Documentary Films: Storytelling with Purpose

By Jax Deluca

Last month, the National Endowment for the Arts released a new report, State of the Field: A Report from the Documentary Sustainability Summit, in partnership with International Documentary Association (IDA). Intended to strengthen the infrastructure for those working in the documentary field, the report can be used as a catalyst for cross-disciplinary conversations seeking attainable solutions across the various layers of the documentary ecosystem and beyond. While the first half of the report’s key findings focus on cross-sector collaboration and strengthening peer networks, the second half offers actionable items and a reminder that EVERYONE is a stakeholder in this conversation.

I know what you’re thinking:

  • How can everyone be a stakeholder? I’m not a filmmaker.
  • I don’t directly serve the documentary community. So, why is this important?
  • Why is the NEA focused on this conversation?
  • Are documentaries even considered an art form?

These are all common questions. So, here’s a quick overview of why documentaries matter and how it might pertain to you, especially if you are interested in community organizing, social justice, economic revitalization, artist entrepreneurship, or fair compensation for creative workers.

First of all, like any other art form, it is important to remember there are individuals working in a variety of styles and formats within the documentary genre, from traditional to experimental films to interactive web-based experiences and even more immersive forms such as virtual reality. Though the rise of new technologies has steadily provided an expansion of the tools available to artists working in the field, the core component of documentary remains the same: storytelling.

Documentaries matter because a successful story has the power to allow others to see the world from a new perspective. Public agencies, nonprofits, educational institutions, museums, libraries, and other community-focused organizations frequently use documentaries to complement programming, spark community dialogue, and build deeper understanding and empathy on complex issues. In fact, the first case study in the report is representative of the ways documentary filmmakers are actively leveraging storytelling power to make lasting impact in local communities. Here’s the perspective of another funder on why they are investing in the nonfiction storytelling field.

If impact strategy is a primary goal for you or your organization, then you would be interested in this white paper on the Impact of Social Issue Documentaries issued by the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University. Also, this short video on Empathy, Neurochemistry and the Dramatic Arc from the Future of Storytelling, featuring neuroeconomics pioneer Paul Zak, is another primer on how storytelling affects our neurochemistry, deepens empathy, and enables change. Furthermore, a recent article with Diana Barrett of the Fledgling Fund is evidence that as artists begin to explore new storytelling tools and technologies, social issue funders are similarly interested in uncovering the potential for these emerging immersive storytelling technologies, such as virtual and augmented reality. Therefore, investing in the transformative power of storytelling has significant value outside of the documentary community.

In terms of economic revitalization, artist entrepreneurship, or fair compensation for creative workers, there are a few intersecting points of interest. The public sector at state and local levels are becoming increasingly interested in the creative economy sector and are exploring ways to attract and retain creative workers in their communities. According to new data from the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the industry with the fastest growth in arts and culture production between 1998 and 2013 was “other information services,” a category that includes online publishing, broadcasting, and streaming services (12.3 percent). Other fast-growing industries were sound recording (9.5 percent); arts-related computer systems design, including services for films and sound recordings (7.7 percent); and regular broadcasting (5 percent). Therefore, documentary filmmakers, nonprofits, and other institutions working in media arts should be included in these conversations to clearly articulate needs of this community and better inform decision makers. Furthermore, the call to strengthen the infrastructure for documentary professionals to maintain a sustainable careers is parallel to the national movements working to ensure better compensation and fair wages for artists, such as Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.).

As a closing note, the NEA is invested in this conversation because the documentary format, like any other form of art, has the power to enhance the value of individuals and communities, connect us to each other and to something greater than ourselves, and empower creativity and innovation in our society and economy. I invite you to read the report as a first step in joining us in this conversation. I truly believe there is something each of us can contribute toward moving the dial on these issues. If you’d like to talk further on this topic, feel free to send me an email at delucaj@arts.gov.

Also, you can tune in to future webinar conversations with professionals in the field on the following topics: