In a so-called post-truth age documentaries have never been more important, as film-makers coax out new ways to inform and educate as well as entertain. And they have never been more popular.
Take Making a Murderer, the utterly compelling, adrenalised, immersive true crime story that became the TV phenomenon of 2016. It utilised all the long-form storytelling skills of the current golden age of drama, ending with as many questions for us as viewers as for the law enforcement officers of Manitowoc County and Wisconsin’s judiciary system. Why were we watching – were we complicit in a form of misery porn or active in a project shining a light on failings in the US justice system? These questions are picked up in new Netflix doc Casting JonBenet, which looks to repeat Making a Murderer’s success, before that show’s second season airs later this year.
New technology enables cameras to get where they never could before, which doesn’t only help David Attenborough in the natural history sphere, but enabled Exodus on BBC2 to tell real-life refugee stories, filmed on mobile phones from Syria right across Europe. Their next project is Breadline, where they aim to help people who rely on foodbanks to record their own stories.
I grew up watching Hollywood films and there was not one single film where I could see my story
While hard-hitting political and activist documentaries have long had a strong history at the Oscars, Michael Moore’s crossover into the mainstream seemed like an anomaly. Now, factual films are big box office. OJ: Made in America won this year’s award, with its stunning portrait of the rise, murder trial and fall of a sporting hero through the lens of race relations in LA. Also nominated was Raoul Peck’s uncompromising I Am Not Your Negro (pictured above), using the words and works of playwright and essayist James Baldwin to present uncomfortable truths about race in the US.
“I grew up watching Hollywood films and there was not one single film where I could see my story,” says Peck. “And when I was a young man, there were not many writers you could read and think: this is my story, this is my narrative. Baldwin did it not only from the point of view of the black man, or the black gay man, he did it from a very humanistic point of view.
“He wrote 60 years ago about moral monsters and today it is even more impactful,” he continues. “We live in a world of images and suddenly started to see images of the reality of young black men and girls being killed by the police. But it is nothing new. In the film there are at least three pictures when you see Malcolm X or Martin Luther King or Medgar Evers holding a sign saying ‘End Police Brutality’.
“The new thing is that now we can see it. You cannot hide the truth any more, and if you do, you will really be a moral monster. We’ve lost the complexity of the world. We became lazy in the western world. I call it an intellectual gentrification process – we need to go back to the fundamentals, to a wider analysis to see how this world functions.”
Rashida Jones, better known for acting in Parks and Recreation and The Social Network, is one of the directors and co-producers of new Netflix docu-series Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On, exploring the increasing impact of technology on our sex lives and relationships.
Around 70 per cent of broadband is used for porn but people can’t talk about it
“I read that one person is now documented in a day more than somebody 100 years ago was in their entire life,” Jones says. “It is crazy.”
She is talking about how intimacy and privacy could become almost alien concepts for younger generations, who have shared their entire existence online. But she could just as easily be talking about the resurgence of documentary making. “People love entertainment, as was proved by who was elected President of the US,” she adds. “And we tend to get a lot of our information from television and the movies. Our priority is to make sure we give as much information about the characters in our films and leave it up to the audience to decide how to feel.
“There is a weird paradox where privately everyone is obsessed with sex, but publicly we still consider ourselves a puritanical nation. Around 70 per cent of broadband is used for porn but people can’t talk about it, there is no intellectual, academic or public debate about it – so how is it going to get any better?”
Maybe there is hope that we might find some promised land beyond post-truth, and the popularity of documentaries might get us there. “I think the inherent nature of documentary film-making is that it is educational,” Jones says. “There is a huge responsibility to present the facts in a balanced way and make sure the truth is key.”
I Am Not Your Negro is in cinemas now; Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On is out now on Netflix