The Anatomy Of Today’s Documentaries

We used to be a proper country. Schools used to dedicate a week to a single documentary. We learned through immersion, by gluing our eyes to the projector screen, awaiting our technologically-handicapped teacher to connect their laptop, and then finally watching Ken Burns or some washed out voiceover drone on for hours about major historical events that happened long before we were ever born.

These documentaries of days past were force-fed to the audience as straightforward information They were for learning. Educational purposes only. The information was valued over any sort of innovative feature. A medium to highlight the events that shaped the world we lived in.   

Documentaries feel less important now. Across the monotonous and vast digital libraries of nearly every streaming platform, documentaries abound, but they aren’t the same ones many were raised on, the ones we were forced to watch, the ones our parents or grandparents turned on and went into REM sleep with. 

We seem to be in the age of documenting every single event we possibly can, producing some random spree of murders or criminal endeavors into an introspective, limited series that peels back the layers of all-but-historical events. Insignificant moments in the totality of human history. I don’t like to speculate, but I’m assuming (and praying) that Kim Kardashian and Kanye’s tumultuous marriage isn’t something of note in history books. 

Long gone are the days of 10-hour long documentaries. Maybe we’ve covered all the history our brains could possibly handle, or maybe documentaries have evolved into something more modern, more condensed, a streamlined version of newsworthy events that production companies and streaming services want us to thirst for. The content machine never sleeps, and clearly neither does the production of documentaries and limited series highlighting news and events we’ve barely begun to even digest, to the point where we will regurgitate this media and be ready to consume again shortly.

First, we must distinguish the range of differences in the documentary genre. The word documentary is now a bit of a misnomer. In the literal sense, it documents real-life events, ones that have both concluded and still continue to rage on. The literal intention is to “document reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction, education, or maintaining a historical record.” 

But now there’s also the realm of documentaries seeking to entertain in opposition to the ones created mainly for educational purposes. This is not saying that any documentary produced for entertainment purposes isn’t capable of educating the audience, but rather a revelation of the production’s intention. The documentaries of the past leaned closer towards education, mincing those creative liberties and steering clear of a specific narrative in order to unravel and delve into the totality of the historical event being documented. 

This is the opposite of the influx of documentaries plaguing audiences today, where the content largely revolves around crime, a lot of murder, fame, and politics, created to suffice viewers who revel in the subjects. It’s an over-saturation of documentaries with no remorse for what kind of content they are documenting. 

There is no doubt America has an obsession with murder. We salivate at the chance to watch a six-episode limited series highlight how a seemingly harmless husband could lop off the heads of his wife and children. The opportunity to dissect Armie Hammer’s supposed cannibalism or unravel the layers of whatever political turmoil recently took place. We want our news and we want it wrapped into a serialized bow ready to binge. 

The consistent pattern here is time, or the lack of. 

What gave the documentaries of yesterday a heightened sense of insight was separation. These documentaries were created decades after the events being analyzed took place. Years of research are required in order to accurately report on the subject of a documentary. More time allows for the directors to process the information given and form a coherent narrative that both educates and reveals. 

So-called documentaries closely knit to current events struggle to reveal and instead opt to relay the most surface-level facts. There is no time to process all of the available information in a concrete way, especially when the events taking place are most likely still caught in the aftermath. 

What’s the point of telling a story if it hasn’t ended yet? What’s currently being released are half-baked documentaries, produced and shipped to a service like Netflix, Hulu, or Max. None of these are documentaries. They’re preludes; summaries. They’re misshapen news reports dressed and layered as a piece of media with a sliver of the intelligence it claims to wield. 

There is not a world where the same form of storytelling could possibly encompass both Kanye’s divorce and the Vietnam War. These two couldn’t—and can’t—exist being identified as documentaries. There has to be another word, one that could encompass the stylization and content now used to report on these modern, everyday stories. Something the masses obsessed with the freshly serialized content could recognize. A single identifier that allows the murder-obsesssed, truth-seeking, and attention-deficit fans to understand exactly what they are watching. 

I’m workshopping. 

Modern Unwanted Documentaries or M.U.D.

Pointless Events Now In Show or P.E.N.I.S.

True Stories Serialized by Tomorrow or T.S.S.T.

Whether these new identifiers help, perhaps the massively unwarranted rise of useless documentaries should simply be labeled as polished trash. Something their target audience understands is not good for them, yet the detail, the close-knit relation to current social and geopolitical events, is something they can’t resist. And while the intention of documentaries were once to record and relay history, I just hope the current catalog of documentaries is not what history leaves behind, a culmination of our worst actions and obsessions.

Let’s bring back those documentaries that lulled us to sleep. Unearth more history from the Renaissance era and let some old haggard man drone on in a voiceover for three hours. Bring back the wild animals, tell me exactly how a steam engine works, document what’s really worth documenting.

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