If January 2019 proves anything, it’s that there truly is no dry season in Hollywood. Even though the year is just over one month old, we already have our Oscar nominees; Steve Carell reuniting with The Office creator Greg Daniels for the upcoming Netflix show Space Force (for which he is reportedly getting paid a hefty US$1 million per episode), and the first promotion for the sequel to the much-loved Zombieland (which essentially confirms that Jesse Eisenberg indeed does not age).
To say all of this passed you by wouldn’t be surprising; especially if you too were ‘hustled, scammed, bamboozled, hood winked, lead astray!!!’ like 2000s rapper Ja Rule, or forced by Marie Kondo to rid yourself of everything that makes you unhappy (looking at you, HECS), or even completely enamoured by the charm of a man who killed 30 people and was later portrayed by Zac Efron. Indeed, there isn’t too much connecting Fyre: The Party That Never Happened, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo and Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. Frankly, I’m sort of glad there isn’t. What I am glad of, though, is that people are starting to take more interest in the genre of documentary.
Now don’t get me wrong, documentaries have always been somewhat popular. Whether it be documentaries that don’t hide their classification as one, such as Al Gore’s An Incovenient Truth, or behind-the-scenes-type specials that get the viewer up close and personal with entertainment stars (of which the list is endless), documentaries have been thriving for years. One could even argue that if a film or television show is based on a true story, such as Narcos or The People versus OJ Simpson, then that constitutes something of a documentary too. In some way, shape or form, the documentary genre has never fully died out.
Yet, there’s something starkly different about the documentaries which have taken off in 2019; they try their very best not to embellish or influence the stories they tell. Many of the individuals interviewed or otherwise on camera aren’t paid actors telling a story off a script. There is an element of reality to them where even the best filmmakers couldn’t capture, and that reality draws audiences in, keeps them entertained, and (most importantly) begins a journey into other documentaries themselves.
Proving this element of reality is simple. For example, no one would think of donating to an actress that portrayed Maryann Rolle, a chef at Exuma Point Resort in the Bahamas, who was forced to pay her staff using $50,000 of her own savings after Fyre Festival organisers never did so themselves. But donating to the real Maryann Rolle? Over $200,000 from over 8,000 contributors, thanks to a GoFundMe page. Sure, people may know of the struggles the African-American community undergo because Kendrick Lamar or J. Cole happen to rap about them; but when Killer Mike turns a 3-minute song into six 25-minute episodes, it gets to the forefront of Netflix’s trending lists. Log in to any streaming service’s homepage, and anyone can see this reality.
What this reality (‘this’ clarifying the line between truth and fiction in favour of the former) reveals is that we are becoming more and more engrossed in hard-line documentaries themselves. Aside from the fact that we are curious and inquisitive animals by our very nature, it is also partly due to the variety of documentaries that are out there. God, forgive me for the blasphemy I am about to commit; but every sitcom has a viewing limit. There’s only so many times one can watch the same few shows without picking up similarities in jokes, ‘coincidences’ in plot lines or characters, and the natural decline such shows face as they reach an ungodly number of seasons, episodes, actors, directors, and writers. Documentaries simultaneously manage to avoid and conform to this at the same time; they explore different subject matter, but subject matter we all have some prior knowledge of, which puts them in a rare position of being relatable, but not boring.
And even if they do get boring, there is just so many easily available pieces out there that our other interests are immediately piqued. Nowadays, one can go from filling our football addiction with Sunderland Till I Die on Netflix, to watching Ashley Bell’s rescue of a 70-year-old captive Asian elephant in Love & Bananas on Stan; or food critic Jonathan Gold’s (arguably simpler) journey across LA’s food scene on Hulu’s City of Gold. My own personal Netflix page varies from Conor McGregor’s Notorious to Jerry Before Seinfeld to quite simply DOGS – there really is something for everyone.
Ladies and gentlemen, if film and television in 2019 has proven anything to us, it is that this year is the year of the documentary. With documentaries to be released focusing on everything from the life and times of the late Brazilian F1 driver Ayrton Senna, to the story of three identical siblings separated at birth, and even an original take on just how bad allegedly ‘healthy’ food actually is, among countless others that a simple Google search can’t find, this year will be dedicated to the art of documentary.