Think of the range of nonfiction material available in a bookstore. There are magazines aimed at special interests and ages. There are manuals with instructions for building furniture or running software. Some nonfiction books are created quickly to meet timesensitive market interest. Others take years to research and craft. One book on a topic might be heavily illustrated and superficial; another, on the same topic, might be a Pulitzer Prize-winner with a gripping narrative that appeals to even the general reader.
This same kind of variety exists in the world of nonfiction media. The crowded schedule of televised "reality" programs includes how-to shows, game shows, and shows involving manufactured social experiments (such as contestants living in isolation or temporarily swapping homes or even spouses). Camera crews travel with bounty hunters, police officers, and animal rescue personnel. Stories of predators and prey, autopsies, haunted houses, deadly weather, and celebrities may intrigue viewers, but often offer little in the way of substance. And certainly, there are programs interspersed in these schedules that satisfy Barnouw's definition of documentary, although they vary widely when it comes to artistry, depth, or import.
At their best, documentaries should do more than help viewers pass the time; they should demand their active engagement, challenging them to think about what they know, how they know it, and what more they might want to learn. A good documentary confounds our expectations, pushes boundaries, and takes us into worlds—both literal worlds and worlds of ideas—that we did not anticipate entering. To do this, they generally must grab us first by playing on our very basic desire for a good story well told. When the audience is caught up in a life-and-death struggle for a union (Harlan County, U.S.A.), in Mick Jagger's futile efforts to calm the crowd at a free Rolling Stones concert (Gimme Shelter), or in the story of a family's rift over whether or not a deaf child should be given a chance to hear (Sound and Fury), there is nothing as powerful as a documentary. Some documentaries have surprising impact. Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher learned that their film, Troublesome Creek, about the efforts of Jordan's parents to save their Iowa farm from foreclosure, had influenced farming policy in Australia; Jon Else's Cadillac Desert, the story of water and the transformation of nature in the American West, was screened to inform policy makers on Capitol Hill.
Whether they entertain, inform, or both, documentaries matter. Nick Fraser, commissioning editor for the BBC's Storyville, compares the best of today's documentaries to the New Journalism that emerged in the United States in the 1960s. "As a journalistic premise, the idea that someone did the reporting took root in these years," he wrote in an article published in Critical Quarterly (and discusses further in Chapter 20 of this book). "By making it possible for individual voices to exist, the New Journalism countered the growing power of corporate expression."
Was this article helpful?