Documentaries are a bit of a tricky genre. They have a reputation of being too educational and boring, like a film a teacher would save for a lazy, rainy day at school. However, despite their reputation, there are many good documentaries. They may not have the same entertainment value as mainstream fictional movies, hence why I think there’s a separate category for documentaries at the Academy Awards, but if a documentary is done well, it should be equally educational and engaging.
So what makes a good documentary?
First off, like all film genres, what makes a “good” documentary is subjective and different people have different tastes. However, unlike other film genres, there is most likely a documentary about whatever interests you. Are you interested in all things fashion and obsess over the annual Met Gala? There are a slew of different documentaries focused on fashion designers (Alexander McQueen comes to mind immediately) and even a documentary centered around the planning of the annual Met Gala, from the conception of its theme to the actual event itself (The First Monday in May, dir. Andrew Rossi, 2016, available on Hulu). Do you love sports? ESPN’s 30 For 30 documentary series might come in handy, or one of the many other documentaries focused on specific sports teams, like Amazon Prime’s All or Nothing series which look at teams like the New Zealand All-Blacks in rugby. There are documentaries about the making of films, there are documentaries about historical events, there are documentaries about politics. One of the most popular kinds of documentaries recently is the ‘true crime’ subgenre. There are a range of documentary subjects and there is bound to be at least one about your interests. Finding one about your specific interest will help keep you engaged with the film; it is the first step to become interested in documentaries and help you to figure out your definition of a “good” documentary.
To me, what makes a well-done documentary is that combination of engaging and educational. Those are the hallmarks of what makes a documentary, no matter its subject, good.
First and foremost, there needs to be some intersection of history and education. Documentaries, as evidenced by its name, document a moment in time. They present history. Well-done documentaries present sourced facts, not opinions, by eyewitnesses or experts in the field and leave space for the viewers to do their own research on these events. For example, let’s take Ava Duvernay’s 2016 documentary 13th. The film covers a broad span of history, from the end of slavery until modern times. She brings in historians and bridges different stories with music and haunting images in order to really impress the presented facts upon the viewer. However, Duvernay has stated that she intended for 13th to be a primer of sorts – that this is simply a stepping stone to encourage people to learn more about the subject. Good documentaries, much like other films, leave the viewer wanting to know more about the subject and do their own research into the events of the film.
The subject of the documentary, however, needs to be engaging enough to keep the viewer invested in the film.
The subjects of well-done documentaries are usually culturally relevant, ranging from recent court cases that have resurfaced in the news to significant anniversaries of historical events or just having very quirky main characters to focus on. Like other film genres, the characters have a huge part to play in keeping viewers interested throughout the film and documentaries will typically take a quick look into the characters’ background to help build audience support for the character. Usually there is a major story or event happening within the documentary to help keep a typical, linear structure and the characters are either directly involved in this event or are heavily impacted by the event.
A good example would be Knock Down the House (dir. Rachel Lears, 2019, available on Netflix). The documentary focuses on the 2018 US election and the challenges faced by four different female political candidates as they campaign for their specific position. The documentary has a clear linear timeline – it covers the months leading up to the election and the few days post-election – and it has an interesting plot – will these women be able to win their election? It helps that most of the audience knows the outcome of one of the candidates (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) because of how high-profile her electoral race became, but the film shows that there were other candidates just like her in races across the country that were never as nationally publicized, immediately (hopefully) piquing the audieebnce’s interest. It helps that the candidates are all personally engaging, willing to open up about their lives. The documentary dives into the backgrounds of the candidates, detailing why they decided to run for this position, how they got involved in politics, sometimes even going into their personal family lives. It helps to build some support for these characters and hopefully some sense of relatability so the audience becomes invested in them and their stories. There are brief moments where the film provides commentary on specific events, like a police shooting or the American healthcare system, that impact the characters in order to help further this investment but that also help to shape the linear timeline around these elections.
However, what makes a documentary truly good is the passion of the filmmakers. If the filmmakers aren’t passionate about the subject that they’re filming, why should the audience even be interested? The filmmaker Ken Burns makes documentaries about subjects that I typically am not interested in (he is most well-known for war documentaries which just aren’t my personal preference), but in each of the film, I can see how carefully crafted the film is with its different shots and how much thought and passion Burns has put into the film with its use of archival footage. Though I still am not a fan of the subject, Burns’ documentaries are expertly crafted.
With more and more documentaries being added to streaming services, it is even easier for these good documentaries to be accessible to mass audiences. What’s even better is that there is a new trend in documentaries – many of them typically become an episodic series, making it even easier for audiences to try to digest the information presented by allowing for breaks between episodes and allowing the filmmakers to try to add more narrative or character detail.
This intersection of educational, engaging, and even passionate have helped to make documentaries a stronger presence to many audiences and here’s hoping that more can be exposed to more good documentaries.