From reality TV to personal essays and memoirs to documentary film, narrative nonfiction has gained much traction in recent years. A study by Patricia Aufderheide of American University even links it to a distrust in mainstream media — and it’s true that many documentaries claim to expose a version of the truth that has long been suppressed in one form or another. This is probably part of the reason that documentaries have traditionally been less accessible in the past. Produced by independent companies with small budgets, many great documentaries have simply not had the same distribution in the past as mainstream fiction films.
But as public interest grows, larger media conglomerates are picking up and distributing documentaries, making them more available to the inquisitive viewer online. Netflix is a key facilitator, along with HBO, Hulu, and other streaming services. We’re beginning to consume them more hungrily than ever before.
The following six films are a sampling of 2015’s most buzzed-about documentaries, a great place to start exploring the world of nonfiction.
As the name implies, Cowspiracy is an environmental exposé detailing the effects of agriculture on the planet and revealing the lack of action on the part of various large-scale environmental organizations. Directed by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, the documentary follows a natural progression of discovery, beginning when Kip first learns of the problems with agriculture and developing as Andersen’s exploration continues.
Though the film was actually produced in 2014, Cowspiracy became available on Netflix in September of 2015, ending up on more TVs across the country as a result. Because of its hugely successful Indiegogo campaign, which raised more than twice its goal of $54,000, the film was able to be translated into various languages and reach a wide audience initially. But Leonardo DiCaprio’s involvement as executive producer for Netflix’s release of the film (a new cut which includes updated information) further increased publicity, and therefore, popularity.
The film is controversial in its critique of the agricultural industry and advocacy for a vegan diet. But its social impacts are still evolving: currently, with 28.7 thousand Twitter followers, the issues raised by the film continue to be heatedly discussed in the media.
Hot Girls Wanted
Another film available on Netflix — and another film with a celebrity endorsement, in this case from producer Rashida Jones — Hot Girls Wanted shows the back end of the amateur porn industry, which is nothing short of shocking. It highlights the story of a young woman who responds to an ad on Craigslist and moves to Florida, where she connects with an agent and lives in a house with several other aspiring young pornstars.
The film has received substantial criticism from the porn industry — criticism which is probably fairly valid. For example, Aurora Snow for The Daily Beast points out that while the film only portrays a narrow segment of the industry, it leads the viewer to believe that it speaks for more of the industry. I think Mike Hale puts it well in a review for the New York Times when he compares the film to reality TV, interesting in its portrayal of the reality of that situation, but perhaps not necessarily adequate as an exploration of the greater context of the industry.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Going Clear takes an extremely in-depth and rather painstaking look into the belief system and infrastructure surrounding scientology as a religion and organization. The narrative starts from the beginning, outlining the foundational beliefs of the Church of Scientology, then moving on to depicting the church’s growth over time, present-day manifestation, and documented abuses.
Indeed, these abuses prove to be jaw-dropping. Relying on a very impressive collection of media (which director Alex Gibney and his team collected from public records and archives) along with testimony from ex-members of the church, the doc explains how the Church was first created in the 1950s by L. Ron Hubbard, a sci-fi novelist, as a way to make tax-free income through a pseudoscience called Dianetics. It has since been run like a business, often harming the believers it claims to protect, and ultimately destroying relationships and families.
Going Clear was a hugely successful film, garnering three Emmy Award nominations, among others. And its success flies in the face of the Church of Scientology, which has fought the release of the film. Undoubtedly, it’s partly this clash that makes the film so interesting.
Aside from its use of beautiful home videos and photos from when the charismatic Amy Winehouse was young, this two-hour doc focusing on Amy’s life and rise to fame somehow manages to capture the complexities of mental illness, addiction, substance abuse, sudden fame, media, and essentially, the troubled psyche of an extremely talented artist.
Through beautifully-integrated images, unique home video footage, recorded phone calls, and interviews with those who knew Amy closely, it comes across so clearly that Amy was an enigma — a truly special, uniquely talented, and rather shy person who was simply very lost. After all the media fascination with her addiction and mental health problems during her lifetime, it’s great to see a rendering of Amy that finally does her justice, without glorifying her self-destruction. And through it all, her ineffable jazz vocals are a haunting and soulful soundtrack.
The film has been nominated for various awards, including the Best Documentary award at the 2016 Oscars.
I’m not sure how I feel about The Jinx, the year’s first popular true crime miniseries about the murders associated with Robert Durst, a New York real estate billionaire. On one hand, the series is fascinating in that it contains interviews from Durst himself, quite surprising considering that his lawyers recommend he not speak lest he jeopardize his own liberty. And these interviews are undoubtedly fascinating — he’s a guy with a strange personality, to say the least. And then there is also the riveting plot twist, which I won’t spoil for you here. The last several episodes are definitely the best.
But on the other hand, I’ll admit that I found myself thinking: Is this really worth six episodes? Is this really that earth-shattering? Again, I’m unsure about my own take on this, because I’m no expert — I even superficially enjoyed it — and the film did receive much acclaim. However, at times, it felt a little overly-sensationalized, and I’m not sure the dramatic re-enactments helped (although sometimes finding good visuals for films like these is admittedly challenging). I also wish the filmmakers had delved a little deeper into Durst’s characterization rather than on the facts of the crimes.
Making A Murderer
Making a Murderer — it’s all anyone wants to talk about these days. The series details the second murder case against Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who was wrongly convicted of sexual assault and attempted murder in the 80s. After serving 18 years for a crime he did not commit, he was released, only to be tried several years later for another crime — this time, a murder.
Perhaps as a result of its strategic Netflix label, the documentary has been very well-received by the public, even spurring a petition for a presidential pardon for Avery (which unfortunately would not be enough to trump the state conviction), further displaying just how impactful media can be when it posits “the truth.”
In documentaries, all evidence, footage and interviews are drawn from real life. But these are only pieces that can easily be manipulated to misrepresent the truth. And that’s really the important thing to remember with documentary film; it’s a powerful weapon, and one that needs to be handled with careful ethics.