How Documentary Film Became Entertainment

The past, present, and future of non-fiction storytelling

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Photograph by Amit Madheshiya, from the project The Cinema Travellers.

Non-fiction storytelling is one of the most exciting and boundary-pushing genres of modern entertainment. And it’s only speeding up. Everyone — from commercial directors, to professional documentarians, to branded content makers, to everyday people — are getting in on the possibilities of non-fiction.

But that wasn’t always the case.

In the not-too-distant past, the word “documentary” evoked thoughts of history films, biographies, and art pieces — more interesting than entertaining. Even using the word “film” instead of “movie” had a kind of intellectualized art house feel to it. In the best case scenario, it was a new story told in an old way, driven by small budgets and less access to the tools enjoyed by bigger studios.

Today, non-fiction is getting credit for being an innovative category of entertainment every bit as exciting, engaging, and entertaining as feature film.

It’s quite a story.

The Hero’s Journey

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Documentary film, of course, goes way back. But things got interesting for the genre in 2004, when Michael Moore shocked the world with his deep, investigative look into the Bush administration in Fahrenheit 9/11. His was the first doc to win the Palm D’or at Cannes and, in ways we weren’t quite used to, the filmmaker played a role.

From there, along with the overall rise of investigative journalism and reality TV, docs turned up the volume as a force to be reckoned with. Super Size Me (2004) processed the fast food industry, An Inconvenient Truth (2006) predicted climate change, Sicko (2007) disrobed health care, The King of Kong (2007) went up a level in the competition doc category and Food Inc (2008) followed the U.S. food chain. Even 2010’s Exit Through the Gift Shop and 2011’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi were able to make commercial headway with independent-minded biographies, artfully achieved.

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Still from “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” Directed by David Gelb.

Suddenly, it wasn’t just what non-fiction was saying, but how. In 2004’s Born Into Brothels, director Zana Briski gave cameras to the children of prostitutes to get images otherwise unattainable. And in 2012’s The Act of Killing, directors Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn turned the age old documentary technique of recreations into a political statement, enlisting not actors, but actual participants in the Indonesian killings of 1965–66.

A new era in non-fiction had arrived, and it was remarkably creative. But that was only Act One.

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Web Documentary, “Welcome to Pine Point,” by The Goggles

Then web-based experiences, like Welcome To Pine Point (2011) and Bear 71 (2012), as well as Nonny de la Peña’s VR-based Hunger in Los Angeles (2012) all pointed to how well-suited non-fiction was for new media. These early, experientially-driven non-fiction stories became not just new ways of engaging, but really posters for the best uses of new technologies.

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“Serial,” “Making A Murderer,” and “The Jinx” poster art.

In 2014, we witnessed the quick rise of the serialized true crime drama, with the highly-acclaimed Serial podcast (2014), Netflix’s Making a Murderer (2015), and HBO’s The Jinx (2015).

In 2016, experimentation in non-fiction storytelling produced films like Tower, which was largely animated, and Kate Plays Christine, which blurred the boundaries between reality and fiction.

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Scene from “Tower.” Directed by Keith Maitland.

Today, we’re seeing non-fiction entertainment winning the Innovation Award at Sundance and leading the way in the use of new technologies — from the most immediate use of advanced tools, to the most boundary-breaking applications of everything from audio to VR to AI. But we’re also seeing a special attention to story arc and character development in unscripted storytelling that is every bit as compelling as scripted films.

To get a little deeper into the current state of non-fiction, I tapped the shoulders of a few of the people in the midst of it right now — from those who make to those who support. Here are some of the major themes:

Zooming In On Humanity

Two recent buzz-worthy documentaries go on two very different road trips, but in the same direction. Academy Award-nominated Faces Places visits rural France with cinema’s Agnès Varda and photographer/muralist JR, while The Cinema Travellers rides along with two showmen bringing the art of film in their trucks to the outskirts of India. Interestingly, in both films, film itself has a background role — but the main characters are decidedly and compellingly unscripted.

Riding along with today’s most gripping storytelling is like a trip out of idealized fiction and into something deeper and more in-touch with humanity. Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction. And today’s filmmakers are willing to get as strange as they must for a good story.

In the documentary City of Ghosts, director/cinematographer Matthew Heineman embeds himself in a group of people who have escaped Syria and are being hunted by Isis. It’s not the first time he’s found himself deep in the heart of conflict. Heineman also shot and directed Cartel Land, where he placed himself directly into the midst of organized crime along the U.S./Mexico border.

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From “City of Ghosts.” Director, Matt Heineman

During one particularly captivating scene in City of Ghosts, we witness one of the film’s main character having an emotional breakdown. The portrait is so intimate and powerful, it forces comparisons to Martin Sheen’s “hotel room freakout” scene in Apocalypse Now. Except this version is real life, giving it even more power than a fictionalized version of it ever could.

Heineman’s own recounting of its filming reminds us of just how beautifully imperfect non-fiction can get.

In that scene, he’s shaking, and his clothes are shaking and he’s smoking a cigarette. And all of those noises and even the rustle when he’s grabbing the cigarette and the over-modulated sound of lighting the cigarette — that texture is actually what makes the scene work. I tried to shoot that as dynamically as possible to really feel like you were inside of his head and inside of his soul feeling the trauma of years and years and years of what he’s been through, pouring out in that moment. — Matt Heineman, Director, City of Ghosts

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Still from “Minding The Gap.” Directed by Bing Liu.

At Sundance this year, one of the standout films (in any category) was Bing Liu’s documentary Minding The Gap, which went deep into the lives of three skaters — Liu included — growing up on the outskirts of Chicago. Liu’s almost impossibly-close relationship to his friends, both on and off the skateboard, tears down the wall between storyteller and story.

In a similar fashion, Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Vanessa Roth’s recent multi-part series on Netflix, Daughters of Destiny, took her deep into parts of India most of the world hasn’t seen up close.

The New York Times said:

“Much of it takes place in classrooms and dormitories. But it’s at its best when it leaves the school grounds and follows the children home, into a harsh and unchanging world whose realities seem hopelessly at odds with the ideals of the school.”

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Vanessa Roth and crew, filming “Daughters of Destiny.” Courtesy Vanessa Roth, Big Year Productions.

I asked Roth about filming in some of the world’s more difficult and cramped locations:

In Daughters of Destiny having a selection of cameras (especially the GoPro and Osmo) we used were wonderful because we spent so much time in very small, crowded homes, narrow side streets, the bottom of a quarry, in villages where we did not want to bring attention to ourselves, in low light, in no light, in 116 degree heat, traveling great distances by car and at the school where we captured movement and the energy of kids. — Vanessa Roth, Director, Daughters of Destiny

Intrepid storytellers like these, trained in the art of capturing humanity at its most extreme, are bringing forward stories with all the impact and emotion of a high budget Hollywood movie or independent film — but with no script, actors, or caterer. And audiences are responding.

The Appeal Of The Real

As a society, we continue to tip the scale in favor of experiences over objects and companies that put good over profit. Even in my field, photography, the call is for imagery that feels only slightly more heightened than something one could take with their own cell phones. More and more, people are seeking out realism, authenticity, and truth… a territory owned by non-fiction.

This is putting demands on non-fiction storytellers all over the globe to go out and make a narrative of just about anything.

Again from Vanessa Roth:

I’m being approached about very unique stories and asked for new storytelling approaches that in the past would have been very difficult to get off the ground. It is exciting to be asked to think creatively and to have the support and resources to experiment more with style and format and subject matter — it opens up so many possibilities into getting to the heart of what we all want our work to do (in any art form) which is to move, engage and reach people. — Vanessa Roth

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From “Daughters of Destiny.” Directed by Vanessa Roth.

This sentiment was echoed from Bing Liu, as well:

I think I’m telling stories at a time when this type of emotional reaching-for feels absent from people’s everyday lives. And at the same time, therapy, trauma, masculine studies, and a slew of other internal-emotion-facing fields are becoming more accepted and prominent. So I believe more filmmakers are going to tell stories that allow us to get more and more ‘inside’ of each other’s experiences.— Bing Liu

Still, making a movie (or story of any kind) is a deep, complicated, and difficult task. And there’s still, especially in non-fiction, a certain journalistic responsibility to it. The filmmakers I spoke to seem to be taking that balance very seriously — learning to embrace a whole lot of new creativity while still bringing a rigor and integrity to it.

As Roth says,

Documentary filmmaking is not only a storytelling or arts field; it is journalism. It is education. It is policy. And it is a reflection of people, events, places and ideas that requires research, access, and ethics. And has real life consequences.— Vanessa Roth

Which means that despite the often run-and-gun techniques of gathering footage, there’s an entire industry surrounding the making of story that must support and take a role, too. And this, again, looks far different in non-fiction than it does in fiction.

Support, For Real

A distinct difference between the culture of feature films and the culture of non-fiction is the circle of support built into docs and independent films.

In features, there’s a pressure to rely on what works, to reject risk. The lack of all that in documentary means that the surrounding communities of the medium work more holistically, collaboratively, and supportively. And risk is encouraged.

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Image from a Sundance Institute workshop

While many know Sundance for the festival, independent and documentary filmmakers have become intertwined with the Sundance Institute, which garners support through funding as well as creative support through workshops and a group dedicated to emerging technologies. The entire community of Sundance becomes an ecosystem for filmmakers outside Hollywood’s machine. There are many institutions geared toward similar supporting networks for filmmakers. The Ford Foundation, Tribeca Film Institute, M.I.T., PBS and the New York Times are but a few big names supporting documentary filmmakers in a variety of ways, from funding to education to distribution.

This new relationship between those who make and those who support is paying off in getting avante garde and new creative ideas off the ground and in front of audiences.

Hajnal Molnar-Szakacs, Director of the Documentary Fund at Sundance Institute (disclosure: Molnar-Szakacs is also my significant other) explains:

Over the past 4–5 years, we’ve recognized the vital role that art, experimentation and story play in ensuring a vibrant landscape of non-fiction work. The Fund has always sought to support the storytellers among us — adding new, bold, expressive, cinematic non-fiction to the list of projects we support only makes it more exciting. — Hajnal Molnar-Szakacs

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Still from Strong Island, Directed by Yance Ford

This support from the industry, in turn, emboldens storytellers to follow their vision, breaking out of stereotypes and constraints of the medium. Molnar-Szakacs describes the expanded creative palette that the filmmakers they work with are employing:

We talk about the use of metaphor, transcending set norms and revealing something about the world around us; whether it’s something like Hale County This Morning, This Evening, Strong Island, Cinema Travellers, Unrest, or Risk — it’s both the subject and the voice and artistry behind it that we are supporting. — Hajnal Molnar-Szakacs

More Impact

All of this growth is being fueled by the fact that non-fiction works are often inherently action-oriented. Tackling social and cultural issues (globally) creates its own gravitational force, pulling in everyone from philanthropists to politicians and from donors to makers. It’s not uncommon to see films being financially supported through crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Seed & Spark, and Slated. These are often issues people want to be involved with from the beginning, even if only as interested, impassioned and supporting patrons. The force of a community can be very strong.

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Still from “An Insignificant Man.” Directors: Khushboo Ranka, Vinay Shukla

The film An Insignificant Man, which follows an insurgent political party in India, faced government censorship until support from the community forced a landmark verdict that allowed the filmmakers to show their story in its entirety. Non-fiction projects don’t just have audiences, they have supporters. And they aren’t just stories, they are agents of change.

But none of this would be possible if the stories themselves weren’t effective in that change. Which they are.

Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988) showed us early on that a film could have an immediate impact on social justice issues. Today, Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War is credited with having made a direct impact on the military’s rape policies. Bag It influenced law makers to ban plastic bags. Open Heart had an affect on policy in Rwanda. Bully created a movement in schools. Making A Murderer released a man from jail and Jinx might put one in. And experiential projects are having real-world affects, too — Collisions, a VR film by Lynette Wallworth, is a standout project that has made a real difference in making people aware of an unknown history of an aboriginal Australians.

Where Does It Go From Here?

With so much wind at the back of non-fiction right now, the sky is the limit — but the following is where much of the discussion is focused:


Distribution in non-fiction has always been its greatest challenge, but that’s rapidly changing with the evolution of media. What used to be a linear path toward a one-week run at a movie theater (if you were lucky) is now a fairly creative suite of opportunities being lead by new players like HBO, Netflix, Apple, NY Times, and Amazon.

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Screen grab from NY Times Op-Docs main page.

Emerging Media

We are just beginning to understand the roles that AR, VR and AI will play in storytelling, but it’s clear those platforms are advancing every day, providing experiences that feel more and more real. And if the past predicts the future, it will be non-fiction that pulls us all forward. Already, VR experiences are bringing cultures together and revealing life in ailing parts of the country — not just to audiences, but to policy makers, too.

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VR Experience “Hero” brought participants directly to Syria at the Sundance Festival, 2018. Image courtesy Starbreeze Studios website.

Branded Content

Corporations are seeing the light, too, as marketing dollars shift to digital and social media — every company is becoming a content company. The roster of agencies for developing short-form content has broadened and embraced non-fiction up and down the chain, from the creatives who concept to the production companies who bring it to life.

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Ericsson’s “Capturing the Networked Society” 2015 documentary project

In 2015, Ericsson launched a 61-episode documentary web series called Capturing the Networked Society, which told stories across 25 different countries and covered a range of topics, from healthcare to transportation.

Unapologetically Involved

As described, all signs point to a more involved role for storytellers. Bing Liu’s decision to be both observer and subject of Minding The Gap is a genre-bending move that gives other storytellers a new way to bring meaning and creativity to their stories. In Cameraperson (2016), Kirsten Johnson, who spent most of her formative working days as a non-fiction cinematographer, turned her trove of footage into a memoir of her own creative journey even, at one point, literally turning her camera on herself.

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Still from “Cameraperson.” Directed by Kirsten Johnson.

Rise Of the Citizen Storyteller

We all have stories to tell. Today, the line between our daily lives and our ability to put it into watchable narratives is all but gone. Take the YouTube channel Ryan Is Driving, where a South Carolina cab and Uber driver records his conversations to the tune of 1 to 2 million views for his top videos. As one passenger says on camera, “There needs to be a documentary of the shit that goes on in Ubers.” And just like that, now there is.

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Still from a video on YouTube Channel, “Ryan is Driving.”

Yes, truth is stranger than fiction. But beyond that — as more talented artists and storytellers like these elevate the medium — it may turn out to be more compelling, too.

A deep dive into photography, with professional photographer, artist and director, Josh S. Rose. Top Writer: Photography and Creativity.

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