Skip to main content

The State of the Doc

By Chuck Workman

In the past decade, we've undergone a massive change in the world of the documentary. Fiction and nonfiction now live equally side by side in schools, despite the bright lights of Hollywood that glow so seductively there. The Oscar® nomination process seems finally reasonable and equitable, although we've all had favorite films left out, including our own. The creation of a Documentary Branch at the Academy is promising but hopefully will be watched closely for the incestuous problems that occurred in the past. The growth and good will of the IDA is simply staggering. But best of all, so much current nonfiction work is artful and imaginative and often important. But not most of it.

A study by neuroscientists suggests that the brain goes through moments of unexpected transport from time to time, such as in sports events or daily life or even in movies, where an unpredictable event and a delightful flash of discovery results in a little jolt of dopamine, which makes us subconsciously want to come back to that event, or one similar, in the hope of getting that jolt again—the sudden homerun, the twist in a news event, the delight in a piece of art that reveals something surprising and truthful in an unanticipated, but satisfying way.

There's not much dopamine flying around in the brains of much of the documentary audience these days. What we see on television—the major market, by far, for the documentary—has for the most part become predictable in subject and style: exploitative stories cloaked in popular history or superficial social issues; and a consistent style usually involving show-and-tell narration, cheesy recreations, pointed synthesized music, and even unnecessary speed changes. The viewer response is designed to be passive and unchallenged, and the people that program these elevator movies, these talking People Magazine articles, these electronic burgers and fries… they're happy to keep them just like that. Production brings no surprises. It’s cheap and easy to follow. Dramatic moments are underlined. The results are repeatable. Nobody gets upset. The channels make their money. Consequently, a lot of these shows are cropping up—and, happily, so is a lot of employment.

For documentary filmmakers, this increase in work is welcome and overdue: never before have so many people been able to make a living in the creation of nonfiction video and film programming. But there’s a danger if that's the only thing you do.

It's not just all those cable channels. The few remaining PBS anchor series, with a mandate from the top to make more user-friendly audience-building programs, now seem to be moving in the same direction, if the recent heavy-handed American Experience about Dillinger or the proliferation of Hollywood figures on American Masters is any indication. Of course, there are economic and funding reasons that make it logical to play it safe, and the keepers of these series seem to be trying to maintain high quality, but a lot of these shows are starting to remind us more of Biography than the great PBS heritage. Hopefully, this will change when funding loosens up, or maybe sooner, when the loyal PBS audience realizes it’s getting a lot of the same experiences on PBS as on A&E. For now, HBO and its sister network Cinemax are still willing to go out on a limb, as long as their sex shows help pay the bills. Arts channels such as Sundance and IFC also program good independent documentaries, but produce little of their own and can't pay much for the films they pick up.

Yet there has never – ever – been as rich and ripe a time for the nonfiction filmmaker as now. In the 20 years that the IDA has existed, even in the years since I was president, we all have learned that anyone can make a documentary, and that every documentary can be shot in some form of consumer video and cut on a home computer. We can make a movie—a real movie, short or long, about our relatives, our pets, our political outrages, colorful characters we run into, bowling, billiards, buffalo, Billy Bob Thornton. Who's stopping us, especially if we're already pros, at some level? The documentary is accessible to anyone with desire and energy and a few dollars that would have only been spent on something that might not fulfill and even change your life the way creating a good piece of art can.

What's created is often strong and subtle and personal, and probably why the filmmaker came into this profession in the first place. So, we can shoot their recreations, research the same stock footage shots they always want, put in those titles that identify Marlon Brando or Bill Clinton (i.e. “Bill Clinton, Former President" ), add that narration that says the same thing someone just said on camera, and, in that tried and true method of many artists, even live on that commercial work. But we can never forget our own work, that film or video only we want to do. It's so possible now. It may not make anyone as rich as a Biography mogul, but it could get some dopamine going. And, as so much has already changed over this decade, maybe some day, maybe in another ten years, the movie we know we want to make and the one they think they need will be the same.