Rise of the Docs

July 15, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

If you are a documentary lover, this is as close to heaven as it gets this side of a film festival. A few years ago, documentaries were few and far between. Even in art house theaters, only the occasional high profile effort like Hoop Dreams or Roger and Me would stay around for more than a week. In the last year or two, however, screens (especially in art houses) have become glutted by this form of motion picture. It probably started with Michael Moore's overhyped and not-all-that-good Fahrenheit 9/11 (which many, including me, would argue is more propeganda than documentary), but it didn't stop there. In 2004 and 2005 combined, more than a dozen high-profile documentaries will reach movie theaters, and some will even attain the lofty goal of playing in multiplexes. They include: Touching the Void, Supersize Me, Born into Brothels, Mad Hot Ballroom, Deep Blue, Enron, Inside Deep Throat, March of the Penguins, Murderball, My Date with Drew, and Grizzly Man.

Why the suddden influx of documentaries? Some might attribute it to the lack of non-fiction ideas, but that's too facile an answer. Sure, Hollywood is creatively bankrupt, but there are plenty of interesting and edgy motion pictures on the fringe. My personal belief is that there's a link to the so-called "Reality TV" genre. People are infatuated with watching non-scriped television. And documentaries, for the most part, are the cinematic equivalent.

Comparisons aren't as farfetched as they may seem. Movies like Supersize Me and My Date with Drew appeal to a "hip" kind of viewer - one who is more interested in being teased than educated. Enron offers a 60 Minutes-like investigation into corporate corruption. Mad Hot Ballroom and Murderball are sports (of sorts). And March of the Penguins and Deep Blue take the Discovery Channel/National Geographic route.

For the most part, theatrical documentaries are put together with greater care than their TV counterparts, but they may not have higher production values. An episode of The Amazing Race costs more than all of Born into Brothels. With documentaries, visuals are often beside the point (although not in the case of "nature" films). But, as with all movies - fiction or non-fiction - the material has to be involving.

The biggest problem for theaters running documentaries used to be how to get movie-goers into the seats. Mainstream viewers had two taboo words: "subtitles" and "documentary." Not too long ago, only adventurous film-lovers would dare either. Now, thanks at least in part to the popularity of television's sleaziest flavor of programming, people are no longer intimidated by the concept of a "reality motion picture."