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The inner power of a documentary

by Annet Beskers, &samhoud media

Documentary films are becoming increasingly more and more popular. Part of this burst in popularity is due to the Internet and the increasing number of platforms that stream documentaries. And it is not only the non-profit organizations that produce documentaries. Leading companies see they can make a difference with the production and distribution of documentary films. It is a possibility to truly connect with people.
What is the underlying power of a powerful documentary? What makes us shiver, laugh or struggle together with the main character(s)?

A powerful story
Making a good story, well researched and well told, goes a long way. Making it powerful is even harder for a documentary maker. Sheila Curran Bernard explains that the trust of the audience is key to the power of a documentary:

“Audiences trust documentaries, and that trust is key to a film’s power and relevance. Betray that trust – imply that important events happened in a way that they did not, select only those facts that support your essay, bend the facts in service of a more “dramatic” story – and you’ve undermined the form and your film.” [Documentary Story Telling; S.C. Bernard]

Credibility of a documentary is created by authenticity. It is important to keep it real, to show events as they ‘actually’ occurred and to create an atmosphere for people to open up. A documentary should be built on a sincere motivation, a sincere interest of the documentary maker in the subject.

But mainly a powerful story is in something unsettling or uncomfortable. It is in the unexpected. A powerful documentary offers an unexpected point of view on a familiar subject. That is why creating a documentary is an opportunity for leading companies. It is a possibility to give viewers a new insight in what they do and who they actually are. 

My personal favourites
When I watch a powerful documentary, I see life. Sometimes it’s terrible, sometimes terrific and sometimes it’s both at the same time.One of my favourites is the short documentary ‘The lift’ from filmmaker Marc Isaacs. It is a good example of a documentary in which people truly open up. The documentary is a portrait of life in a lift in a London tower. Marc Isaacs installed himself inside the lift for two months, ten hours each day. He would ride up and down with the residents, with his camera pointing at them. Sometimes he makes them nervous or suspicious. Sometimes he makes them laugh. Marc Isaacs is a good interviewer who gets people to open up and share their personal stories. To my opinion the result is a beautiful, moving short documentary.

2 3 1 The lift &samhoud media

Another short documentary I really enjoyed is ‘The runners’ from Matan Rochlitz & Ivo Gormley. This documentary is born from the idea that people might be more open if they were asked questions while running. Filmed from the back of a bicycle trailer the joggers are quizzed on a range of personal topics, from sex to religion to marriage and to mental health.

A director for me to admire, because he represents ‘the unexpected’, is Werner Herzog. He surprises the audience with ‘revealing’ images in his documentaries and films. One of my favourite documentaries from Werner Herzog is ‘Grizzly man’, in which he shows the life and death of amateur grizzly bear expert Timoty Treadwell. Werner Herzog is also well known for his film ‘La Boheme’, in which he takes opera into a whole new area.

Another director who really inspires me is Anna Odell. She produced and directed a pseudo-documentary called ‘The reunion’. In her pseudo-documentary she confronts her former classmates with their bullying behaviour. The pseudo-documentary offers an unexpected view on bullying. It’s confronting and powerful.

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