We’re living in the era of the documentary film.
In 2000, documentaries comprised less than 5 percent of films per year. Today, such films comprise more than 20 percent of a year’s output, according to Harmony Institute, a nonprofit media analysis group.
At the close of 2018, The Playlist compiled the year’s 20 best documentaries. The article ends with honorable mentions — a list of 14 more films.
In the past, the public might be aware of one or two major documentaries in a given year. Now, thanks to more distribution channels, cable companies and streaming networks, we’re more likely to hear of many more and make time to view them.
Chatter about Best Documentary Feature Oscar nominees — and perceived snubs —- has gone beyond movie insiders. The nominees are “Of Fathers and Sons,” “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” “Minding the Gap,” “RBG” and “Free Solo.”
“Hale County” visits America’s “Black Belt” region of the South. The lives of three skateboarding teens is the focus of “Minding the Gap.” Talal Derki posed as a sympathetic journalist and was embedded for two years in Syria with a jihadist family while making “Of Fathers and Sons.”
IndieWire says the contest comes down to the final two: “RBG,” about popular Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; and “Free Solo.” Most media outlets favor the latter, which tracks Alex Honnold’s climb of Yosemite’s El Capitan without use of ropes, harnesses or safety equipment. (You can watch “Free Solo” on National Geographic TV beginning March 3. Check television listings for times.)
For each film, access aided creation and consumption. Equipment and sharing platforms are inexpensive and user-friendly, making it easier than ever for a small group of filmmakers to turn an idea into a movie.
Some religious leaders and theologians have known this for years, using cheap or borrowed tools to create nonfiction content that inspires and teaches.
One notable is the Rev. Dr. Cain Hope Felder, retired Howard University School of Divinity professor. In addition to teaching and scholarly writing, Felder used film to reach broader audiences.
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In the 1990s, he self-sponsored a film project, taking film and religion students to the Holy Land. The result was a documentary that explored archaeological, historical and linguistic evidence of a significant African presence in the Bible.
The Rev. Steven Anderson of Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Ariz., has used film in his work, too. With Paul Wittenberger, Anderson has made six films, including “The Book of Revelation.”
Their seventh film, “Beyond Jordan,” is scheduled for release this spring. The film explores conflicts in the Middle East.
In their own ways, these examples have been called controversial. Because films like these tend to focus on a specific perspective, there is a growing concern about conflating such films with journalism.
Joshua Oppenheimer, director of “The Look of Silence,” has suggested more care be taken with the label “documentary,” favoring the use of “nonfiction film.”
“The function of journalism is, primarily, to uncover vital new information in the public interest, and to put that information in a context so that we can use it to improve the human condition,” he wrote in a 2014 IndieWire article. “I feel the purpose of art is somewhat different. What makes art powerful is a flash of recognition, a frightening encounter with something familiar about the human condition.”
Aside from precise classification, research from Harmony Institute indicates that documentaries can inspire further research.
The project, StoryPilot, is an online platform that tracks the creation and impact of more than 500 social documentaries. To that end, the StoryPilot system tracks a film’s influence across several categories, including reach, network building, information seeking, amplification and policy.
The goal is to study how documentaries draw attention and potentially change people’s attitudes or behaviors about a social issue. For more information, go to StoryPilot.org.