It’s not so very long since documentaries were essentially televisual filler. They were the kind of thing you’d watch lazily on a Saturday evening, or have playing in the background while you cooked dinner. Unless you had a special interest in the topic, you were unlikely to schedule documentary viewing into your televisual calendar but not anymore. According to the British Film Institute, the number of documentaries produced in the UK each year has risen enormously – from four in 2001, to 86 in 2015. There’s not just more of them; they’re slicker, more skilled, intriguing, and far more commercially viable than they were. 16% of the Cannes film market is now documentaries – a marked rise, and one which indicates the newly cinematic potential of factual filming. So what’s going on?

Charting The Rise Of The Documentary

Let’s start with Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which won the Cannes Palm D’or in 2004 – the first documentary to do so. Fahrenheit 9/11 did the kind of thing which up until then, people had been looking to drama for. It unpeeled the layers of the Bush administration with determination, exposing secrets, and telling a plausible (if incendiary) story – with plenty of drama along the way. In a world which felt increasingly uncertain, many people were desperate to know what was going on and Fahrenheit 9/11 promised to tell them in a gripping and engaging manner. This was followed by a few other landmark documentaries – notably Super Size Me which dealt with the fast food industry and its medical implications, and Blackfish which transfixed and appalled audiences with the plight of Seaworld’s captive orcas. This firmly established the place of factual cinema in the hearts of the viewing public. Now, we live in a world in which a documentary series like Making A Murderer tops Netflix’s viewing charts, and David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II knocks X Factor off the ratings leaderboard.

More Real, More Dramatic

So why have documentaries become so popular? A big factor is, of course, the undeniable truth that documentary makers have become better at their art. The days of basically delivering a lecture over a few nice shots of your subject matter are long gone. Documentary makers are not only picking engaging subjects, they’re taking pains to pinpoint cinematic moments, using storytelling techniques, pulling the viewer into the investigation, and presenting reality in a raw, real manner which has proven very appealing to the public. New technology also offers greater investigative potential – as well as opening the genre up to a whole new swathe of up and coming filmmakers. In one way, documentaries have become slicker. Their production values are up, they’re tightly woven, they’re beautifully crafted, and they take pains to put their point across. Filmmakers have peeled back the artificial layers which used to plague the documentaries of bygone days. Interviewed people are more natural, their reactions less scripted, their emotions tangible. The whole package is simultaneously more real and more cinematic.

The Rising Appeal Of Facts

It’s also worth noting that fact-based entertainment is becoming more popular in general. Publishers are increasingly finding that people are buying factual books at a rate which simply wasn’t the case a few years ago. As with documentary making, this is partly because writers have begun to craft factual books with the same creative care that was previously reserved for fiction. However, it also seems indicative of a general shift towards fact-based entertainment. This may seem ironic, considering that we supposedly live in a ‘post-truth’ culture. However, given that many of us feel insecure and perplexed about the state of the world, and are unwilling to trust the words of politicians, it is perhaps not surprising that we’re turning to things like documentaries to try and probe beneath the surface of the world and work out (ostensibly) for ourselves what is going on. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the most popular documentaries of recent years seek to expose large political or commercial organisations, revealing lies, cruelty, and corruption at the heart of the establishment. It’s a note which strikes a chord in the modern world and one which can be played to great advantage by a skilled documentary maker.

Raindance offers the Documentary Foundation Certificate course in Toronto and London.