The Case For Documentaries

Written by Kim Kemppainen



When was the last time you voluntarily sat down to watch a TV show or movie? Last week? Yesterday? Maybe right now? Chances are, it was probably not that long ago. In today’s world, sites like Netflix and Hulu give people instant access to thousands, if not millions, of videos. But when was the last time you voluntarily sat down to watch a documentary? The answer to that question likely requires more thought. In a world filled with action movies, comedy series, and heartwarming classics, one genre goes largely unnoticed: documentaries.


Now I know what you’re probably thinking. Why would I choose to watch a documentary in my free time when I could be watching Game of Thrones or Stranger Things instead? Well, you know what they say, real life is stranger than fiction. When it comes to documentaries, I truly believe that phrase to be true. Just because a documentary is a factual account of something (an event, a person’s life, an organization) doesn’t mean that is has to be boring. In many cases, documentaries are just as entertaining, if not more, than other genres of film.


Understandably, the documentaries that most of us are probably used to watching were made in the 1970s and shown in high school history classes. They had grainy, slow moving images and a monotone narrator, so I can’t blame you for being turned off. Today though, the world of documentaries is filled with gripping interviews, unedited footage and never before seen coverage about stories that demand to be told. They have suspense, action, comedy, and heart-warming stories, usually all wrapped up into one film. Although documentaries seem historical in nature, there are many about events that are still going on and issues that our society is still struggling with.


What I especially love about documentaries is that I never get to the end and feel like I have wasted my time. Even if I didn’t love how the documentary portrayed a person or an issue, I had the opportunity to learn something new. Unlike most other genres of film, documentaries have the power to educate, as well as entertain. That being said, I hope you take the time to watch a recent documentary about something that interests you. If you don’t know where to start, here are 5 of the best documentaries I have watched in the past year:


1. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail


Nominated for “best documentary feature” in the 2018 Oscars, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, focuses on Abacus Federal Savings Bank after the 2008 financial crisis. Located in the Chinatown district in New York City, Abacus Federal Savings Bank was the only bank (at the time) run by Chinese immigrants, for Chinese immigrants. Surprisingly, it was also the only bank to face criminal charges after the recession. Following the Sung family, the owners of the bank, this documentary adds a new perspective to financial crisis, while examining the life of Chinese immigrants.



2. The Force


An inside look at one of the most controversial topics in America right now, The Force follows the Oakland police force as they attempt to regain control of their city. Shot over the course of two years, this documentary explores police misconduct, race relations, and security in the United States. It also takes a look at some of the biggest cases Oakland has faced in past few years. The Force offers a refreshing analysis of the state of the police force in the United States, as it presents many different perspectives from policemen (and women), bystanders, and citizens who have been involved in investigations.



3. Inside Yemen

This short documentary examines the recent cholera outbreak in Yemen. The World Health Organization has classified this outbreak as the worst in the world and Yemen currently tops the United Nations list of “largest humanitarian crises.” Unfortunately due to conflict that continues to rage in the region, reports about the situation are largely based on speculation. As the only foreign journalist team that has been allowed to enter Yemen since the war began, Frontline gives us a rare look at how medical professionals are dealing with the cholera outbreak and how civilians are coping with the never-ending airstrikes. (Also, this documentary is only 15 minutes long, so there is no reason for not watching it!!)



4. Strong Island


Strong Island tells the story of William Ford Jr., a 24 year old African American who was shot and killed in New York during the early 1990s. This powerful exposé delves into issues of race and the United States legal system. What makes this documentary especially unique, is that it was actually directed by William’s brother, Yance Ford, an acclaimed documentary filmmaker. In an attempt to avenge William’s death, Strong Island seeks to uncover what really happened to him. In a surprising turn of events, it does not focus on William’s killer, but rather the legal system and how it played a role in his narrative.



5. President Trump


An exploration into the life of President Donald Trump, this documentary follows his rise to fame and journey to the White House. Whether you are a supporter of Trump or not, I think it’s important for all citizens of the United States to have at least a basic level of knowledge about our President. This documentary is a good one to watch because it presents Trump’s story in a fairly neutral light. It starts with his childhood and explores the biggest milestones in his life that led him to where he is today. If you are more interested in learning about Donald Trump or the 2016 election, there are countless other documentaries that detail the same story from a variety of viewpoints.