There’s no doubt that 2019 has been a special year for documentary films. More people are watching documentaries nowadays thanks to their availability on streaming platforms. Filmmakers are continuing the important political tradition of documentary films to make insightful critiques of state powers. 2019 highlighted the particular power and realm of nonfiction films, but all of that could change in 2020.

The Streaming Services Have Caught On

At the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, Netflix reportedly paid $10 million for worldwide rights to Knock Down the House, a documentary profiling four women who ran for Congress in 2018 including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Knock Down the House broke the festival’s documentary sales record, but it’s not the only audience and critic favorite made more widely available by a streaming platform this year. Netflix also bought American Factory for nearly $3 million, Hulu spent $2 million to buy The Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary, and National Geographic made a $3 million deal for Sea of Shadows. This trend in purchases reveals streaming services’ newfound dedication to the profits of popular nonfiction films.

Knock Down the House, directed by Rachel Lears.

Speaking Truth to Silenced Voices

In 2019, true crime documentaries and docuseries have continued to enjoy a surge in popularity with mass audiences. Similarly this year, filmmakers have shed light on specific sexual assault cases such as in Surviving R. Kelly; Leaving Neverland; Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator; and Untouchable. These documentaries profile the ways in which the victims of high-profile figures have been affected by these crimes and the ways in which media and social and cultural norms work together to suppress victims’ narratives from popular history. These films support an important platform for an otherwise silenced community of people to raise their voices and tell their stories according to their choices and desires. Just as well, the influx of films documenting sexual assault cases represents a much-needed, widespread cultural shift toward recognizing victims of sexual assault.

Surviving R. Kelly

Nonfiction Innovations

As more filmmakers seek a platform to tell their stories, they also create new methods of representation that recognize their necessary difference in our world of pluralities. In November when I spoke with Jeffrey Palmer, director of N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear, he mentioned that his film “is trying to lay the groundwork for this Kiowa aesthetic of documentation.” For Palmer, the ongoing tradition of realist aesthetics of documentary filmmaking can’t encapsulate the historical narratives of Native Americans without infringing on their own storytelling traditions. His goal reflects the direction that 2019 documentaries like Black Mother, The Hottest August, and Honeyland have taken to innovate on the stylization of nonfiction films to better support the voices of their filmmakers and subjects.

Words From a Bear, directed by Jeffrey Palmer.

What to Expect From Documentary Filmmakers in 2020

In the United States, it would be an understatement to say that policies enacted by the current administration affect everything. New rules issued as a part of the Trump administration’s “extreme vetting” program put a particular strain on documentary filmmakers who rely on online anonymity to tackle pressing issues. These rules require almost everyone applying for a U.S. visa to disclose all social media handles they’ve used in the past five years on a range of platforms including YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Weibo (新浪微博), and VK (ВКонтакте). The new rules allow the U.S. government to view public posts, pictures, and personal details of millions of people including artists, activists, and dissidents worldwide.

This increase in surveillance has already affected a number of documentary filmmakers from applying for visas. For filmmakers who research stories, communicate with their subjects, and share their work globally through social media using pseudonyms to evade their repressive governments and other forces seeking to silence them, these rules put them at risk by not narrowly tailoring the requirement for social media activity surveillance to the government’s immigration enforcement and national security interests. The increased danger of applying for U.S. visas prevents documentary filmmakers from participating in U.S. film festivals and spreading their stories to U.S. audiences.

On a positive note, there are voices actively standing up against these rules. On December 4, 2019, the International Documentary Association and Doc Society, with support from the Knight First Amendment Institute and the Brennan Center for Justice, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. State Department on behalf of documentary filmmakers. They’re arguing that by requesting this information about visa applicants’ social media activity, the current administration violates First Amendment rights as well as the Administrative Procedure Act.

2019 has been a major year for documentary films. Next year, we can only expect more nonfiction innovations to spark higher interest in the genre like they already have with the 2020 Sundance Film Festival announcing new features from Kristen Johnson and Bill and Turner Ross. Although, that’s not to say that the genre’s rise in popularity guarantees a new spot in the larger public spotlight. In 2020, documentary filmmakers will continue to face higher pressures from people in power who benefit from silencing specific voices. It’s more important than ever to prioritize discussions around who receives the opportunity to tell their story and the ways in which they choose to do so.

2019 Documentaries: Recommended Viewing

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