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Looking Beyond 2020, Why Do Documentaries Matter to Democracy?

By Caty Borum Chattoo

From Grace Lee and Marjan Safinia's 'And She Could Be Next.' Courtesy of Grace Lee and Marjan Safinia

Three days after the 2020 US presidential election, the tide began to turn in Georgia. The potential for a historic blue flip from a solidly red Deep South stalwart revealed itself as vote tallies stacked up, steadily narrowing the gap.

Pundits and pollsters failed to predict the possibility for Georgia’s starring role in the most anxiously anticipated election in a generation, but filmmakers Grace Lee and Marjan Safinia were not surprised. Along with their crew—all women of color—they spent 2018 and 2019 in Georgia and around the country, documenting the painstaking, hopeful grassroots organizing work led for years by women of color like Stacey Abrams, Nse Ufot, Tania Unzueta Carrasco, and organizations including The New Georgia Project, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Mijente, and many others. Their independent documentary, And She Could Be Next, premiered earlier this year on PBS—well before cable news anchors pontificated about the outsized role of women of color in the election, many months before President-elect Joe Biden would accept his new job with a speech that proclaimed Black women as the backbone of American democracy.  

As I write in my new book, Story Movements: How Documentaries Empower People and Inspire Social Change, creative, cinematic independent documentaries have always served a unique function in our storytelling culture and democratic discourse, sitting somewhere between entertainment and journalism. Documentary makers take their cues not from news desk assignments or entertainment marketing agendas, but from stories bubbling from the ground up—within communities and movements. Then as now, documentary’s editorial independence is not only unique among media industries, but this authorial freedom is deeply revered among filmmakers.

This matters to us as audiences and participants in the public sphere, particularly when we consider the democratic value of seeing stories shaped by voices often neglected elsewhere in the media landscape—women, people of color, members of the disability community, LGBTQ+, undocumented immigrants.

With artistic freedom and a motivation for social progress, contemporary documentary storytelling is nimble and deep, forecasting local stories and serving as harbingers of looming realities—often months and years before dominant media narratives take hold. They shine a light on real people, shaped by artistic impulses that can capture our emotional selves and remind us of the limits of reducing every reality to an ideological binary. Social problems and issues are, after all, simply the stories of people trying to get by, and documentaries can act as a portal. Audiences view nonfiction films in the entertainment and news marketplace—on more outlets than ever before—but also in physical grassroots settings where community dialogue and organizing still take place: community centers, places of faith and worship, schools, libraries.

We should remember and take these civic functions seriously in a divisive moment when journalism is under pressure, as local news deserts increase with shocking rapidity, and as documentaries expand in the arena of big entertainment. Documentaries can help us see one another. They allow us to broaden or challenge our understanding of lived realities.

This is not new, despite the revolution of the evolving streaming media era. Documentaries are longstanding cultural canaries in the coal mine. The intimate vérité style of contemporary documentary came of age in the social movement upheaval of the 1960s, when lighter film gear left over from World War II allowed filmmakers and activists to tell stories they thought were missing from daily news. From within the Black Panthers, the women’s movement, and other efforts for liberation, documentary pioneers shared their work directly with communities, a tradition of grassroots distribution that continues today. The vérité style opened up possibilities for new storytellers to reflect reality in ways that felt intimate, authentic and voyeuristic, opening the marketplace through early PBS and later, commercial outlets like HBO.

Documentary filmmakers’ early civic motivations and unique vantage points remain intact. Years before uprisings erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s murder under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, award-winning independent documentary films like Crime + PunishmentThe Force and Whose Streets? took us deep inside local stories of racial injustice and police. The award-winning film Ernie & Joe introduced us to San Antonio police offers who work within a mental health model for policing, providing a portrait of possibility. With their intimacy—art and investigation—independent documentaries powerfully critique our societal wrongs, but they also reveal hope and civic imagination that is vital for progress and change.

Audiences are watching and talking about documentaries as never before—a heyday is clearly afoot. But independent documentaries are, and always have been, more than mere entertainment. They illuminate neglected realities and lives during periods of social justice activism and social uprisings. In a country that must now begin the work of coming together to shape a just, equitable future, they will play a critical democratic function. As we look for the leaders, strategists, thinkers, and artists who will imagine and lead the way forward—out of 2020 and beyond—we would be wise to include and support documentary storytellers. 


Caty Borum Chattoo is the author of Story Movements: How Documentaries Empower People and Inspire Social Change (Oxford University Press, 2020), and executive director of the Center for Media & Social Impact. In 2020, she was named to the inaugural DOC NYC New Documentary Leaders list.