, can also be packed with legal obstacles. Without this access, filmmakers may struggle to capture the footage needed to tell their stories effectively.

The unpredictability of real-life events adds yet another layer of complexity. Unlike scripted films, documentaries often follow unscripted and uncontrollable subjects.

Changes in the story’s direction, subjects withdrawing their participation, or key events not unfolding as anticipated can affect production quality as well. (After all, it must be difficult to stay on schedule when you’re in a war zone and bombs start dropping). Filmmakers must be adaptable and resourceful, often having to tweak their storytelling approach on the fly.

As the world moves into an uncertain future, documentary filmmaking does as well. It seems certain that evolution is on the horizon, driven by advancements in technology and shifting audience preferences.

As technology continues to advance, we can expect documentaries to adapt by using new techniques in areas like virtual reality, AI, and interactive documentaries (i-docs). I-docs are particularly interesting and usually use web-based platforms or apps to offer a unique storytelling experience.

In these, viewers can explore different perspectives, access additional content, or participate in interactive elements. It’s sort of like video game meets documentary. Down the line, it could be a compelling avenue for educational and experiential storytelling given that it boosts viewer immersion and encourages deeper thinking (something humanity desperately needs more of).

An old man and a robot sit on the couch watching a movie together. They are wearing 3D glasses and eating popcorn.
Me and who when the new hi-tech documentaries hit the screen? Credit: Shutterstock/Stock-Asso

The future of documentaries will also likely see an increase in diverse storytelling formats and genres. While true crime and social issue documentaries have dominated recent years, emerging filmmakers are exploring new subjects and narrative approaches.

Many are opting to blur the line between fiction and reality with the help of the previously mentioned tech–putting us on a new frontier for the future of storytelling.

Whether that is an artistic positive or a cataclysmic negative for humanity remains to be seen. Until we find out, just sit back, relax (or don’t if you have anxiety like me), and watch what the world has to offer. But try not to get sucked into the abyss of our trippy reality, that’s Rule #1 of documentary club.

Written By

English, Business, & Film student at Michigan State University

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