Politics, Music and the Climate Crisis Take Centre Stage in Crowded Documentary Race

By Hazelton, John | Screen International, December 11, 2019 | Go to article overview

Politics, Music and the Climate Crisis Take Centre Stage in Crowded Documentary Race


Hazelton, John, Screen International


Audience appetite for documentary features has never been greater and every platform, from theatrical to streaming, is jostling for a piece of the action.

Ask documentary filmmakers about the current state of their business and the answers are universally upbeat. “This is a great time to be making documentaries, because there’s so much appetite for true stories told well,” says Rachel Lears, director of Sundance 2019 documentary audience award winner Knock Down The House, giving a typically bullish response.

The appetite is coming from theatrical distributors chasing the kind of success achieved by recent non-fiction hits such as Free Solo, which grossed $29m at cinemas worldwide; from legacy television networks such as HBO, National Geographic, CNN and Channel 4; and from streaming services, both established, like Netflix and Amazon, and new on the scene, like AppleTV+.

The result is a documentary feature field packed with films tackling diverse subject matters in an impressive range of styles — in fact a bumper 159 features were submitted for the category at the Oscars (which will be reduced to a shortlist of 15 titles, announced on December 16).

With a divisive figure in the White House, a US presidential election on the horizon and chaos in the corridors of power in a number of other countries, it is hardly surprising that politics has been one of the documentary genre’s big themes this year.

Lears’ Knock Down The House, which follows four women running as outsider candidates in the 2018 US midterm elections, is just one of the many films turning political turmoil into compelling viewing. The Edge Of Democracy, about the recent crisis in Brazil’s political system; The Great Hack, an examination of the Cambridge Analytica voter data scandal; The Kingmaker, about former Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos; and Citizen K, about an oligarch-turned-dissident in post-Soviet Russia, have all pulled back the curtain on the dark arts of power.

Lears sees the trend stemming in part from the sheer prevalence of political news. “It’s definitely that there are a lot of good political stories out there,” she says. “We’re living in a really volatile historical moment.”

In her own case, she says, after the 2016 US election that made Donald Trump president, “I wanted to find a project that contributed to the national conversation in the era of Trump. A story of people coming together from different backgrounds and different parts of the country. Not just a reaction to Trump, but a reaction to some of the underlying issues that the country’s been facing and that perhaps led to the election in the first place.”

The fact Knock Down The House was acquired in a reported $10m worldwide deal by Netflix (which also picked up The Edge Of Democracy and backed The Great Hack), and given a day-and-date streaming/theatrical launch, helped the cause, Lears suggests. …

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