Long before John Grierson coined the term documentary
in 1927, this form of nonfiction film has attracted filmmakers and filmgoers alike, even as it has changed over time. What has remained consistent is the power of its "in-your-face" point of view, a perspective that has proved a curative tonic to a sluggish media and a complacent population.
It is no wonder then that, in times such as these, the documentary is having a moment in the sun.
Last year, we at the Sundance Channel made plans to launch a 24/7 documentary channel. Unfortunately, the economy, specifically the cable and satellite economy, didn't quite agree with us. So, instead, we created DOCday, a weekly 12-hour block every Monday devoted exclusively to documentaries.
It's clear that the public welcomes the bracing slap of the real world—even if that real world is an MTV show. Whether it's Survivor, The Bachelor
or even Jackass, reality is in—no matter how unreal the situation might be.
Clearly, the documentary has become a dominant genre on many cable channels, if only as a quick way to venture into original programming. Unfortunately, such documentary programming more often than not reflects the values and branding of the presenting channel more than it does the esthetic and moral vision of the filmmaker.
But besides reality TV, isn't every programmer—from A&E, HBO and MTV to Comedy Central and Animal Planet—producing documentaries?
Yes, and no. Documentaries are more than just a window onto the world; they are expressions, often ferocious ones, of a given filmmaker's vision of that world. And therein lies their power and passion. Michael Moore consistently courts controversy, both personally and cinematically, and, whether or not they like his politics, people pay attention. His anti-war rant in accepting the Academy Award for Best Documentary turned into a clip on nearly every morning news show the next day. And, according to Variety, the grosses for Bowling for Columbine
shot up 73% the next week, a remarkable rise even for an Academy Award winner.
As in the case of our DOCday titles, all the best documentaries take on tough topics. Whether it's a statesman as war criminal in The Trials of Henry Kissinger
or stories of German corporations selling atomic technology to Iraq as in Stealing the Fire, these films address subjects that ad-supported, ratings-driven networks often steer clear of and are invariably in-depth, tremendously passionate reflections of the filmmakers' point of view. Finally, documentary films are gaining the kind of respect they are due. Call it a tool for social discussion or just a noble pursuit to put a spotlight on our times, but, in either case, it's good to know that, finally, the cable and satellite industries have answered that all-important question: There is
a doc in the house. Even more important, there's a filmmaker behind it and a cable and satellite industry willing to take a chance on the message they want to send.