Growing up documentaries were always something you had to watch in school. They were usually pretty dry like they were trying to make sure we didn’t actually enjoy watching it. At that time the only television outlet I would’ve associated with documentaries was PBS. Then along came Animal Plant, National Geographic, and HBO, among others. While the documentary became more popular, including shows like 48 Hours, their viewing base remained rather set. I’ll be honest, when my family first got Netflix it sure wasn’t to watch documentaries. But that’s begun to change. Our first foray into Netflix’s world of documentaries was Sick, Fat, and Nearly Dead followed by Forks Over Knives. I was pleasantly surprised by their content and quality. And so, I added another genre to my Netflix addiction. In “Netflix and the Documentary Boom” Sudeep Sharma suggests that while Netflix’s move to acquire and fund documentaries looks, and often is, a great thing for many independent documentary filmmakers it isn’t all roses. Sharma examines the downside including a focus on marketable formats and content while leaving out more artistic documentaries and those with a more narrow audience for their content. I can see some validity in Sharma’s point of view. The documentaries showcased on Netflix tend to have wide commercial appeal, providing entertainment and/or providing relevant content for current interests or issues. Sharma uses the analogy of Netflix being more of a newsstand, rather than a library. And I would have to agree. If there isn’t a wide enough base that a documentary appeals to I don’t think Netflix would be interested. I also think that is okay. Like so many things in our society Netflix, along with its content, has its place. For those looking for more of a library type of streaming service Kanopy provides what most of them are looking for. While Netflix may not provide a platform for the more nuanced and artistic documentaries it does a great job of bringing more mainstream documentaries to a larger audience that may not seek out a service like Kanopy. It can be a great opportunity for indie documentary filmmakers to get their projects the exposure necessary to continue doing what they love. More importantly, Netflix provides a gateway for those who haven’t been documentary watchers to try something new.
One of the hit documentaries currently on Netflix is 13th. This feature-length documentary examines the establishment and impact of the United State’s 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The shifts between on-screen narratives, historical footage, off-screen narration, and such keep the viewer’s attention. It is clearly a well-funded documentary examining a hot issue in our country. While it’s focus is on how the 13th Amendment laid the groundwork for our countries current system of mass incarceration of people, particularly men, of color it does offer varying points of view. 13th has an obvious appeal for those looking to learn more about mass incarceration, and could also be used as an educational tool for a wider audience because it provides commentary from all sides of the issue. It provides a good example of the type of appeal Netflix is likely seeking in the documentaries it screens. Aside from the technical aspects of 13th, it was extremely engaging. The way they were able to highlight both intentional and unintentional mistakes and unjust decision while allowing those people involved to address their parts lent legitimacy to the project. It is one of those films that made you truly feel the issues on the screen without leaving you feeling hopeless. It is definitely on my recommendation list.
Netflix also has an array of popular docu-series. While the basic criteria for choosing a docu-series to stream or fund and then screen is likely similar to their feature-length documentaries there are some distinct differences as you view them. Because of the multi-episode format, there are additional factors to consider. The most obvious of which is making sure that viewers are hooked enough to watch the next episode. There is also more opportunity for things like theatrical re-enactments and investigating multiple theories around an incident. Both of these were evident in The Keepers, the real-life mystery of the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnick and the abuse that occurred at Archbishop Keough High School from the late 1960’s through the mid-1970’s. Utilizing some of the more theatrical features usually found in TV dramas helped the stories being told come to life. And similar to what you would find in some television shows there were multiple smaller stories being told that were artistically interwoven into the larger overall story. This is something that you wouldn’t have been able to capture in a single feature-length documentary. While I certainly enjoyed The Keepers and similar docu-series they are only one of the genres I like to watch. I still enjoy scripted television series and believe that important content and commentary can be illustrated through them. For me, there is enough room for both.