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
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.
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.
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.
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.