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The Power of Documentaries

By Edited Feb 4, 2016 1 2

A Mechanical Eye

I recall sitting in history class yawning and bored out of my mind during Remembrance week in November, watching impersonal grainy black and white war footage that was supposed to teach me something. I was too disconnected from it for it to mean much of anything other than making an hour seem really long. Yet, had they been playing a big budget, questionable storyline Hollywood blockbuster, they would have had my attention. 

As I have aged I find myself less interested in big budget Hollywood blockbusters. While watching some documentaries recently, I found myself - wiping tears from my eyes, yelling at the television or cheering them on from the couch. I never truly realized just how profound a documentary can be, even when it's something you can not easily connect with. 


So what is it about documentaries that had me riveted to the seat, crying, yelling and cheering. Why is it that Hollywood movies, more often than not, can not make the same connection with the viewer that a documentary can, when Hollywood pours millions of dollars and high-end technology into their projects? This got me thinking, what makes a documentary so emotionally powerful?

Before we explore what makes a documentary powerful, I need to define what a documentary is and what one is to me. Generally speaking adocumentary is based on facts and or actual events, the less fiction (or Hollywood) that is in the film the better. A how-to video on Youtube can be a documentary as can a deep analysis of a war. Documentaries report on the facts but stay objective while finding creative ways to present the factual information to their viewers. 

To me a documentary must be factual, in-depth and objective in presenting the story, not just the one side that you agree or disagree with. I want real people and not actors, focus on story and not on shock and awe graphics and finally I want to be affected by the documentary - whether that means tears, anger, a call to action or cheering. 

Follow me as I explore the documentaries that left an impression on me, made me think, inspired me and the ones that caused me to throw the remote at the television.

The Human Element

I remember these commercials that use to be on TV, a voice over would say:

For each of us there is a moment of discovery. In the flash of a synapse we learn that life is elemental. This knowledge changes everything. We see all things connected. The element not listed on the chart – is the missing element – the human element. And when we add it to the equation – the chemistry changes. Every reaction is different. The human element is the element of change. Nothing is more fundamental. Nothing more elemental.

As much as I enjoy animal based documentaries it is the human element that draws me into a documentary, it is the human in me that reaches out to other humans whether they are suffering, helping or inspiring. 

When I was studying to work in healthcare a class showed a documentary called Bevel Up. This unremarkable health documentary about nurses in Vancouver helping those who are prostitutes, drug addicts, mentally ill or homeless, reached out and moved my life in a direction I do not believe would have ever happened without it. Those in the documentary were stigmatized, ignored and abandoned by all around them. I found myself looking at a cushy hospital job and dreading it. Some where in my nursing education I forgot why I wanted to be a nurse. I was caught up in good paying jobs, benefits and security. I became a nurse to help people - this including drug addicts, mentally ill patients, prostitutes and the homeless. I forgot that and it took an honest and rather unremarkable documentary to remind me of that. 

Mechanical Eye
When stories that need telling involve human suffering and sensitive topics, it is incredibly difficult to tell the tale with respect, tact and sensitivity. To tell one that respects the person suffering, offers no judgements and has no agenda other than fascinated admiration for the person, is quite rare in the world of documentaries. Marwencol by Jeff Malmberg is one such story. It's a simple tale exploring the human mind as it heals from injuries modern medicine can no longer help. Yet is was also one of the most hypnotic, captivating and fascinating documentaries I have ever watched. 

I once tried to start a reading club, one that would have seen children, disabled and elderly reading to animals in a shelter. It of course went no where to many legal hurdles and medical obstacles, not to mention the amount of time needed to dedicate myself to it. The furthest I got with it was as the recipient of an ear to ear smile by a 89 year old man when he read his first ever book to me. I can understand Luis Soriano's weekly jaunt through the often times dangerous Colombian jungle in a bid to get books to children in remote villages. The challenges he faced and surmounted made my own look like a tiny anthill. Biblioburro is his story and it is a poignant and inspiring story to come out of a country plagued with violence. 

New Perspectives

I consider myself an open-minded person. One whom changes her mind, rolls with the punches and is not set in my ways or my views. But sometimes I find myself outside my expectations shuffling my mental compartments around as if it was a game of Tetris.

More often than not the source of these moments is something small, obvious and generally commonly known. Huge shifts within small concepts jolted my thinking and my perspective of things. Clearly, I am set in my ways. 

The documentaries Food Matters, Perfect Vagina and Rise of the Superbugs all share one thing in common, they jump started my thoughts and views on topics I was fairly certain I had all figured out. 

As a cardiac survivor I researched everything that had to do with living a healthy lifestyle. Armed with information from agencies such as Health Canada I considered myself aware of nutrition and foods and eating well. Food Matters forced me to look deeper into the food industry and to think more critically about the foods available at the various retail markets. Sure I was buying all fresh fruits and veggies - but where was it grown and in what kind of soil and why is any of that important? One documentary rendered my research useless and set me on a path I thought I was already on - an informed path. 

Eye in the Sky
Eating air popped popcorn with a notebook in hand I was ready to learn more about the new-ish concept of superbugs. Within five minutes of starting the documentary I stopped taking any notes and even stopped eating popcorn .... riveted to my seat watching a mostly invisible war between antibiotics and bacteria that we are losing. When it comes to medicine I trust the professionals I work with, their word is law and their understanding of medicine and medical issues is thorough and complete. I never questioned their words, decisions or plans. Rise of Superbugs had me questioning everything medical, people's motives, who benefited and who did not.

As a female, born and raised this way, I have to admit I knew nothing much of anything about my nether regions other than they worked great. I did not experience doubts, judgements or fears that it was not right looking or that it impeded my ability at being a social and outgoing woman. I honestly believed that they all looked the same on every woman. Surprisingly the Perfect Vagina is not the type of documentary I normally watch and yet found myself being drawn in just from watching as I passed by or made coffee. It hammered home how rarely women talk to each other about this particular body part and area. How devastating it was to personal successes in life to believe your vagina is ugly, built wrong or just not like the others. How is it possible that I have lived with one for more than 30 years, yet never spoke of it or heard other girls speak of it. This documentary broke a barrier I did not even know existed - socially and personally. 

Emotional Response

I have watched a large number of well done documentaries that had the human element and great story telling, yet for some reason, there was practically no response emotionally to the documentary. Some of these were emotion heavy documentaries about prisoners on death row, true crime stories with all the grisly details and atrocious animal abuse. Yet my emotional reaction, at best, is muted.

I've been inspired, shocked, educated and mesmerized by many a documentary but the Children of Darkness film made my head spin and my blood boil. Outraged at what I was seeing, disgusted even. Not at the staff nor even the residents of the hospital but at humanity in general. It touched a part of me that is not often fired up. I did not know what to do with myself ... who do I write, what organization do I join to protest, how do I help when I feel helpless? The entire presentation of the documentary was simple, truthful and plain, yet it evoked in me an emotional response that I still carry with me to this day and in my day to day. 

Emotional Outburst

When you delve into human nature long enough - whether you're writing grisly and gritty true crime, working with patients in a psyche ward or noticing how your spouse always leaves the milk bag empty the sadistic bugger, it is difficult to shock with tales of human behaviour. Particularly in today's day and age when torrid stories and graphic images are casually splayed across televisions and computers screens with some regularity. A co-worker of mine suggested I watch a film called Child of Rage after we discussed movies we enjoyed and I confessed to being a fan of psychological thrillers, she said it was mainly an interview with a little girl. I shrugged it off and went about my day the film didn't sound much like a psychological thriller. I couldn't have been more wrong. The bulk, if not all the film, focused on a cute looking 6 year old girl answering questions from a psychologist off-screen. There was no story line and no graphic imagery. Yet it was the most horrifying and disturbing documentary I have ever watched.

Remote Throwing

I must confess the documentaries that cause me to throw things are written or directed by film makers like Michael Moore. They are the kind that present one side of the story, the facts are badly researched and manipulated to suit the film makers stance and do not get me started on the bevy of logical fallacies employed by these types of film makers. 

To be fair - there is some debate about my actually tossing and embedding a remote in a television screen during one of Michael Moore's 'films'. The owner of the television states I emphatically threw it right at the image of Mr. Moore's face somewhere above the nose and between the eyes. I whole heartedly believe that I lost control of the remote when I emphatically waved my hands around yelling about logical fallacy and lies. In the interest of objectivity I leave who is guilty to my readers. 

There is no fast and easy equation when it comes to creating documentaries and films that move you to feel, think and act. I suspect that our reactions to some documentaries have little to do with the stories they tell or the people involved but rather where we are on life's journey. 

Feel free to share in comments your favourite documentary or the documentary that made you cry, rise up in action or cheer. 



Aug 28, 2014 1:34pm
1996's "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" is probably the best documentary I've ever seen. The 2000 sequel, "Revelations," was good, but not on the level of the first. 2012's "Paradise Lost: Purgatory" was almost as good as the first and accomplished the neat trick of combining 18 years' worth of storytelling into approximately two hours. This year's Roger Ebert documentary, "Life Itself," is a terrific film.
Aug 28, 2014 4:18pm
I think I seen the movie version of this story, did not realize they had a documentary out ... I will have to go get it. Thank you for the comment and the suggestion! I love hearing about new documentaries I haven't seen.
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  1. "Healthcare's Often Missing Element - The Human Element." Forbes. 23/08/2014 <Web >
  2. "Robert Zemeckis Direct Marwencol." Hollywood Reporter. 23/8/2014 <Web >
  3. "Marwencol." PBS: Independant Lens. 23/8/2014 <Web >
  4. "Documentary Movies." PBS: POV. 22/8/2014 <Web >

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