Ah, documentaries. Underappreciated works of art, often forgotten about by audiences – the middle child of cinema, if you will.
Every once in a while, there is a documentary so moving and so profound that we can’t ignore it. But what determines which films these are? What makes a documentary good? Well, that’s subjective. People have different interests and will be more attracted to a documentary on a topic that they like than an award-winning documentary on another subject.
What is a documentary?
There are some common themes, however, that make a documentary intriguing and cinematic, and not just a bunch of photos and videos haphazardly cut together.
But before we start breaking this down, we should first define what a documentary is.
According to Merriam-Webster, a documentary film is a presentation expressing or dealing with factual events. This description oftentimes causes the broader moviegoing audience to turn up their nose at these films, because they don’t necessarily want to go to history class when they enter a theater.
Stories about real people and events can be fascinating though, and just as exciting as a narrative fiction film. After all, a documentary film is still a narrative film with a plot and characters, it’s just that the subject matter happens to be true, and therefore the story is presented differently.
Unfortunately, I also contribute to this lack of attention paid to documentary films, having not seen very many in my young lifetime, at least, not outside my history class. But there have been a few that struck me. These films surprised me, they moved me, and yes, they taught me something – and I enjoyed it.
One of the First
We all know the great and powerful PBS has been making educational programming since its founding, and they do in fact have some pretty well-made documentaries.
“Eyes on the Prize” is a 14-part documentary series that chronicles both the major events of the American Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1965, and the “racial crossroads” America faced from 1965 to 1983, after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, and most considered the movement to be over.
The series is named after a folk song that became popular during the Civil Rights Movement, “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” It uses archival footage, still photography, and interviews with participants and opponents of the movement to tell viewers the story.
It’s a topic a lot of people study in school – most people know about the Civil Rights Movement, and why it was important, but there aren’t as many who have really taken their time with the subject matter, and looked at the significance of every march, protest, speech, or riot. I was lucky enough to study the Civil Rights Movement extensively in school, but “Eyes on the Prize” serves as an important reminder of everything the participants were fighting for.
Another PBS docu–series I stumbled upon was called “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” co-produced by one of the most well-known documentary filmmakers of all time, Ken Burns. Much like the Civil Rights Movement, many Americans are familiar with the National Parks, but don’t really know how they came to be and the history behind them.
The series is beautifully shot, with sweeping views of the parks, and brings in experts from all different fields to speak on the impact of the National Parks. It seemed as though a person from nearly every walk of life had something to say, and held a deep admiration and appreciation for these breathtaking parts of nature.
I was particularly moved by the subplots – little stories within the story about certain people and how they interacted with the parks – stories of those who managed to survive the harsh wilderness, and those who thrived in it.
A third example I will point to is “Daughters of the Sexual Revolution: the untold story of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders,” which, as its title suggests, is an untold story. As someone who has always seen cheerleading as a kind of anti-feminist activity that only worked to perpetuate female stereotypes, I was amazed at the story of Suzanne Mitchell, the original cheerleaders’ fearless leader and matriarch. I learned just how powerful, brave, athletic, and hardworking these women were, and I truly see the sport in a different light now.
So, what makes a documentary worthwhile?
Here are my main takeaways: it’s important to have a variety of perspectives on the subject, whether that subject is a person, place, or event. A mix of personal and professional anecdotes can be deeply moving and help the viewer understand why people thought the way they did.
It also helps when the filmmaker identifies the central narrative or theme of the film, especially if it’s about a person. Making a connection between each event or perspective can make a documentary feel like more of a story than a lesson, and that’s the whole point of filmmaking, no matter what format – to tell a story.
Ultimately, what documentaries should do is open the public’s eyes to stories that are overlooked, or better yet, examine something everyone thinks they know about, and then they change the angle at which they look at it. When done right, telling these true stories can change someone’s mind, or have a real impact on the world.