While the conventional documentary is an acquired taste for some, many don’t realize the relevance of non-fiction storytelling in modern settings. There are so many sub-genres in documentary filmmaking it’s hard to keep track. However, there are a few sub-genres that stand out among the rest.
True Crime documentaries tend to fall on the more popular sub-genre of non-fiction storytelling. This is most likely due to the fact that true crime is a story in itself, making it naturally entertaining to follow. High profile serial killers are more often the subject of these films. It’s an examination of humanity and tries to answer the impossible question of why and how someone could commit such violent offenses. However, a negative about these documentaries is the tendency to romanticize these serial killers. Filmmakers get wrapped up into the tragic backstories of killers and occasionally force an answer as to why – even though in some cases there is no reason why. Then, in worse cases, gloss over the horrific details of their victims to keep the focus on the glorified Anti-Hero.
Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes came with mixed reviews. While it was probably the most extensive documentary on the murderer – it occasionally fell trap to serial killer romanticism. As a viewer, I wasn’t sure if the documentary was condemning Bundy or celebrating him. While the defense to that observation could be attempted non-bias, specific chosen clippings clearly tended to favor Bundy.
The problem with this goes back to the core of why these documentaries are made. They inherently are meant to condem. Ted Bundy, a man who had a strong hatred of women, who raped, murdered and desecrated their bodies – should not be celebrated or sympathized with. It’s understandable to be interested in a case such as this – but by no means should anyone be idolizing this man.
Another compelling example of a true crime documentary emerges from the era-focused docuseries, The Seventies. One particular episode focused on the high rise of crime and an upsurge of cults in the decade, the main focus being the infamous Charles Manson. Manson is another popular killer, hopelessly romanticized in the media. However, this episode did a great job of embracing the oddity of Manson. Meaning, they didn’t shy away from his crimes. He was a psychopath and they portrayed him as a psychopath.
The Crime and Cults episode in The Seventies does a considerable job trying to understand why there was such a high rise in crime in the early 1970s. Hence, tying these high-profile cases to the period’s politics, racial and gender inequality, and zealous religious movements.
Era documentaries is a specific niche that I recently discovered. These documentaries can focus on a wide variety of topics: pop culture, music, politics, true crime, etc. What they all have in common with one another is the era they emerged or occurred in. Moreover, an underlying theme of the documentary piece involves examining the influences that era-specific culture had on those topics.
This collection of docuseries, released by CNN, focuses on a collection of specific decades, the 1970s-2000s. Each docuseries dedicates an episode to the topics listed above. Most of the episodes can stand on their own fairly well – meaning, you can pick one episode out of the bunch and completely understand what is happening. But, it subtly weaves connections through the episodes – and come out with overall themes of each decade. Thus, while they touch on a variety of topics at the end of it all, the viewer has a good understanding of the decade as a whole.
The docuseries is fairly non-biased, spewing out textbooks facts and straight forward tellings on the events of each decade. An additional plus of the series is that they favor clips of old films, television, and news reels rather than sticking to cheesy reenactments. Nothing can take a viewer out of a film as much as a badly executed reenactment. Plus, what better way to understand that period’s culture than to look at what was being produced at that time?
Another fairly successful sub-genre of documentary storytelling uses celebrities as the focal point. A common example of this type of documentary is E! True Hollywood Story, a series that examines the upbringing, rise, and present lives of popular celebrities. What makes this series so addicting to watch is being able to learn about celebrities before they were famous, to see them as normal people and empathize with their past struggles, and most importantly, to see yourself in their story, giving hope that one day you can make it big just like them.
Music documentaries tend to use this same formula. VH1 released a series, Behind the Music, that profiles a musical group and/or artist. Following the backstories of musicians or members of significant bands, their height of fame, and most often – their downfall. It’s intriguing from a musical standpoint – to try and get into the minds of brilliant musicians, to see what inspired them to create their own forms of art. Plus with the insider interviews, you get an intimate view on the personal lives of typically inaccessible celebrities.
First and foremost, every documentary should have a balance between being informative and being entertaining. Without entertainment, a documentary can become a visual representation of a textbook. On the other hand, without useful information, it wouldn’t be a documentary – it would be a reality show. Regardless of what documentaries you prefer, the most basic principal they should execute is bringing light to different forms of reality and educating an audience on topics through a general or unique perspective.