Thoughts & Ideas

What Makes a Great Documentary?

What makes a great documentary film?  Beautiful imagery?  A captivating story?  Interesting characters?  A call to action at the end of the film?  All of those attributes?  None of them?

The reason that I ask this question is because recently I have been watching documentary films that leave me feeling a certain way.  “Exit Through The Gift Shop” entertained me and at the end I marveled at the audacity of the main character and his pursuit of being accepted as a street artist.  “Waiting for Superman,” a look at the effects of the education system on American families throughout the country, left me feeling frustrated and powerless to do anything about the inefficiencies of the education system.  “Restrepo” broke my heart as soldiers lost their fellow comrades in times of war.  “Sicko” exposed the ugly truth of the American health care system.  “Super Size Me” showed the effects of 30 days of the Mickey D’s diet on one man.

While all of these are great documentaries in their own right, it was the following documentary that really made me question the power of the art and medium that I enjoy.  The 2010 Academy Award winning documentary, “Inside Job,” is a look at the 2008 financial crisis, how the United States got there, what really happened, and how that crisis ultimately impacted Americans.  It was an amazing film.  It presented an overly complicated subject matter with enticing graphics, succinct interviews, a great narration from Matt Damon, and really educated the viewer on all aspects of how the crisis really happened.  But at the end of the film, all I could ask was, “I am so mad that this happened.  Now what?”

In the midst of my anger and rage, I was starting to question the effectiveness of documentary film to invoke societal change.  I truly believe that art has tremendous power to stir the masses for good and for evil.  So, what happened?  Why all of the questions after this film?  The only answer that seems to satisfy the emotions raised by the film, is that there was no direction at the end of the film, no clear call to action.  It was ultimately a grim and hopeless portrayal of reality that gave the viewer no voice, no direction, no place to direct their anger.

Interestingly enough, after writing that paragraph, I went to the website for “Inside Job” ( and found several positive resources available related to capturing the energy and electricity of emotion.  There is a study guide for teachers to engage their students in debate and discussion.  Great!  There is also a link to a Facebook page that gives a list of things people can do.  Excellent!

There still seems to be something missing and I can’t quite put my finger on it.  Would I have “felt better” if there was a slate at the end of the film directing me to the website like “Waiting for Superman?”

Now that the emotions have died down, I continue to believe in and realize the power of a well-executed documentary.  I can’t deny that “Inside Job” and the others mentioned wield that power with precision, talent and craft.  All I can do is pass along the words of Howard Beale from 1976’s “Network” as a response to the emotional power of art:

I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV’s while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We know things are bad – worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.’ Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot – I don’t want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a HUMAN BEING, God damn it! My life has VALUE!’ So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’ I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell – ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad!… You’ve got to say, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Then we’ll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!” – Network (1976) IMDb Quotes Page