Documentaries as a genre for the majority of their existence have been accessible to a small number of people. For a lot of documentaries, they end up at independent film festivals or at theatres which still doesn’t draw much revenue. However, Netflix has paved the way for filmmakers to be able to now show their work to a mass audience and they are now able to make a living off of it. There is a catch though in that Netflix is more interested in gaining the greatest revenue from these films rather than teaching their audience about the world.
Netflix is interested in the money. It is a business after all, and so when choosing new documentaries to put on their site, they choose to conform to the “traditional” documentaries rather than ones that are over-original and I think that is the best strategy or them. This is why they call their documentaries “original” even though, as Sudeep Sharma says, “they conform to what an average filmgoer would expect from a documentary” (148). It’s original in that no one has produced a documentary such as Icarus before Netflix however it still conforms to the traditional formatting of documentaries that we expect. Some of these formats include exposition of the situation which is what we see with the first two episodes of Making a Murderer and then there’s observation of the situation and participation of the documents. Participation happened quite often with the filmmakers for Icarus as they were there when the situation was still unfolding. You can find these formats in almost every traditional documentary in some way.
Sharma compares Netflix as a “newsstand” rather than a “library” when talking about the content that it houses on its site. I think that this is an accurate statement to make because with a library there is information that anyone can access. A library is a public space and it is also free to anyone and this is not the case for Netflix. With Netflix there is an idea that only people with money can get an education and access their documentaries and Sharma agrees saying, “Documentary…creates a feeling of seeing something of the real world, and therefore, learning” (146). Netflix also differs from being a library because there is no revenue to make so there is no mass audience that it wants to appeal to. Netflix wants to appeal to the largest audience it can with these documentaries, so they will pick certain films that discuss a controversial topic, but still isn’t too overt. Libraries have content of strong opinions left and right and you are given access to it if you desire it. Sharma compares Netflix to more of a “newsstand” because you have to pay for the content you want. Another way that it is more like a newsstand is that Netflix has a limited time frame for how long the documentaries are available to its subscribers. Three years is how long a contract lasts between Netflix and filmmakers and if they don’t want to continue having the documentary they will end the contract with them. Newsstands also has a limited time frame in that newspapers are reprinted every day because the news changes every day. For consumers this means that they need to purchase a newspaper every day from the newsstand in order to keep getting content, and the same goes for Netflix consumers because they have to pay a fee every month to keep the subscription. does also ]
Icarus is a documentary focusing around Russian state-sponsored doping and the scandal between the state and WADA. It focuses around the career and events that occur for Grigory Rodchenkov, who was a director for Russia’s anti-doping agency. I still agree with Sharma that most documentaries on Netflix conform to “traditional” styles of filming and I see some aspects of it in Icarus. Most documentaries focus on social issues and/or biographies and Icarus is a blending of both. We get the social issue side of athletes all around the world doping and not competing fairly which. When there is state-sponsored doping, it becomes an international problem, especially going into the Olympics. It is also part biography because we are given background of Dr. Rodchenkov’s personal and professional life and we are also following the events of his life after being discovered for participating in the scandal. Because this documentary happened so near the present it would be easy to market because as Sharma says it is “based on some preexisting awareness by audiences” (148) and people are more likely to watch it because of what they have seen on the news about these events as well as the political strife going on between Russia and the U.S. currently.
Icarus does also break some of Sharma’s claims because for almost half of the documentary we are also focused on the director, Brian Fogel who is willingly testing these doping drugs to see if he can get away with passing drug tests while he is competing as a cyclist. It is not often that we see the director being the highlight of some of the film because traditionally the focus is on a single issue. If it would stick to traditional styles, I think that Fogel would have been left out completely and the focused would have been on Dr. Rodchenkov as well as the political issues that he was caught up in.
I do not know if I found this documentary enriching as I did just informational. I was not aware of the Russian doping scandal, and I was not aware that it was still an issue during the Rio Olympics. To me the biggest surprise was that I had no knowledge of these enormous events that affect so many people in the athletic and scientific world because media just didn’t talk about it in the U.S. I also found it fascinating that the filmmakers were with Dr. Rodchenkov when all of these events were happening. It was especially shocking when he was on the phone with his lawyer and he heard that it was a mistake to give information to the New York Times and he was just going to get prosecuted. It also brought my attention to how corrupt the system can be with scientists willingly risking their careers in order to ensure that athletes can get clean drug tests. The only reason that they care so much about athletes winning is that it brings pride to the country. I took away that sports matter a lot more to everyone else than I thought. Assassinations could be carried out because of this scandal and it is scary to think this becasue an athlete just wants to run faster than the others illegally.
Making a Murderer is another documentary that I would like to discuss because instead of being a single film it is a series where events are shown throughout about 10 episodes. This formatting of documentaries has a lot of positives in that we are getting more detailed information about the murder and about Avery and Brendan. We get to see in a more intimate way how these people are reacting and acting to the claims that are being put on them. With it being in a series, it also makes the events feel like they are happening in real-time and it also emphasises the web of lies that encompasses this entire care in more detail. If this case was to be shown in a single film style, it would have had to leave out a lot of information and it would be confusing for a regular audience member. Something else textually that separates a series from a film is that in Making a Murderer we get more “character development” in the sense that we see these people for longer periods of time and we can sympathize, hate, like them more. This can also make you more interested in the social issue that Avery goes through such as “alleged” police conspiracy. Because you’re more invested in this social issue now, you might want to explore this issue more and be able to see it in the world you live in.
Speaking more personally, I found the first four episodes of Making a Murderer to be very emotionally investing because in the first episodes details Stephen Avery’s first arrest that he was proved innocent over after spending 18 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. This hooked me because it was proved he was innocent for the first crime, so why couldn’t be innocent for the second as well? We also get to know the Avery family and the hardships that they had to go through in order to free Stephen and that makes it all the more difficult when they have to go through it all again with Teresa’s case that we learn about in the second episode. It keeps you hooked on the story because we are never exactly sure who is innocent because everyone thinks that they are telling the truth. The huge police conspiracy and tampering of evidence with both of Avery’s cases also shows the deception and manipulation of power that police departments are capable of having. I think that the storyline is compelling, the narrative also does a skillful job of following traditional narratives such as the five elements of plot. We get the exposition in the first episode. We get the rising action of Teresa being murdered and having her remains and keys being found on the property. We get the climax of Avery being arrested again and the conflict between parties of Avery and the justice system. We will eventually get the falling action of all the pieces fitting into place and finding out whether the court finds Avery guilty or not guilty, and resolution will be if he’s innocent or not. Another few elements of traditional narrative that this documentary follows is that it’s a “slow-burn” narrative in that details are revealed slowly to viewers as well as being a serial narrative where it’s a continuous storyline over multiple episodes.
In closing, I partly agree to Sharma’s claim that documentaries are a more “meaningful” way to spend one’s time because on the one hand, not all documentaries meaningful to someone’s lives than others For me, I found that Icarus was more important and impactful because of the relevancy it has to our politics with Russia today, meanwhile although Making a Murderer shines a light on police injustice, it didn’t seem as relevent to my own life. I think documentaries that have the potential to impact person determines whether its “wasting” their time or not.