From Nanook to Kony: How docos are changing before our eyes.

Documentary is a genre of film that is probably pretty underappreciated by people within the grand scheme of things. When was the last time you were dying to see a documentary for instance? Probably around 2003, When Super Size Me was a huge thing and you wanted to see Morgan Spurlock spew his way through a month’s worth of McDonalds. And there is absolutely no chance that you were dying to see this film at the cinema, like a traditional film. You caught in on DVD or pirated it. My point here is that nobody has ever been particularly interested in viewing a documentary as a traditional cinematic experience (which I find a bit of a shame but maybe that’s because I’m a film nerd) and so it makes sense that the genre would progress and integrate itself really closely into new levels of interactivity as well as carving itself out a new temporality that redefines how we experience these documentaries

A guy name Robert J Flaherty essentially invented the modern narrative documentary as we know it back in 1922 with his film Nanook of the North. Quite honestly it’s a bit boring to watch today but still deeply interesting because it’s such a seamless blend of reality and fictional story elements that it presents a really unique perspective on life as a native in the Canadian wilderness. He produced this film as an ethnographic exploration of a particular culture and lifestyle that was easily accessible to audiences of the time that liked to sit in wonder in the movie theatre. There are a few important things to note about viewing a documentary traditionally like this. Firstly we’re aware it has already happened – this is after the fact. Secondly (and while this may be still subconscious) we’re much more aware of the constructed nature of a film we watch in the theatre, it had end titles for instance that say DIRECTED BY SO AND SO. Thirdly it’s a very solitary experience watching a film in a theatre or on DVD, even when you tell your friends about it it’s still after the fact, there’s no immediacy. It’s a one way street; you’re absorbing somebody else’s vision.

Anna Munster describes how the dawn of YouTube videos has led to an increased virility to internet content and “a drawing out, a contouring of [the video’s] duration as presentness” (2013, P.103). She goes on to describe how the ‘present-ness’ of online videos such as these allow for “a collective capacity to affect and be affected” (2013, P.103). Now sure a theatre full of people watching a documentary could be affected but take the KONY 2012 documentary thing that took off 2 years ago. In a theatre people would have been like “that’s interesting” but on the internet, through YouTube. The virility of this documentary allowed for a groundswell (of admittedly garbage) activism even though it adhered to the traditional mechanisms of documentary filmmaking and didn’t have the ‘nowness’ of a homemade video it actually found a ‘now ness’ through the sharing and the contagiousness of it.

Beyond just virility documentaries have found new levels of affect by embracing elements such as interactivity. The ‘film experience’ Bear 71 is an incredible example of this. I thought it was going to be just another rubbish film but you’re in actual fact dropped into this artistically designed approximation of the Canadian wilderness and you can hunt down wildlife and look at actual camera footage that has been captured of these creatures. It’s a really interesting experience and there’s something about the interactivity that adds a sense of immediacy to the whole thing. You’re taking part in the documentary, making part of it your own rather than being fed information in a completely pre-formed manner.

Regular old docos aren’t going away any time soon. But filmmakers are going to catch on to the power of virility and interactivity in getting a message or an idea across. Film can finally start to be an omnidirectional platform for discussion and learning.


Munster, Anna (2013) ‘Going Viral: Contagion as Networked Affect, Networked Refrain’ in An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press: 99-123


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