July 15, 2019 | News | No Comments
15th Jul 2019
Documentary filmmaking is in the midst of a golden age. Once relegated to late-night TV, non-fiction releases accounted for just two per cent of films shown in British cinemas in 2001. By 2013, they made up almost 21 per cent of projects being produced. Streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon have invested in the genre and are bringing it to larger audiences, but cinema attendance is also up. In 2018, four documentaries surpassed $10 million at the box office: Fred Rogers’ retrospective Won’t You Be My Neighbor, adoption saga Three Identical Strangers, Ruth Bader Ginsburg tribute RBG and the Oscar-winning Free Solo, which chronicles Alex Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan. Ambitious in scale and willing to court controversy, they were far removed from documentaries of the past which had become synonymous with archival footage, talking heads and staid topics. Increasingly, objectivity is falling by the wayside in favour of sheer spectacle, and viewers are hungry for more.
2019’s biggest releases weren’t afraid of taking sides
The year began with Sundance, where Knock Down the House, Rachel Lears’s documentary following Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, premiered to critical acclaim. It even broke the festival’s documentary sales record after being bought by Netflix for a reported $10 million. HBO’s The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley charted the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes, while Amazon’s One Child Nation interrogated China’s one-child policy. There was also Lorena, a series about Lorena Bobbitt who became a tabloid sensation in 1993 after cutting off her husband’s penis. Joshua Rofé’s re-examination of the case sought to vindicate her, uncovering the years of abuse Bobbitt claimed to have endured at the hands of her partner.
A still of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Knock Down the House. Image credit: Netflix
Despite the broad range of subjects explored, the documentaries at Sundance were united in their desire to effect change. All raised crucial talking points—the impact of domestic violence, the excesses of Silicon Valley power players, the need for activism in the age of Trump—and became catalysts for movements that resonated far beyond the festival itself. This was most true of Leaving Neverland, Dan Reed’s four-hour exposé outlining allegations of child sexual abuse against Michael Jackson. Comprised of interviews with two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, as well as their families, it accused the singer of decades of grooming and molestation.
Reed’s goal was to challenge the public’s assumptions about the case. “The allegations had been dismissed for so long that they’d become part of people’s comedy routines,” the director tells Vogue. “I’m glad we’ve been able to reset attitudes to that story.” Many disagreed, accusing Reed of bias due to the documentary’s unwillingness to present the other side of the argument. Although he had recorded interviews with the police investigators involved, the footage was not used. “These are accounts we’ve heard before and they’ve never been decisive,” he explains. “If we found anyone else with direct knowledge of the abuse, I would’ve included them in the film.”
Click Here: online rugby store malaysia
The power of documentaries to effect change
Leaving Neverland arrived in the UK and US in early March and was promptly sold to channels in 130 territories including Australia, Latin America and Russia. A social media storm ensued, after which several radio stations banned Jackson’s music. The Simpsons episode “Stark Raving Dad”, guest-starring Jackson, was cut from future box sets of the show, Jackson memorabilia was removed from the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and plans to dress Brussels’s Manneken Pis in a Jackson costume to commemorate the 10th anniversary of his death were abandoned. At Louis Vuitton, all the Jackson-inspired items from Virgil Abloh’s autumn/winter ’19/’20 menswear collection were pulled.
The backlash was equally swift. Jackson’s estate condemned the production and a $100 million lawsuit was filed against its US broadcaster HBO. According to Billboard, the documentary led to a spike in sales of Jackson’s music. Three of his albums re-entered the UK charts, streams increased by six per cent, and his videos were viewed 22.1 million times, a 1.2 million rise from the previous week. In France, three Jackson fan clubs have since sued Robson and Safechuck, as the country’s defamation laws, unlike the UK and US, extend libel beyond death. Michael Jackson: Chase the Truth, a rival documentary seeking to exonerate the star, is expected to be released this August.
Although Robson and Safechuck had filed lawsuits against Jackson in 2013 and 2014 respectively, their cases received little publicity until their meeting with Reed. In a crowded media landscape where stories blow up and blow over at a rapid rate, documentaries can turn the spotlight back onto a topic and hold it there until it produces results. Surviving R Kelly, the Lifetime documentary detailing allegations of sexual abuse against the R&B star, certainly did. Despite long-standing accusations of misconduct and the #MuteRKelly movement, it was only after the series aired that Kelly was dropped by his record label and indicted on 10 counts of aggravated sexual abuse.
A still from Fyre, the Fyre Festival documentary. Image credit: Netflix
For other documentaries, the impact has been harder to assess. Netflix’s Fyre and Hulu’s Fyre Fraud, chronicling the fallout over the fraudulent festival, sparked a resurgent interest in the story two years after it took place. Discussions around the responsibilities of social media influencers followed, but the films had little effect on the case itself. Similarly, Amy Berg’s The Case Against Adnan Syed delved back into the murder investigation discussed on the podcast Serial in 2014. Her four-part series contained new evidence (forensic tests that found no traces of Syed’s DNA on the samples taken from the victim’s body), but the defendant remains in prison. “The search for justice drives people to unpick cases like this,” the director says. “We need to discover the truth.”
In the era of fake news, documentaries cater to an increased appetite for authentic information
“Whether it’s the R Kelly series or Fyre, these are substantial pieces of work that people feel like they can trust,” says Reed. More are on their way: Netflix will drop The Great Hack, an examination of the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal, later this month and Hulu is expected to follow with Untouchable, which tracks the allegations against Harvey Weinstein.
Could these documentaries influence the cases of those implicated, by securing either their release or conviction? Perhaps not, but that is rarely their intention. “Leaving Neverland was never about taking Michael Jackson off his pedestal,” says Reed. “It was about telling a story that would resonate with other survivors of abuse. You need to understand the issue in order to recognise it in your own life and to be able to stop it happening to someone you know.”
Berg agrees that her work was about more than just a single case. “People need to feel like they can trust the criminal justice system and stories like this can shake that trust,” she explains. Ultimately, the power of these films lies in their ability to change our perceptions of the world, for better or worse. “I hope more people see our work,” adds Reed. “And then if they can look at Wade and James speaking about their own experiences without shame, maybe they’ll feel like they can do that too. That’s how we can have a real long-term impact.”