Over the past year, I've watched a ton of documentaries. From short online documentaries from platforms like The New York Times Op-Docs and Field of Vision to feature-length documentaries like Searching for Sugarman, 42 Grams, Abacus to the new trend of Netflix docu-mini series like Making A Murderer, The Confession Tapes, Chef's Table and Wild Wild Country. And of course, so many more.
on set in Laos
I've been watching a ton of documentaries as a form of research for my documentary, This Little Land of Mines. I'll have a notebook in hand and take notes of things I liked...
"J-cuts made that scene linger"
"Well placed silence is more powerful than music"
"Slow character introductions are key"
"Give the audience context, but don't hold their hand"
...and things I didn't like...
"I don't care about this character"
"Why are they spending so much time on this detail?"
"I already know what's going to happen, why am I watching this?"
"This score sucks"
"This could really use some color correction."
"How is this relevant or interesting?"
Yes, a lot of my notes are personal preferences, but good storytelling is good storytelling.
I've always thought there were a million different styles of documentaries and different people watched them for different reasons.
However, this week I discovered something interesting. I watch a lot of Netflix documentaries, and they are extremely easy to turn off. If I get bored I'll turn it off within the first 10 mins - maybe I'll go back to it, but I'm not alone in this. This is a streaming-documentary-watching-audiences world now, and as filmmakers (and marketers) we need to adjust to this reality. This made me realize something: I think there are only two reasons anyone watches a documentary when you get down to it.
Suspense vs. Information
After psychoanalyzing myself for over a year, I realized the only reason I don't turn off a documentary is either because I want to see what's going to happen OR I want to know the information it has to offer in order to be more educated about an issue. For example:
Suspense: Searching for Sugarman, Grizzly Man, The Look of Silence, Man on Wire, Hoop Dreams, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, 42 Grams, etc.
Information: Food, Inc., Take Your Pills, Fed Up, An Inconvenient Truth, Before The Flood, 13th, Gasland, The Hunting Ground, Thin Blue Line, etc.
A rare combination: CitizenFour, Heroin(e), Blackfish, Supersize Me, Virunga
I know what you're thinking: "you can't just categorize them like that, it's not that simple". Sure, okay, yeah, but just do me a favor. Next time you watch a documentary try observing your intention. Become aware of your interest (or lack thereof). I guarantee you, your interest will stem from suspense (Wild Wild Country - what's going to happen to the cult?) or potential information (Fed Up - tell me why sugar is the new cocaine).
A CASE STUDY
Last night I decided to watch Abacus: Small Enough to Jail since it won the academy award for best feature documentary. After about 20 minutes, I switched to a different program on Netflix. Don't get me wrong, Abacus is a good documentary - great, important subject and made well. And honestly, I'll probably go back and finish it tonight. BUT the important thing to observe is that I turned it off because a.) the suspense wasn't there and b.) the information was a subject I didn't care about. I probably should since it's about the injustice of the United States' legal system's during the second greatest recession in our country's history - but I don't. In the first scene, you pretty much know what this story is about so there's little suspense. However, the characters were lovable and intriguing, so I suppose there's a little suspense there, hence the reason why I'll probably go back to it.
As I look at my own documentary, This Little Land of Mines, I see lots of things. My target audience is American, specifically young adults who grew up learning about the Vietnam War as a historical issue (educated millennials). My documentary has suspense (how did this happen? what is this story? why didn't I know? how will they ever blow up 80 million bombs?) and information (the United States covertly bombed Laos more heavily per capita than any country in history - and there's a lot more).
But, it's not a social documentary. I have carefully chosen 10 powerful statistics to include, but it's not exploring the greater issue of unexploded ordnance worldwide (even though that would be a great documentary). And it's not completely suspense, because it doesn't have a "gotcha" plot twist. But overall, it relies on emotional stories to convey information. For this reason, I'd put it in the information category even though it isn't some high-budget social documentary with scholarly talking heads and charts. I believe, the psychological primary reason people will watch this documentary is that it's offering shocking information through an emotional experience. After the first 10 minutes, viewers will be curious about what more they didn't know.
Maybe I just took more psychology classes than I needed to in college - but doing this exercise helped me when it came to my assembly cut. Understanding the psychological reasons why my documentary is interesting from an almost scientific standpoint was important. I also discovered "relevance" and "inherent interest" - but that conversation is for another time.
Thanks for reading my ramblings - let me know if you try this experiment with your own project.