Capturing the Era: How Documentaries Harnessed the Digital Age

The format of the documentary in the 21st century has been a surprising and almost implausible success. It continues to blossom in a time where it could have easily been supplanted by persistent rolling news, the internet, and social media as they document our lives and world with every nanosecond that passes. Yet virtually all of the 30 highest grossing documentaries ever have been released this century.

With the announcement of a second season for Netflix’s massively acclaimed and popular documentary, Making a Murderer, it seems an apt time to examine how various documentaries have used different facets of the internet to tell their version of events.

Loose Canon

During a seemingly routine inspection of a gas leak whilst recording footage for a TV documentary charting the progress of a trainee firefighter, Jules Naudet nonchalantly pointed his camera skywards, attracted by the sound of a plane flying low overhead, and panned along with the jet until it struck the North Tower of the World Trade Centre. The most infamous date in history had begun and its first images had been captured by a documentary maker.

This seems appropriate when it could be argued the increase in audiences’ desire for documentaries began on September 11th 2001. The horrific and terrifying attacks on the World Trade Centre buildings played out live in real time and were just as tragic, dramatic and extraordinary as any fictional TV show or film. In an almost surreptitious response to this, documentaries started to become a larger part of the entertainment landscape culminating in 2004/05 when the polemic Fahrenheit 9/11 and the gentler March of the Penguins became the two highest grossing documentaries ever within the space of a year. And it was during this heyday of cinematic documentaries in the mid-2000s that one documentary truly seized the potential of the internet to reach an audience and tell its version of events.

In 2003, while researching for a fictional screenplay based on the events of 9/11, aspiring film director Dylan Avery became convinced that the events of that day had not been committed by terrorists but were orchestrated by the US government itself to further its own domestic and foreign agendas. Avery began work on his own film in an attempt to substantiate his theory and in 2005 released the first edition of Loose Change for free on the internet.

Made almost entirely on his own laptop for a mere $2,000, Avery expounds and expands on his conspiracy theory in this DIY effort. Loose Change’s outlandish/outrageous claims are made easier to swallow by excellent editing and compelling explanations as it offers a lucid look into one man’s alternative point of view (some would say reality) of events on September 11th.

It quickly became an internet sensation with Variety magazine claiming it to be “the internet’s first blockbuster” and was later recut into several different editions and revisions to be screened on TV around the world. However, it was its internet debut that gave the project its initial momentum. With no official release through regulated channels, the film had an illicit appeal of being akin to a dark, forbidden secret that led to the film being shared and discussed so frequently on a multitude of sites and forums.

Although most of the claims of Loose Change have been debunked and dismissed, its legacy is still with us today as its influence is clear on the plethora of very well subscribed conspiracy channels around the internet and the provocative Zeitgeist documentary films.

"The Greatest Trick The Devil Ever Pulled..."

Kony 2012 remains the most viral videod in history. It notched up an astonishing 100 million views in just 6 days after it was posted on You Tube on 5th March 2012. There probably is no better example of how powerful and influential the format had become by this stage as charity organisation, Invisible Children, sought to mobilise the world against Ugandan warlord, Joseph Kony.

The half an hour video itself is a bravura exercise in audience engagement as it appeals to viewers to make Joseph Kony the most infamous man alive. Developing from a personal story of the life of its star, Jason Russell, drawing parallels with his young Ugandan friend, Jacob Avaye, whose brother was allegedly killed by Kony’s forces, it amps up its cause through several calls to action and deadlines for viewers to follow, urging them to appeal to some of the highest profile celebrities and politicians of the time to convince them to pledge their support for the campaign. The video to this day remains as evocative and empowering as it is manipulative and glib, but its legacy of slacktivism, inaccuracy, and the very public meltdown of Jason Russell has overshadowed the campaign ever since. Kony 2012’s impact was seismic and immediate with several Twitter accounts set up to support Invisible Children’s cause and the hashtags #stopkony and #kony2012 seeing a huge amount of activity during March that year, but the subject became starved of conversation almost just as quick, as we can see below.

Kony 2012

Within less than month, interest in the campaign was waning. While the video had drawn acclaim and support from philanthropist luminaries like Bono and Oprah Winfrey, it also quickly drew criticism from charities for misinformation and its “activism as a fashion statement” tone. Another bone of contention with the video’s claims was the widespread revelation that Joseph Kony hadn’t actually been seen in Uganda for nearly 6 years. Suddenly donating millions of dollars based on the anecdote of a young boy believing in the Ugandan Keyzer Soze didn’t seem quite such a smart decision. And in the ultimate irony, a video was posted on You Tube of Jason Russell having an apparent manic episode in public just 10 days after Kony 2012’s release and public confidence in the campaign almost instantly evaporated.

Kony 2012 remains a masterclass in how to generate credible attention through marrying a documentary style with social media activism, but is also a cautionary tale in losing that attention by presenting sentiment as facts in a format that depends on audience trust.

Making a Killing

In mid-December 2015, Making a Murderer was released on Netflix to an attention vacuum devoid of anticipation and awareness. Within two weeks, it lit up social media as audiences around the world started watching the compelling and infuriating trial of Steven Avery.

Mkm Graph 2 Volume

Although it hit its conversational peak at the beginning of January, it would seem its momentum was gained during the normally listless week between Christmas and New Year. In a week that is dominated by Christmas specials and repeats, Netflix had unleashed a story comparable to the big hitting TV dramas that are traditionally dormant during this time. Gauging the language used by viewers, we can see they were drawing the same parallels:

Mkm Keywords

Perhaps most significant is how often people were associating the word “bingeing” with the series. At a time of year where audiences have more time on their hands, this would have made the documentary an appealing way to spend the long winter nights and very rewarded they would have been by it too.

To date, Making a Murderer is Netflix’s most acclaimed original show on Rotten Tomatoes, with a Fresh rating of 97%. In recounting the events of Steven Avery’s trial and its extraordinary inconsistencies and agendas, viewers were left desperate to know what revelation was coming next and thanks to the nature of Netflix, the next episode was just a click away. And while the undoubted quality of Making a Murderer was key to it trending across the world, its lack of pre-awareness also helped as people felt compelled to share their discovery with others to generate attention, ostensibly becoming a user-generated advertisement campaign.

The announcement of Making a Murderer’s second season is confirmation of its unqualified success and it will likely be seen as a key piece of work in the evolution and engagement of documentaries. An evolution and engagement that will continue as audiences’ attentions are attracted more and more to real world events in the increasingly turbulent time we live in.

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David Murphy

David Murphy

EntSight Researcher