Documentary film as a medium has grown from strength to strength over the last decade or so. In fact, many documentarians have said that this is the golden age of documentary filmmaking, and the numbers certainly seem to support this. Out of the more than 800 feature films released theatrically in the US in 2011, more than 300 were documentaries.
However, the general public seems unaware of this, thanks partly to the limited publicity given to this art form. Documentaries and non-fiction films in general do not garner as much publicity as fiction films. In fact, few people know that there is an alternative to the Oscars for documentary films, known as the Cinema Eye Honors.
In spite of this, documentaries have continued to grow. This can be attributed to increased democratization in the industry as well as easy access to a means of production. These days, anybody can tell his or her story. With the recent advancements in technology, it is easy to make a film and broadcast it to a ready audience via the internet. Although this is a good thing, it has given rise to a new challenge – the glut of projects has made it harder for meaningful ones to stand out and get noticed.
Regardless of this, documentary filmmakers have still managed to do what they love most. They have given the world a number of outstanding productions, some of which have inspired intense debate among film fans. Take for instance a documentary such as The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer in 2012. The director challenges a group of former Indonesian death-squad leaders to reenact their mass killings as they are recorded. The film provides a unique insight into the mind of a mass killer.
Another good example is the 2013 documentary Blackfish. This film outlines the story of a killer whale from its capture in the wild to its deadly despair in a tank at SeaWorld. This particular documentary caused such an uproar that the SeaWorld brand suffered irreparable losses, leading to a fall in shares and the eventual resignation of the CEO.
Other than being respected works in their own right, the documentaries above helped to start discussion on issues affecting certain sections of society. They achieved their aim and helped bring about meaningful changes. Such is the power of documentaries. In fact, they can be so influential that renowned documentary makers such as Michael Moore have gone on to become major influences on the political landscape.
Even small production companies can make a name for themselves by producing work that causes people to question how they live. The recent WikiLeaks documentary, We Steal Secrets, produced by CEO Marc Shmuger in 2013, is proof of this. One does not need a huge budget to create a documentary that effects change. You can simply use what is on hand, keep telling your story despite the challenges you encounter and at some point, someone will listen.
Perhaps that is the hidden beauty of documentary films: the ability to tell true, meaningful stories to the masses who are fed up with processed news and are hungry for a sense of reality and a dose of the truth.