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Why are documentaries important?

Intelligence is measured by the way living things perceive their surrounding environment, learn from and communicate with others, and in how emotions are felt and expressed. Although the workings of the brain may not be obvious to the naked eye, all these functioning parts are important to our ability as humans, to connect with the world and survive the many obstacles life brings.

Science is pivotal to understanding this connection and the goal driving the work of many researchers is to develop applications that will ultimately improve our understanding of living organisms and provide treatments for illness and disease. But researchers are usually locked away in their laboratories, or their work is hidden behind Journal pay walls, unknown to most people in society.

Documentaries provide an exciting avenue for scientists to demonstrate what they know and how they go about their research. Reported studies are demonstrating how the documentary genre is increasingly in demand. For example, from January 2018 to March 2021, there was a 63 per cent increase in documentary series produced, and the popularity of documentaries with consumers soared to 142 per cent (1). So, what is driving this trend? Documentaries give scientists an opportunity to establish themselves as an authority in their field, which helps audiences understand and appreciate the value of the research to their own life. Our curiosity to know is what drives the success of these documentaries. Each one represents a valuable lesson we can all learn from.

News and current affairs programs produced by the television and film industry are quite similar to a documentary because the achievements of an individual, the negative or positive consequences of an event, or the contribution living things makes to the environment are reported 24/7. Stories range from 15 seconds to 10 minutes in duration, depending on the circumstances taking place, for example, reporting live events, or documenting experiences that have already happened. The criteria used to gauge whether a story is broadcast or not is referred to as ‘news worthiness’ which means is it important for viewers to know and do they need to know (12, 13). Before I continue, I think it might be a good idea to explain what the term documentary means.

First coined in the 1800’s, the term ‘documentary’ used to mean “pertaining to documents” (2). The word itself is based on the Latin word: ‘documentum’ (3) where ‘docu’ means ‘to teach’ (4). Over time, technological advancements have seen the definition change to: “a film or television or radio programme that provides a factual report on a particular subject”.


There are six different types of documentaries (5):

  • Performative – the story unfolds through the filmmaker’s version of the facts (6),

  • Reflexive – the film maker forces the viewer to reflect on and analyze their view of the truth (7),

  • Participatory – people in a community come together to listen to each other’s concerns and tell their story (8),

  • Observational – a film based on the observation of real-life people and events, cinema verite (9),

  • Expository – the film maker uses evidence to support the story’s argument and conclusions (10), and

  • Poetic – the film maker seeks to convey the inner truth by evoking feelings and emotion through the traditional narrative structure (11).

Evidence based documentaries (expository) are probably the most popular in the genre because the film maker supports a point of view or explains a subject that is not known widely – with evidence. This style of presentation complements stories about scientists in laboratories or the field. But the other documentary types enable film makers to cast a different light on a story. Applying a different narrative might appeal to the personal experience or opinions individuals express about a topic, and successfully work to hook the attention of more people. 

A documentary can inspire curiosity and social media has opened up opportunities for the world to follow or contribute to your research journey through philanthropy, volunteer work or citizen science projects. Connect with Salty Wave to find out how I can tell your story through a documentary.

Written By Gabrielle Ahern

Originally Published March 27 2023

A film crew is filming a female presenter talking to camera in a forest. There are eight crew members, one is a videographer, recording sound, and adjusting the presenter's makeup. There is also a large light set up in the forest.
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