Beyond Fiction: The Thrill of Real Stories in Documentaries

by Kendall Headley '26 on November 10, 2023
A&E Staff

Arts & Entertainment

When we look back on the 18th century, we see its notions as outdated and its technology as drably undeveloped. The world was boring then, we think; people were confined to their immediate communities and finding their novel exhilaration from a machine that cleaned cotton. Who would want to be them? 

Now, we have 3D movies like Jurassic Park where a pterodactyl practically jumps into our lap, and virtual reality headsets that transport us to the wreckage of the Titanic in seconds. But these technological evolutions, while providing us with valuable new entertainment and tools, accompany a morph in our mindset that, frankly, is the opposite of better-off. 

The 18th century birthed the idea of romanticism—a form of art, whether in writing, illustration, poetry and much more, that focused on the common person’s reality and emotion, frequently emphasizing how aspects of human life intertwined with nature. To many, this idea could mean realism is dismissed, converting to a sole focus on emotion and dramatics. But this, to me, is exactly the nature of human beings’ reality: our emotions and our feelings are interconnected with the world surrounding us. 

Key words: the world surrounding us. Unfortunately, as our technology has expanded to generate new, exciting fictions, our attention and invigoration with our world has seemingly dwindled. We find no novelty in our neighbors, no originality in exploring the earth. This has deemed nonfiction outlets, like documentaries, stale. This acclimation to constant use of animation and special effects has nearly killed interest in documentaries that highlight the literal reality of our world, and this killing is undoubtedly unjust.

Documentaries deserve a much larger amount of recognition in the realm of media. If viewed correctly, they can elicit the same amount of excitement we find in movies like The Rise of the Planet of the Apes. They require a fundamental but necessary change in mindset from the idea that this is just real life, to thinking instead, this is real life. This is happening in the world around us. 

The Deepest Breath, a Netflix documentary directed by Laura McGann which follows the journey of two professional free-divers, was more nail-biting than any action movie I’ve ever sat through. The documentary includes scenes of actual free-divers in competitions, risking their lives on every dive. In the last few seconds before surfacing, the free-divers would commonly experience blackouts, where they lose consciousness and need to be resuscitated. The documentary includes scenes of their parents watching these moments, unable to know if their child has survived the dive, accompanied by a crescendoing score that only heightens the intensity. This induces the same anticipation that a blockbuster might—if not even more. 

Documentaries also make large amounts of information accessible to the most average human being. It’s practically child’s play to sit and watch a documentary, while simultaneously learning about some of the most complex systems in our universe. If I, a 19-year-old girl without any education in physics or astronomy, googled research on black holes, I would be bombarded with links upon links leading me to peer-edited journals by scientists at NASA that wouldn’t nearly resemble English. However, as I watched Netflix’s Black Holes: The Edge of All We Know, directed by Peter Galison, I soon understood the notions behind Stephen Hawking’s Black Hole Information Paradox: The theory that information could simply disappear forever within a black hole. NASA, hire me now!

If that doesn’t quite pique interest, there are documentaries on topics far and wide, and the purpose of watching does not have to be limited to education about more scientific disciplines. I recently tapped into my love for rock music and watched Netflix’s Count Me In, directed by Mark Lo, which featured drummers from a wide variety of rock bands throughout recent history. The time I spent watching was also spent enjoying the cultivation of music and the minds that create it, and consequently gaining cultural knowledge of what shaped music today—something that almost every individual can identify with. 

Documentaries could be equated with just reading a book (which I certainly do not mean to condemn), but they incorporate the visual and audible elements that make blockbuster movies all the more entrancing. The director’s choices of mise-en-scene do miles to make the realistic information conveyed in these films incredibly captivating. 

We must start reforming a connection with reality and nature before we get too carried away with false representations and the latest technological developments that allow us to become detached from the world around us, our world. We must reconnect with the romantic nature of the 18th century. And the best way to instigate this change and become enthralled with authentic nature and humanity is clear and simple: watch documentaries.