Documentary Renaissance: The rise of the non-fiction genre

Documentary Renaissance: The rise of the non-fiction genre

After spending years portraying close friends, from drag queens to drug users, American artist Nan Goldin went on to lead one of the biggest campaigns in history against the Sackler family — owners of pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma. 

Now, her fight to hold the Sackler family accountable for the US opioid epidemic, following her own struggle with substance abuse after undergoing surgery, is movingly depicted in American filmmaker Laura Poitras' documentary ‘All the Beauty and the Bloodshed’, which recently won the Golden Lion Award at Venice Film Festival. 

‘All the Beauty and the Bloodshed’ was only the second documentary to clinch this prestigious award, after Gianfranco Rosi’s ‘Sacro GRA’ in 2013, which explored the lives of people living along Rome's ring road.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed - Laura Poitras Official clip [Venice]

The rise of documentary films

At the ceremony evening in Venice, Poitras, known for her 2014 Oscar-winning Edward Snowden documentary ‘Citizenfour’, said she was grateful to the festival for recognizing that “documentary is cinema.” 

A long-overdue recognition of documentaries as an art form, Poitras’ award-winning film reflects how non-fiction films have come a long way since the silent era’s ‘Nanook of the North’. 

Nanook of the North (1922) - Robert Flaherty - Original Silent Version

Arguably the first documentary to have ever been released, 100 years ago, Robert Flaherty’s ‘Nanook of the North’ documented the lives of the Canadian Inuit Eskimos and left a lasting legacy. It was released by Pathé Exchange, known for its newsreels, and its observational ethos inspired countless filmmakers over the years. 

While it is still fascinating to watch, documentaries have evolved since when, with directors today applying the tools of narrative cinema to documentaries. Dramatic story arcs and facts masterfully wrestled into stories can make documentaries even more thrilling, or moving, than drama. 

A popularity boom

While documentaries were once a niche and less appealing and entertaining than drama, in recent years they have seen a popularity boom. Figures released by the British Film Institute show that the number of documentaries produced in the UK each year has risen dramatically– from four in 2001, to over a hundred today.

Streaming platforms, like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, have contributed to this surge in popularity, as did the pandemic, which saw people turn to real-life films. 'Becoming', for instance, which was released in 2020, and is based on the life of Michelle Obama, exceeded expectations. So did Netflix’s partnership with Barack and Michelle Obama, with their film ‘American Factory’, a documentary about a culture clash between American and Chinese workers, winning an Oscar.

Becoming Official Trailer - Netflix

As Peter Hamilton, executive producer of PBS nature documentary ‘Season of the Osprey’, told Netflix: “The art form that really most captures the zeitgeist, that generates the most excitement today, is the documentary. With the rise of the [streaming] platforms, they’re available at a higher quality and [in] a more intensely entertaining way.

He added that platforms like Netflix play a crucial role because of the number of viewers they reach. 

In the past, the distribution mechanism for a documentary was that maybe it would play in art house movie theatres or be released on DVD or, at best, reach a cable TV platform,” he pointed out.

Character-led films

Character-led documentaries, especially those that focus on celebrities, from politicians to actors, are also attracting audiences more than ever before.

This year, for instance, we saw the life of Marilyn Monroe depicted in ‘The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes’, directed by Emma Cooper for Netflix. We also got an intimate glimpse into the life of the enigmatic actress-singer Jane Birkin in ‘Jane by Charlotte’, directed by her daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg. 

The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes Official Trailer - Netflix

This year’s Emmy Nominations have also reflected the growing appetite for biographical documentaries, with Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio’s ‘George Carlin’s American Dream’, Amy Poehler’s ‘Lucy and Desi’ and Andrew Rossi’s ‘The Andy Warhol Diaries’ all exploring the lives of prolific characters.

Lucy and Desi - Official Trailer - Prime Video

The absence of political and eco-themed documentaries in the category is not surprising given the current political and cultural climate,” Sheila Nevins, head of MTV Documentary Films, told Variety. “The world is very dark right now. There’s very little hope. We are desperate for lightness. So, it’s fitting that people that make you laugh like Judd and Amy are telling stories about famous people. It gives you a reason to wake up.


Credits for the Main photo: All the Beauty and the Bloodshed - Laura Poitras


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