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What’s up, Doc?

Documentaries have come to the forefront of entertainment, but what makes them so engagaing and powerful?

Storytelling is about as old as Neanderthal man scrawling things on the walls of caves. It follows our every move and entertains us as we grow up, via books, films, comics, tv, music and then – if you work in our industry – through events, video and, hey, even blogs. It is the backbone of every bit of art or communication the world has ever seen, so even if you don’t read books, it will have informed you, educated you, captivated you and inspired you.

I love stories. And it’s often occurred to me that the best ones are not rooted in fiction, but actually based on real events and real people.

So, ladies and gentlemen, can I introduce to the stage the humble documentary. Just like the cavemen with their primal sketches etched in stone, documentaries mirror the world as it happens around us, but do far more than just scratch the surface. They take us deep into other people’s lives, immerse us in fascinating events and scenarios, and educate us about the things that hadn’t previously, perhaps, touched our lives. 

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As our viewing habits have evolved over recent years, we now find ourselves more and more delving into the documentary format. Back in the 1990s, it was all about the movies for me, but I remember watching a documentary film called Hoop Dreams; the story of two young American men trying to make a career in basketball. I had little to no interest in basketball at the time, but I was blown away by the power of the story and the way I ended up really caring about the two people involved. That really struck a chord, but great documentaries were a little harder to come by then - unless it was something narrated by Attenborough on the BBC.

Then came Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends, Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me (amongst many others) and the stage began to be set for a new kind of television diet. Fast forward a couple of decades and we can now pick and choose our films on Netflix/Amazon Prime/Now TV, but just as readily pick our documentaries on there, too. From the crime, to the innocently sublime…

Making a Murderer probably wouldn’t have had an audience 20 years ago, but this epic recounting of one of the most crazy, bizarre murder cases – all 10, hour episodes of it – captured the attention like few others had before. Suddenly the guilt or innocence of Steven Avery from Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, was the hot topic between meetings at work and pints in the pub. Make this into a movie and you’d think it would be so far-fetched that you’d dismiss it as Hollywood baloney. Though this was so painstakingly real, you were literally transported into the courtroom and sat on the jury… (and for those of you transfixed first time round, Series 2 comes out later this month).

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What continues to stagger me are the amazing stories now being chronicled, that make you think: How on earth did that happen? Why have not I heard about this before? Are they innocent or guilty? Evil Genius, Wild Wild Country, The Staircase….(of course, a lot of these crazy, incredible stories happened in America, but even so). Even the ones you knew about already like OJ: Made in America, still have the capacity to surprise and enthrall with the background research, textured personal accounts, and cliffhanger moments of revelation.

Meanwhile, there are enough environmental, health and dietary docs to cover your nightly diary for months on end, from Cowspiracy to That Sugar Film (clearly Morgan Spurlock has a lot to answer for, and quite rightly so). And there are some brilliantly insightful music docs out there, from Oasis’s meteoric rise in Supersonic, to the incredible story of SIxto Rodriguez in Searching for Sugarman - the man who was one of the biggest selling musicians in South Africa, but who, himself, had no idea of how famous he was. As for the sports genre, I’ll admit shedding a few tears on a crowded flight across the Atlantic during the closing moments of watching Senna, about the late Formula One driver. No shame, as the story is as inspiring (and ultimately tragic) as he was on the track. 

"Just like the cavemen with their primal sketches etched in stone, documentaries mirror the world as it happens around us, but do far more than just scratch the surface."

Now I’m no Louis Theroux (Louis voice: ‘Hi, I’m Dom from drp…how you doing?’), but I recently had the opportunity to make a documentary for the charity Alopecia UK. Having a close friend who suffers with the condition, it became a bit of a passion project, and luckily for me in pre-production we found three inspiring people who had their own Alopecia stories to share on camera. I can’t tell you how rewarding it was to hear those people’s stories face to face, and then shape them with as much care and attention as possible in the edit suite. No guilty or not guilty verdicts, no weird cults, no horrific miscarriages of the justice system, just (in this case) a medical miscarriage of justice to their auto-immune systems, and how they’d faced the challenge of coming to terms with that. To view the documentary, click here.

I guess with any documentary you need a strong subject and, ideally, a great storyteller at the heart of it. But we’re now living in a time where people, especially young film-makers, are turning to documentary to make sense of the world they’re living in - and seeking the truth that they know they won’t always get from mainstream media.

So it doesn’t matter what the story is, or where it happened, or who’s affected. If it’s authentic, emotive and human, then people will sit down and watch. 

By Dominic Allen – Director & Scriptwriter