As the decade draws to a close, many have struggled to figure out what to call it. The Aughties? The Naughties? The OhOh's? But in my mind it's pretty clear – the past 10 years have been the Decade of the Documentary (DocAde, anyone?).
When I first started working for the IDA and Documentary Magazine in 2001, I got a lot of interesting reactions. Those in the independent film community thought it was courageous that I had chosen to specialize in reporting on such a niche area of the entertainment industry. After all, at least indie films had the cool factor with Quentin Tarantino; sadly, the doc world had no Pulp Non-Fiction equivalent. My non-entertainment friends wondered what had inspired me to write about "boring PBS specials" for a living. And my parents were just confused as to why I kept interviewing directors of movies that never played in their hometown theater.
As the decade progressed, however, an amazing thing began to happen. Documentaries started to enter the mainstream consciousness as a result of several factors. With Bowling for Columbine (2002) and Farenheit 9/11 (2004), Michael Moore made nonfiction vibrant, relevant and controversial to a large, general audience. There was urgency to these films, a sense that you wanted to see them NOW. They were about current events that were affecting our lives at this very moment. Documentaries finally became water-cooler conversation. Plus, whether you love him or hate him, Moore's films actually made money, helping to encourage a model for the theatrically successful documentary.
Gorgeously shot wildlife films such as Jacques Perrin's Winged Migration (2002) pulled people into theaters to enjoy breathtaking cinematography that needed to be seen on the big screen to be fully appreciated. Luc Jacquet's March of the Penguins (2005) waddled its way into the public's hearts, inspiring jokes on late night television and the Oscars. It brought a new generation of doc lovers into theaters, as parents and children flocked to the family friendly doc. My folks finally got to go to the theater to see a movie about which I'd written.
Filmmakers such as Morgan Spurlock changed audiences' perceptions that all nonfiction films are dark and dreary and very, very serious. Taking a participatory page from Moore, Spurlock employed a light, comedic touch in his exploration of the way America eats, and forever changed the way we (no longer) order fries and a burger in Super Size Me (2004). He proved that entertainment and information can indeed be combined together into an appetizing cinematic meal.
On the flip side, over the last decade, we relied more than ever on documentaries to help us understand the world around us. Not only did nonfiction films become more popular, they also became more necessary. As the news turned into a string of sound bytes and investigative reports were shelved in favor of shows featuring screaming pundits, documentaries became one of the few sources of comprehensive, nuanced coverage. The expanded line-up of the cable universe meant there was more airtime for news, but also meant it needed to be produced faster and faster. In contrast, filmmakers working independently were able to take the time to dive more deeply into their subjects.
Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006) and Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's Trouble the Water (2008) brought the devastation of Hurricane Katrina to all of our neighborhoods. Complicated financial scandals and nebulous topics like the national debt were made comprehensible by films such as Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Alex Gibney, 2005) and Patrick Creadon's I.O.U.S.A. (2008). And in a decade during which we were at war most of the time, documentary filmmakers helped us understand the reasons behind military and political decisions, and the effects of the war on soldiers, victims, alleged criminals and those left at home. They also forced us to question the decisions made by our leaders and our own definitions of justice.
Throughout the decade, filmmakers pushed the boundaries of how to tell their stories. Bold experiments with animation, re-creation and photo manipulation added texture and variety to the visual language of nonfiction films. Yet even the traditional talking-head doc found a larger audience, dare I say it, due to reality TV. As evil as it may be at times, I do believe that reality programming helped to condition a new audience to accept cinema verite and talking heads as an acceptable form of entertainment.
New tools empowered storytelling from unexpected sources. Inexpensive digital cameras and advances in desktop editing systems brought filmmaking within reach of anyone willing to commit to taking a film from start to finish. The Cove (2009) took advantage of new camera technology to covertly capture the devastating story of dolphin slaughter in Japan. Advances in archival processes made it possible to take a new look back at historic journeys, such as the Apollo missions, chronicled in David Sington's In the Shadow of the Moon (2007). As the price of hard drive storage and tape went down, filmmakers could keep shooting until they felt they had enough material to shape a rich, dynamic story. Online tools made long-distance collaboration much easier, which can be important when settling into the extended post-production process nonfiction sometimes requires.
For all of the docs that made a splash on the big screen, hundreds more never saw the inside of a movie house other than their play on the festival circuit. Luckily, technology came to the rescue, bringing documentaries into the living room. All those docs I told my friends about? They could finally watch them on a cable channel or rent them through Netflix. Snag Films and Hulu now deliver full-length documentaries directly to your laptop. And big screen televisions and surround sound, while not a substitute for the theatrical experience, now make home viewing an exciting, comfy way to see films.
Social networking tools have made it possible to run a grassroots campaign and get a film into the hands of hungry audience members without the help of a traditional distributor. Word-of-mouth is still the most effective tool for getting butts into seats; Facebook and Twitter have changed the speed and reach of personal recommendations, amplifying them to the universe with the click of a mouse button. Robert Greenwald's activist films inspired many during the presidential campaigns of the last decade. Yet most were exposed to his films through friends who held "house parties" where they played Greenwald's docs. This is just one example of the many new forms of hybrid distribution, a frontier we're only beginning to explore.
As we transition from the Decade of the Documentary into the next Decade-To-Be-Named, I don't know where or how we'll be watching nonfiction. But the one thing I am sure of is that I will have company.
Tamara Krinsky is the Associate Editor of Documentary Magazine and Content Producer for Documentary.org.