Written by GOOD DOCS intern Sumana Gadiraju
In a world of market-driven content and rapidly changing trends, documentary films remain a powerful and consistent spotlight on real, authentic stories of communities around the world. They remind us what it means to be human.
As an educational distribution company, GOOD DOCS has worked with hundreds of filmmakers to share various perspectives and insights into the human experience. From activists to journalists, healthcare professionals to artists, and immigrant communities to Indigenous peoples, GOOD DOCS films highlight messages of passion, pain, and community.
But what about the people behind the curtains, who bring these powerful forms of media to the world? In an effort to learn more about these individuals and what their work means to them, I reached out to several members of the GOOD DOCS community. Through this endeavor, I talked to:
Juliana Sakae, the Director of Engagement of GOOD TALKS — a speaker series with the filmmakers, scholars, and activists behind GOOD DOCS films. Juliana works closely with these speakers to bring programming, like film screenings and discussion events, to schools, community groups, and other organizations.
Before delving into their personal pulls toward the field, I wanted to first understand their perspectives on documentaries as a form of media.
In what ways do you think documentaries are important/relevant in the current media space?
Sarah: I've always thought documentaries are important, especially when we get to learn about people that are different from us and have a chance to spend a day or week — or several years — walking in their shoes, so to speak. The hope is that documentaries help create awareness and empathy. Right now in our current time, there's a huge amount of sensational media, "reality" TV, and made-up stories, as well as propaganda. Documentaries are the antidote to all of this and — if they follow the ethical guidelines they are supposed to — they can be kind of an oasis from all of this crazy, and frankly scary, stuff out there flooding our airwaves.
Yahya: The power of documentaries is that they can be molded accordingly to audiences' needs and desires, which is simultaneously where they derive their relevance from. Traditionally, we would think of documentaries as some form of informative nonfiction — which should be at their essence regardless of any changes to the media landscape — but filmmakers and producers can now create documentaries not only to inform but also to entertain, to spark actionable changes, to promote other content, et cetera. Considering the fragmented audiences in the current media ecosystem, it is hard to imagine a world without documentaries, also considering their versatility and ability to serve different audiences at a relatively low cost.
Fiona: Documentaries provide an opportunity to get information to a large group of people in a way that both informs and entertains them. I think younger generations have a greater desire to hear and uplift minority perspectives. Documentaries can be made on smaller budgets and need only a camera and a subject. The simplicity of it creates an accessibility for people that is really exciting and enticing.
Celeste: Documentaries are both archival and reflective. They give us a record of our present, soon becoming past, and how it may influence our futures. The current media space is all about grabbing attention, but documentaries are an accessible medium for any viewer to slow down and pay attention to one subject and to reflect on the message it portrays.
Munji: The tradition of raw imagery, respect for the subjects of the documentary, and the potential for resonance with the viewers. In a world where authenticity and veracity are increasingly questioned, many documentaries provide an opportunity for true stories to be told.
What makes documentaries a uniquely effective/impactful form of media?
Sarah: I think a successful documentary provides viewers with the opportunity to really be with other people and experience things that other people are experiencing, in an honest way. That makes documentaries different from other forms. But it's good that we remember that everyone has an agenda and it’s all subjective, and that many documentaries have caused a lot of harm. I think it is apparent when you're watching a film whether the people have agency or they are telling their own stories on their own terms. That being said, I go back to the cliché of walking in someone's shoes, but it's the best description I can give for what I think makes a successful documentary, where you have a chance to connect with somebody, but it's not hyped-up or slick or manipulative. That's what is possible in documentary filmmaking, although it's not always accomplished, but when it happens it's wonderful.
Yahya: I think this goes back to how malleable this form is. You can't create a feature film for every breaking story or every time an artist goes on tour, but you can achieve that with documentary/long-form specials. I was involved last week in a one-hour special about former President Trump's indictment, which was developed in less than two weeks. And this example also speaks to another aspect of documentaries' impact which is that they — if done correctly — can help audiences overwhelmed by the seemingly endless information coming at them, to digest and process that information. In the example I gave, the Trump case has been developing for over a year, but can somewhat be digested in one hour through a documentary. Consequently, once an audience is informed, their actions and perspectives might be affected — think of climate change movements empowered by documentaries or political grassroots movements getting more attention because of documentaries.
Fiona: People naturally connect with other people. There is a human element to documentaries that does not exist in narrative [films]. We feel compelled to care and become invested more easily when we know people's real lives are at the center of the story. There is also no shortage of entertaining or important true stories to be told. For many people, it can be cathartic or satisfying to watch an event or life experience that they have been witness to, or feel connected to, and vividly remember these events as they come to life again through storytelling. It can be challenging to create that audience connection in a narrative film because the director has to bank on the viewers finding some commonality between themselves and the story that has been created.
Celeste: The most effective documentaries manage to take a small phenomenon and connect all humans to it. It gives viewers access into a world we may not be accustomed to, one that may usually be unheard or less visible due to social or political reasons. A documentary’s impact as a visual storytelling medium is to shift a dominant narrative we are told and give the opportunity for us to understand a topic or theme differently. Through interviews or unseen archival footage, for example, filmmakers show us the details of a subject from personal points of view. Such is the case with the first-person narrative by Reid Davenport for his feature I Didn’t See You There, redefining perspectives on the experience of differently abled bodies.
Munji: Our lived experiences can be powerfully showcased through film, and documentaries can be a humbling invitation to look into a telescope, facing someone else's world. With each minute the story is told, the audience's perspective broadens.
Sarah, Juliana, Yahya, and Fiona have all had varying degrees of experience in the documentary field. I wanted to learn more about how, and why, they got started.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in documentary filmmaking/storytelling?
Sarah: Our mission statement kind of sums up why I do what I do every day. In our own small way, at GOOD DOCS we contribute to a more just, equal, and democratic society. That’s also why I have chosen to distribute the films that are in the GOOD DOCS collection. These films ask us to care for each other and our planet. I think that’s a worthwhile endeavor to be involved with, and I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to amplify all of these voices and perspectives on such a broad scale.
Juliana: I first went to law school and quickly realized how lawyers, judges, defense attorneys are simply humans. Justice, unfortunately, can fail. The themes I'm passionate about — such as the intersection of class and race, systemic racism, climate change, and domestic abuse — are urgent matters that sometimes can't be acted on by the justice system as fast as reality needs. I thought that making documentaries would be a way to create impact, particularly in cases like wrongful convictions or environmental impact, where wealthy or powerful people control the narrative. It's a big challenge and oftentimes a hopeless job. But we, as documentarians, have to be the ones who don't give up on hope and keep trying to right the wrongs in this world.
Yahya: Because documentaries make a difference, and in my opinion, they're journalism in its most creative form. Documentaries give you a chance to talk to people from countless fields and walks of life, experience the world in a raw and enlightening way, and actually make a difference in people’s lives.
Fiona: I grew up in the documentary space because my parents both work in it, so I would attribute a lot of my early knowledge to that life experience. I think it gave me an appreciation for the work and skill that goes into that type of storytelling, so I have always been fond of it. When you’re making a narrative film, you are not limited by facts or have any responsibility to report truthfully. I like the challenge that presents and have always found films to be particularly interesting and exciting to watch when I know it is about something that has actually occurred.
At this point, I wanted to hear more from Sarah and Juliana, as experienced professionals in the field, about what qualities draw them to certain stories.
When creating a documentary, what key aspects do you consider for your story?
Sarah: In my early twenties when I was a high school teacher, I wanted to find books or films that focused on youth voices so that my students could relate to their stories, which I hoped would help them be more engaged in learning. I couldn’t find anything that fit the bill, so I, along with a friend who had been to film school, decided that I would try making the materials myself. Out of that experience, I produced a film called Youth to Youth, which focused on young people's experiences of violence in their lives and communities. I realized then that media was a very powerful way to reach all students. I decided I wanted to make more films that focused on the experiences of young people. I thought that if they could dialogue with each other, young people from different backgrounds could come to understand each other better. I was also particularly interested in religious diversity because I saw it as a way to look at the human experience, and I wanted to make a film that included all of us to help audiences value and protect our pluralistic society. So I ended up making my film What Do You Believe?. From there, I went on to do many other projects that focused on people telling their own stories— from youths to adults, labor unions to human rights organizations, and on topics ranging from child trafficking in the Golden Triangle to a group of Rastafarians in Trinidad (Earth Water Woman) who were reforesting the land and protecting their watershed.
Juliana: My background is in journalism and human rights, so I'm constantly searching for stories of people who have been failed by the justice system. Personally, it is important to me that those people's fights symbolize something bigger, such as a systemic problem in criminal justice or environmental justice, so that their stories can make a change for a collective group. I also prefer stories that are happening right now, as opposed to those that happened in the past. This way, the audience can see the development of the problem, instead of simply hearing from a witness. Finally, I hope that we will come to respect documentaries made by people who lived the situation or are a part of the affected community. For example, as a Brazilian, I have watched foreigners make documentaries that don't quite mirror reality, but rather are views of an outsider— exoticizing us and oftentimes contributing to the existence of the problem. It is urgent and imperative that we give funds and resources to those who are already inside the community and hear those sides of the stories.
Yahya and Fiona, as young film students immersed in the documentary world, had some invaluable tips to share to other aspiring storytellers.
What advice would you give to students looking for opportunities in this field?
Yahya: The road to working in the documentary field might not be linear — which is something I'm currently experiencing — so try to find that story or cause that you're passionate about and be methodical in how you pursue it, while also being open to the different career routes that may also lead you to the documentary “promised land”!
Fiona: There are so many different ways to get involved with documentaries. Sometimes they are paired with grassroots causes, which can be a way to get involved in a specific story. If you are looking to make your own films all you need to have is a good story and a camera. Documentaries have the ability to take on a grungy or cinema vérité feel without sacrificing the quality of the story. If anything, this guerrilla style of filming can actually add to the overall feel and experience of watching the film.
Finally, much like myself, Celeste and Munji have just begun dipping their toes in the field of filmmaking during their time at GOOD DOCS. I was curious about their perspectives as they straddle the line between being members of the general audience and industry “insiders”.
How do you think documentaries appeal to people who may not be familiar with the medium or the subject/theme of the film?
Celeste: Documentaries can capture nuances in a moment. Sometimes a subject can be hard to describe through other mediums, whereas film can reduce a complex issue to a moment on film, whether through the facial expressions during an interview — as seen in the case of Navalny — or a well-angled shot of a lesser seen cultural practice — as seen throughout Inhabitants. As our world becomes more and more visually saturated, documentaries are a media that challenges our norm and encourages critical discussion.
Munji: I think the educational aspect of documentaries is appealing to those who are curious about learning new things in any setting. There are subjects that may strike a chord with someone when they learn about them for the first time.
As someone new to this field, what are some things you learned about storytelling/filmmaking that you didn’t know previously?
Celeste: My understanding of storytelling has been reinforced through working with GOOD DOCS — that is, the idea that collaborative projects with their interlocutors throughout production leave a lasting impression on and off screen, such as public recognition, activism, or personal contact with the community. Filmmaking also sets a precedent to show a wide audience of current issues, holding up a reflection to the human experience that can influence our perceptions, whether that is to inspire or shock. Fundamentally, it can connect us to a similar experience, feeling, or emotion across the globe, practicing compassion in unlikely places and opening our mind to alternative possibilities seen through real stories.
Munji: I’ve learned about the importance of confidentiality and proper representation of the subjects of a film. I was taught how crucial integrity, transparency, and authenticity are in creating a work that accurately depicts the subject matter.
By the end of this exploration, I’ve learned that regardless of their different career paths or how much experience they have under their belt, there are two key things that bring together people who choose to work in this field — a passion for authentic storytelling and a commitment to doing one’s part to make the world a smaller, more connected place.