Why Documentaries Matter Now More Than Ever (Guest Column)

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
'Cries From Syria'

There is "urgent need for the stories of people’s real-world experiences," writes Simon Kilmurry, the executive director of the International Documentary Association, as this year's Oscar contenders tell stories that explore timely issues amid political churn and "alternative facts."

To be at Sundance this year was a discombobulating and disorienting experience. And it wasn’t just the blizzard conditions and the altitude that affected me. The current political environment seemed to touch every conversation and infuse films with unexpected layers of meaning. There was a sense of uncertainty in the air coupled with a desire to be engaged, which was demonstrated by an enthusiastic turnout for the Women’s March down Park City’s Main Street. 

Syrian stories featured prominently in the documentary program — and it seems to be an especially appropriate time to assert the importance of documentaries in their ability to bring us a broader, more deeply engaged and more nuanced view of a fractured world. In this era of “alternative facts” — isn’t that just a euphemism for lies? — we have an ever more urgent need for the stories of people’s real-world experiences that are brought to us by brave documentary filmmakers. 

Cries from Syria by Evgeny Afineevsky gives an overview of that conflict through the eyes of activists who are now refugees. Matt Heineman’s City of Ghosts portrays the brave journalists who risk and sacrifice their lives to bear witness to the atrocities of ISIS. The World Documentary Winner Last Men in Aleppo by Feras Fayyad and Steen Johannessen shows us that even amidst desperate circumstances, humanity and kindness cannot be contained, as it portrays the White Helmets, a group of ordinary people turned rescue workers who selflessly risk their lives to dig people out of the rubble of buildings barrel-bombed by the Assad regime and targeted by Russian air strikes. 

These films are by turns tragic and inspiring, terrifying and suffused with a fierce hope. To hear from the filmmakers, to meet their characters, illuminates our world in a way that only documentary filmmaking can. Watching these films is a keen reminder of what it means to struggle for freedom, for peace, for justice. Sadly, thanks to the recent executive order banning visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries, some of these filmmakers and characters may fear they might not be welcome in our country.

I spent much of my time at the festival talking with my friend Orwa Nyrabia, a Syrian producer living in exile in Berlin, who was jailed and beaten by the Assad regime and whose work has been honored around the world, including a Sundance World Documentary prize in 2014 for his film Return to Homs (directed by Talal Derki), which follows the story of the uprising in Homs, Syria, and the increasingly violent crackdown by the Assad regime that transformed protesters into rebel fighters. As I write, Orwa and Talal, voices for freedom and democracy, might rightly question how welcome they would be in our country.

Aren’t these the people we should be looking to support? Are these not the voices we want to raise up?

Documentary film is essential to a healthy and democratic society — that is why it is feared by autocrats. It is why Orwa was imprisoned. Documentary film is a form that allows us to walk in another’s shoes, to build a sense of shared humanity, that gives voice to the marginalized and the scorned, that strives to hold those in power to account. In these challenging times, when journalism is held in such contempt that Steve Bannon can freely tell the media to “keep its mouth shut,” it is all the more important to support the ever-risky endeavor that documentary filmmaking is becoming.

Just look at this year’s Academy Award nominees. Without the persistence and bravery of documentary filmmakers, often working with minimal support, who can transport us to a specific place and time, we might know little about what it means to risk one’s life crossing the sea seeking refuge from conflict (Fire at Sea); we might know little about how mass incarceration has an outsize impact on African American communities and how that system can be understood as a legacy of slavery (13th); we might know little about the deep and troubled history of race in this city of Los Angeles (O.J.: Made in America); we might be unaware of the powerful writings of one of our great artists, James Baldwin, whose words echo still today (I Am Not Your Negro); and we might know little about what it means to love a child with whom you cannot communicate and to see that child blossom (Life, Animated). At its best documentary transcends simplicity and caricature and embraces complexity and humanity.

Documentary films can and do inspire change, and while that change may be incremental it is nonetheless real. Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour played a key role in exposing illegal domestic government surveillance; Kirby Dick's and Amy Ziering’s The Invisible War investigated the epidemic of rape in the military and had a role in the Department of Defense’s implementing changes to the military justice system.

If cinema is our most powerful art form, I would argue that documentary is both its beating heart and its conscience. It holds a mirror to our society and it holds our conscience to account. It is more important than ever that we come together to speak up for and support those filmmakers — here and around the world — who bring us these essential stories.

Documentaries no longer are the cliched “good for you” fare that their reputation may have been years ago, they are no longer the broccoli of filmmaking. They engage the heart and the mind with evocative, inspiring and emotional storytelling. Spend some time with the people portrayed in any of these films and you’ll feel that power and transformation. So, I urge you — watch them in the theaters, on television, watch them online or on your next cross-country flight. Give to documentary filmmakers when they ask you for a Kickstarter donation, talk to your friends about these films.

In these times of fake news and alternative facts, we need the voices of documentarians more than ever to hold the powerful to account and explore the nuance of the world that cable news squawkers deny. And, just perhaps, to help us make our world a little more compassionate.

Simon Kilmurry is the executive director of the International Documentary Association, whose mission is to build and serve the needs of a thriving documentary culture.