You probably think documentaries are boring. Even if you actually really like documentaries, this understood fact of society is probably always in the back of your head. If you watch a documentary, you feel like a boring person. If you suggest a documentary to friends for movie night, they tell you to go back to the Library of Congress. But, I mean, who doesn’t want to hang at the Library of Congress?
Maybe these things aren’t true for you! Maybe you have super cool friends who don’t mock your taste in media. But the cultural representation of documentaries is that they are dry, dull, boring pieces of media made for old people who don’t know they’re boring.
These are dirty lies, and I want to talk about why.
This stigma operates primarily on the assumption that facts are boring, that history is boring. Which is ridiculous. Improbably fascinating things happen everyday, and we love to hear about them. But a documentary is about more than presenting facts and history. A documentary is still a film, after all, and therefore a piece of art. A documentary takes facts and history and creates art. A film has the incredible privilege of being able to tell a story at the precise pace that an artist wants, revealing new information only when the artist feels it creates the most meaning for the audience, and for the film as a whole.
In some cases, documentaries can tell more interesting, engrossing stories than fictional films because real life doesn’t conform to tropes or scripts. A producer can’t change the ending of a documentary because what they are presenting must be the truth. It’s true what they say, that truth is stranger than fiction. This can be especially apparent in the world of film, with film after stale film ending the same way, going through the same motions. A documentary can be a breath of fresh air in this respect.
Now, I may be a bit biased towards documentaries. The first, and — full disclosure — only film that I created was a documentary. Not that I consider my own documentary to be inherently better than most fictional films! No. Quite the opposite. That would be gross and arrogant. And my film could be so much better.
Actually, the film that pushed me to write this post is a documentary called Searching for Sugar Man. We watched this film in my Intro to Film Studies class last week, and it was incredible. Not only was it one of the most impeccable documentary films I have ever seen, but it was also just a really cool story! It’s about this musician called Rodriguez who really blew up in South Africa after bombing in the States. I highly recommend it.
I had never heard of Rodriguez, never heard the story surrounding him, never heard his music, nothing. And because of this, the film was able to take this factual account of this man’s life and create drama. That’s what I love about documentaries. They present these stories no one’s ever heard, because they need to. The film would be boring if you knew what the outcome was.
Of course, there are many wonderful and very successful documentary films about events and people that everyone is well aware of, and they do what they do very well. But there’s just something special about a documentary that presents something new; that tells the story of someone forgotten or hidden from the cultural zeitgeist. It’s like that film takes you by the hand, looks you in the eye, and says, “You know what you’ve gotten yourself into, let’s go,” and then takes off running, your hand still clutched in its own. It’s a beautiful, exciting thing.
I hope my excited babbling has done the medium of documentary films justice. But most of all, I hope this post has inspired someone to watch a documentary. Just one. Pick one. There are tons on Netflix.
Go on, dive in. I promise you won’t be bored.
— Mike Egan, Film Blogger