The Golden Age of the Documentary


I, too, took in buzzworthy documentary Blackfish last week. My esteemed colleague around these parts already said his piece about the film, and I agree with his assessment of it -- it completes the job it sets out to accomplish exactly without doing even a little bit more to be cinematic or compelling beyond its admittedly incredible subject matter. What interests me about Blackfish and a whole bunch of other documentaries (5 Broken Cameras, A Band Called Death, A Place at the Table, Searching for Sugar Man, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, The Queen of Versailles, etc.) that I've seen over the past year is the new space they seem to occupy in the broader film universe. That is to say documentaries seem to possess much more gravitational pull than they used to.

It's possible, I suppose, that that's a function of my rapidly growing film buffery more than anything else, but documentaries -- in great numbers, as opposed to just the ones with Michael Moore or Al Gore or Morgan Freeman narrating -- seem to occupy more of a place in the shared pop culture consciousness than they ever have. If you don't believe me, run down the list of Academy Award-nominated documentaries from, oh, say, 1990-2007 and compare the number of films you're familiar with in that range to the nominees from 2008 on.

So, yes, I do believe we are living in the golden age of the documentary. It makes perfect sense that that is, in fact, the case when you look at the particular circumstances of the film universe in which we currently reside.

High quality camera equipment is (relatively) cheaply available. With the right software and a moderate amount of training (and, of course, enough footage and a compelling subject), I could cut a really, really good film on the computer on which I'm currently typing. The hurdles you must clear to go from aspiring to actual filmmaker have either been removed or are dramatically lower than they were even 15 years ago. This, it would seem to me, would benefit documentarians more than anyone else, as the financial complications of making most other kinds of films (casting, costumes, special effects and so on) don't enter the frame when you replace a cast with real-world subjects.

Not only is it easier to make a film right now than it ever has been, it's also easier to find an audience. Forget about declining box office numbers and instead focus on Netflix and Video On Demand -- the environments where demand for and consumption of film is growing. If you have either or both, you know that, along with TV shows, it is documentaries that seem to dominate the landscape of these platforms. Sure, if you're Netflix, the acquisition cost of The Invisible War is a helluva lot lower than The Dark Knight Rises, but it feels a bit too circumspect of an explanation to simply point to price.

After all, it leaves the subscriber/viewer out of the equation entirely. And it seems to me that, surprise, surprise, we're actually willing to watch those documentaries -- a lot of them, in fact. It also seems that, as with music fans in the last 20 or 30 years, the tastes of your average movie fan in 2013 -- helped along by the feedback loop of exposure from sources like Netflix -- has grown exponentially more nuanced over the last half-decade or so.

Appetite and access. It's that simple. The people behind the next Blackfish should feel confident as they set about capturing their subjects. Film with enough passion and craftsmanship, and a burgeoning audience will find their way to you with relative ease.