In 2004, I wrote one of the most personally depressing stories I ever reported after interviewing documentary filmmaker Orlando Bagwell in what was then the Harlem office of his Roja Productions company.
Bagwell, who had just debuted a brilliant documentary on Martin Luther King, “Citizen King,” said he was shuttering his office to take a job at the Ford Foundation. The job was an important one in which he would direct foundation money to documentary filmmakers, but we talked long into a cold, winter’s afternoon about what a struggle it had become to make documentaries in America.
Fifteen years later, what a different world it is for documentary filmmakers and fans of the genre. New documentaries and the TV-friendly form of the genre, documentary series, are premiering somewhere on the TV or streaming landscape almost every night it seems. And they are doing so in some of the best places: HBO, Netflix and Showtime.
Last Sunday, “Leaving Neverland,” the story of two men who recount being sexually abused as children by Michael Jackson, debuted on HBO and triggered conversations from CBS to CNN and all the major social media platforms in between.
This Sunday, the premium channel launches a four-part documentary series, “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” revisiting and updating the 1999 murder of a Baltimore County teenager, Hae Min Lee, and her ex-boyfriend, Syed, who remains in a Maryland prison after being convicted of the crime.
Furthermore, it has been a sustained surge in the genre, which might be the best news of all in that it looks like documentaries have found a relatively safe space in the new media ecosystem — if there is such a thing in these revolutionary media times.
I date the start of the current surge in the U.S. to 2015 and documentary series like “The Jinx,” about the strange life of real estate heir and suspected murderer Robert Durst, as well as more traditional documentary films like Liz Garbus’ stirring look at musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone, “What Happened, Miss Simone?”
Documentary series have been coming hot and heavy since.
In 2016, “O.J.: Made in America.” In 2017, “The Keepers,” about the sexual abuse of Catholic school children and the mysterious death of a nun in Baltimore. In 2018, “The Fourth Estate,” a backstage look at how the New York Times has been trying to cover the presidency of Donald Trump.
The range of channels and streaming platforms is suggested by the Simpson documentary having debuted on ESPN, while Netflix delivered “The Keepers” and Showtime “The Fourth Estate.” People are still talking about the “Surviving R. Kelly” documentary that debuted in January on Lifetime. Gayle King’s interview with Kelly on “CBS This Morning” Wednesday, which referenced allegations in the Lifetime production, generated so much buzz that CBS repackaged it for prime time Friday night.
PBS, which has long been a home to some of the highest quality documentaries from filmmakers like Bagwell and Ken Burns, has received a shot of adrenaline with Frontline’s exceptional work in the last two years, including examinations of Facebook, immigration and white supremacists.
Meanwhile, such long-running PBS franchises as Independent Lens and P.O.V. continue with documentaries like “Charm City,” a look at law enforcement officials, community groups and residents working in some of Baltimore’s most beleaguered neighborhoods in post-Freddie-Gray Baltimore. Directed by Marilyn Ness, the film will air on PBS April 22.
John Benam, a Baltimore filmmaker who worked as director of photography on “The Keepers” and co-director photography on “Charm City,” is a beneficiary of the demand for documentaries. The Emmy Award winning cinematographer is heading off to Asia to work on one film for the next two months, while in the process of directing another about Baltimore’s “Rocket to Venus” restaurant.
Benam sees both economic and sociological reasons for the growth in non-fiction storytelling on TV and streaming platforms.
“Documentaries have had the challenge of being perceived as boring or dull in the past. Now they are engaging and full of discovery,” he wrote in an email.
“Particularly the true crime documentaries or series. Film crews (directors and producers) are essentially becoming detectives and so as a viewer, you join their team and investigate the story right alongside of them. It's almost like an immersion quest,” he added.
That certainly happened to some extent on social media with the podcast, “Serial,” which explored the murder of Lee and conviction of Syed, as listeners became citizen researchers, detectives and analysts.
“The long answer is that premium channels are buying these docs up, or commissioning their own original ones, and trying to create a content landscape for their particular channel going forward,” according to Benam. “What I think is happening is that a lot of outlets are looking for non-fiction material, and docs fit the mold perfectly. … They are cost efficient and you can produce more documentary content with one pile of cash than you can feature-length narrative films.”
With commercial media, the answer is always part money. But it is also usually part culture.
“I'm feeling like the popularity of docs can also be directly connected to the political environment and how facts, truth and justice have come under fire,” Benam wrote. “To keep the political establishment honest, doc filmmakers have dug up subjects and material across all spectrums, and in doing so, have found true stories that regular people are yearning for. Maybe it's a backlash from fake reality shows of old. Or maybe it's a reaction to the "alternative facts" narrative. … But it's working, especially if the premium channels can turn it into a docu series.”
Issues of identity, diversity and representation are also part of the equation, in Benam’s view.
“Lastly, I think folks in the industry (narrative and docs) are finally getting used to, and embracing, the idea that ‘representation matters.’ Docs are exactly the kind of place that people can see their story portrayed with truth and meaning. Feature films seem to have a longer learning curve in this regard, but docs have a way of cutting through the BS and giving it to you as it is. There is power in that, and you suddenly have a documentary series that creates real social change and moves people to action. It's amazing to see.”
Baltimore filmmaker Richard Chisolm has been working in non-fiction film for three decades with a Peabody Award and national Emmy for his work on documentaries like “Hopkins 24/7,” a backstage series about life at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He is currently starting work on a film about a Vietnam veteran, Frank Romeo, who at age 70 is on a hike across New York State as part of a lifetime effort of raising awareness about PTSD and military veterans. Meanwhile, Chisolm is submitting a recently completed film, “Gun Show,” done with Maryland sculptor David Hess, to film festivals.
While Chisolm acknowledges the current rise in documentary series and platforms for them as places like Netflix and Showtime as a good thing in some ways, he also sees a downside for smaller independent filmmakers working in the more traditional documentary tradition. He also sees a gatekeeping system firmly in place that still favors celebrity and sensational content over more socially conscious productions.
“Yes, there are more documentaries being made now. And, yes, there are more documentaries available to view now. And so, that’s a truth. But there’s a sort of truer truth beneath that,” Chisolm said.
“Even though there are a lot of channels, there are not that many places for certain kinds of documentaries. In terms of social issue documentaries or documentaries about other countries, television still is a horrendous gatekeeper. They don’t like single shows. They like series. So, if you’re making a single film about a really important topic or whatever, you’re pretty much screwed,” he explained.
Chisolm is right about corporate TV and the streaming services ultimately shaping every form of content to their own commercial ends. Documentary series are favored because they are more cost-efficient: The more episodes you make, the more your initial costs are amortized. For all the outstanding socially-conscious non-fiction works that Sheila Nevins brought to the public during her long run in charge of documentaries at HBO, she would not have had that kind of tenure without making money for the premium channel before leaving in in 2018.
While public television has a different model and agenda, Chisolm says it’s more competitive and harder than ever for less widely known filmmakers to find a slot for their films under the P.O.V. or Independent Lens umbrellas.
The Michael Jackson and R. Kelly documentaries illustrate Chisolm’s contention about the medium. Would those stories have been told if they did not involve celebrities and alleged crimes, two content categories TV can’t get enough of? And what stories about non-celebrities and marginalized communities are not being told because they don’t have that kind of commercial appeal?
Still, as someone who believes he has learned as much from documentaries as he has all the years spent in graduate school classrooms, I welcome the rising tide of non-fiction filmmaking washing across our screens.
Socially-committed, honest documentary films do the same work great newspapers and digital platforms do in bringing accurate information and uncompromising truths to their audiences.
Benam is right about the “political environment” in which we live contributing to the rise in documentaries. They are another way in which we, the people, can counter the disinformation and lies coming from so many of our elected leaders.