Why Documentary Films Are So Important

Last week I attended the Sunnyside Documentary market in gorgeous, sunny La Rochelle, France. And though I am already a huge fan of documentary film, I came away after three days realizing how essential these works are to improving our world, our minds, out common future, than ever before. Although I found it difficult to believe, I read a report which stated that “…the average American viewer watches almost 35 hours of TV, plus 2 hours of time-shifted TV every week”! (from Television Business International-June/July 2010) And how much of that includes high-quality documentaries? What disturbs me is that the US was under-represented as a presence in the doc market as both buyers and sellers of content. At markets and festivals such as these that a kind of planned and unplanned/organic series of meetings ends up happening and new dialogues take place. The US needs to be part of that discussion, along with the rest of the world, especially as we watch so much television.

Once I picked myself up off the floor (where does one find 37 hours a week to do anything?! That’s over 5 hours a day!) I thought a lot about how the quality of what people are absorbing has so very much to do with the overall quality of our lives. In France people do watch TV, (though much less than in the US, TVs are becoming the central focus of many homes here too) but the quality of the programming here , and in Europe in general, also includes (and I am talking about “free” national non-cable channels) extremely high quality documentaries, fiction films often shown in their original languages with subtitles increasing people to learn foreign languages, and children’s educational programming (often with no commercials allowed). In other words, easy access to the kinds of things I had access to as a child back in the late 1960s and 1970s as a child in the US., via both Public Television and national broadcasters. Arts & Entertainment actually does mean exactly that. A&E in the US does not even refer to itself as Arts & Entertainment anymore, as it programs mostly Sopranos-type television.

The quality of the documentaries available in much of Europe (forget Italy — it’s not even worth turning on the TV) is relatively high. In France, investigative documentaries have a high rate of success and has not fallen into a kind of reality-tv format to trick viewers into watching. Docs focusing on serious subjects which affect all of our lives, attracting a large audience for subjects ranging from the disappearance of honeybees to the effects of Monsanto’s forceful presence and poison in our drinking water. As journalism has been hard hit, especially in the US, with many hundreds and thousands of salaried professionals losing their jobs, documentaries are filling a vacant space and supplying much needed information which not only keeps us informed but even allows us to organize and take action. Some of the best conversations I had included: discussing filmmakers who were down on the Gulf Coast two days after the oil spill started who were following and documenting what was going on and hearing from a filmmaker about the conclusion of the Agent Orange lawsuit some four decades following its use in Vietnam. What would we do without these dedicated people who are at times the only ones supplying in-depth information and providing historical evidence which can help us to avoid mistakes in the future and document a disappearing way of life (on that note see the fabulous documentary entitled Sweetwater which takes place in Montana)?

The founder and director of the Sunnyside of the Docs Market, Yves Jeanneau, is the real deal. He told me how this year was one during which there was a noticeable shift. The market seemed to be rediscovering its “roots” and the meetings and dialogues taking place focused on the reasons why one makes a documentary film in the first place. Jeanneau truly supports documentaries and filmmakers and has created a real exchange between those supplying vital content and the “decision-makers” or commissioning editors and broadcasters who have an ever increasingly subtle game of balance to maintain, between audience and the need to know, and at times between corporate interests and the Truth. Jeanneau’s choice of presenters and moderators included some of the most interesting and dedicated people in the business. But hearing tales of censorship from both funders and filmmakers was shocking. What is even worse is the increasing self-censorship which keeps filmmakers from touching on extremely pressing issues in real depth because they believe that no broadcaster will support their films, or even worse, because nobody cares.

The internet was once again a focus, and some of the new models mentioned were encouraging. A focus on making webdocs, and short docs for mobile phones also helped the crowd to look at how audiences in Asia and elsewhere are leapfrogging those of us in the West in terms of technology and information gathering. Protection of authors/creators’ rights was again a concern but there was also a more hopeful proactive tone which supported filmmakers doing more to directly market their films via the internet and making strategic partnerships with other sources and sponsors without losing integrity nor risking the integrity of the storytelling. Educational distribution was also a focus where the internet is concerned and most broadcasters here in Europe are making a strong effort to create content around issues linked to docs which includes outreach to their respective audiences who want to learn more.

Add to all this possibilities for attracting new audiences via 3-D possibilities, the increase in digital cinemas, the mix of serious subjects told through angles which reach out to a mass public viewership, and a renewed dedication to authenticity from commissioning editors and one was left with a kind of optimism which both accepts a reality in which funding may appear to be more difficult to find but in which the new models are beginning to show some light at the end of the tunnel. Audiences are hungry for documentary films — if we could just shift those 37 hours of viewing in the US to include more high-quality documentaries (and encourage the inclusion of more docs in programming and more funding for docs in general). Or, even better, invite people to turn off the TV and go out into the world and see it for themselves. Encouraging them to do so is the first step in making this world a better place and using these difficult times to create new paradigms. Long live the power of documentary films to change the world!

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