I have loved great stories all my life, particularly feature films that whisk me away to another world, offering me the thrill of vicariously living a life completely different from my own, so that I become completely wrapped up in the protagonist’s adventure or experience. Gradually I have come to realize that, as much as I enjoy the escape into an unfamiliar world, I enjoy even more the insights I receive as I return to my everyday life. To be art, a film needs to be much more than a slick formula. Insights arise only when the movie, its world, and its characters feel real; when the film becomes a fearless exploration of the human experience. Today, many solid films offer the possibility of insight, but more and more I find that the big blockbusters are superficial formulas holding nothing or very little, meaning.
For me in the past, “documentary film” has been a synonym for words like ponderous, self-important, or boring—even when the documentary explored a topic I cared about. However, over the past few months, I have had the opportunity to view several documentaries. Although I still tend to choose feature films over documentaries, I was impressed with how accessible and compelling these documentaries were. If you, like me, have never been a fan of documentary films, here are three good reasons to give them a try.
1) Documentaries are more accessible. (It is way less likely that you’ll be bored.) The line between feature films and documentaries has blurred as prominent filmmakers go back and forth between the genres. Many more documentaries are being made than in the past, about so many more topics, and they can be found on many streaming platforms. In addition, reality TV’s sensationalized approach, used with restraint, has been somewhat adopted by many documentary filmmakers so that adds it entertainment, interest, and narrative movement. (There is a drawback here. Sometimes the accessible POV of the filmmaker becomes so dominant that it becomes the documentary’s agenda and the film loses any sense of objectivity or fair-handed approach to the film’s subject.) It's easy to find a documentary film about a topic you are interested in.
2) Truth is often more fascinating than fiction. A passion for authenticity and candor in our culture means that difficult questions and “searching behind the curtain” ensures that important questions or events are not ignored by filmmakers who in the past might have just overlooked what they saw as troublesome. The “behind the scenes” approach, the desire to be transparent and authentic—sometimes on the part of the subject, but almost always on the part of the filmmaker—leads to revealing the riveting human details that make a subject real and engaging.
3) Better than most “escape” movies, today’s documentaries often help us to understand another, to “walk a mile” in another’s shoes. In these days of information overload and divisiveness, where people routinely use media not so much to stay informed as to reinforce their own point of view, today’s documentaries are essential for becoming informed and engaged with the beautiful and tragic in today’s world, frequently focusing our attention on issues faced by other human beings that, in light of our shared humanity, we would be heartless to ignore. With their candid interviews and tiny cameras that can go anywhere, documentarians today offer us windows to a world that we would otherwise find unimaginable: entire generations of children growing up in the midst of war; the unbelievable risks that migrants face in seeking freedom; the loneliness of young people in today’s hook-up culture….
If you’re looking for a good documentary to start with, here are just a few suggestions from our PCMS reviewers:
The Dating Project
"A cultural avalanche of a film…. Besides being funny, engaging, and entertaining, the film presents a sobering reality of what a sexually free hook-up culture is doing to our youth today. It challenges all of us to help them see that relationships take time and work but it’s all so worth the effort!” -Review by Nancy Usselmann, FSP
Pope Francis: A Man of His Word
“New documentary from Oscar-nominated and award-winning director Wim Wenders is a cinematic pulpit for Pope Francis to share his deepest spiritual and moral concerns about the human family and the earth, our common home.” - Review by Rose Pacatte, FSP
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
An insightful and compelling biography of the ever-smiling Mr. Rogers who sought to minister to children onscreen at a time when slapstick and comic book violence dominated children’s television. -Check out Sr. Hosea Rupprecht’s review.
Feature photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash.