The rise of non-fiction

We are in a new era. An era where nobody knows how to make money with just words. For the first time in the history of writing, the amount of text offered for free is bigger than the texts you have to pay for.

Also, in an apparently unrelated bit of information, people seem to watch, love and generate more documentaries than ever. Documentaries are not shown on public television anymore but they can be seen in some cinemas and by clicking on one of the many internet links. Documentaries still do not make any sort of relevant amount of money though.

So, how come people are watching so many guys with beards being filmed and talking to the camera? Let’s see how it all got started.
During the 80′s, audiences in Europe were used to watching serious and objective sounding reports on TV. People being interviewed, edited sequences accompanied by textual input and a monotone voice-over that described and explained everything. They were a great tool for generating awareness on social issues and a great way to educate kids and parents.

Then, in the early 2000′s, Michael Moore appeared on the scene and he showed bizarre, strongly personal and polemic pieces that we could still call documentaries.
It was fun to watch them. It was disgusting to watch them. And, since they made the audience feel something, people were eager to watch them.
Most of those new documentaries were still based on that same structure, with lots of people talking to the camera and voice-overs, but the range of narrative devices increased and the director’s point of view also changed. Now they were documented pieces of subjectivism.

(Sure, now some people will say that most of those so called “new devices” already existed in _Hiroshima mon amour_ or even before that, which is one of the wonders of internet: no matter what you write, somebody will tell you you are wrong.)
Anyway, for those people who never went to film school, the emergence of the documentary became a fact and more people than ever considered it normal to watch Grizzly Man, Super Size Me, Inside Job_or even (if they had the patience) Zeitgeist. Why were so many people watching them? Because they were free and they were being publicly debated on their Facebook walls. So, yes, folks, the internet, once again.

The internet is the perfect platform for documentaries for different and well-known reasons:

1. Easy access to original video/text sources.

2. Easy distribution.

3. Big audiences

4. Great platform for paranoia. (The paranoia documentary is a genre in and of itself, with a sub-genre dedicated to what truly happened in the Twin Towers.)

5. Easy access to tutorials and learning tools.

Any kid with a Canon Mark II and a laptop can shoot and edit from home. This is a recent phenomenon. Now it looks normal but it was a big change. So shooting documentaries was easy and almost a basic necessity for anybody with a funny or sad history to tell. Not so for feature films though. To shoot a feature film you need a really strong screenplay. And screenplays take work. And human beings tend to be naturally effort- averse.

(Check out a list of the top documentary films, considering how many have been made in the last 20 years: .)

So the internet became flooded with documentaries. Some professional and some amateur and lots of them for free. Since lots of filmmakers were accusing someone of something or claiming something was true or false, it seemed almost logical to deliver and distribute them for free. As audiences became more educated, it also happened that some people were willing to pay to watch documentaries in the cinema. To pay for the best ones that is. Or to pay as a form of activism.

Some audiences would even pay for documentaries but keep on refusing to pay for fiction. One reason being that lots of feature films suck, a lot. Writers and critics have been trying to understand why. If you look at the box office hits from 20 years ago and then compare them to the ones today you immediately start to feel depressed and consider alcoholism.

Here is a look at the current situation in Europe: – Movies that are directed towards a local audience do not work because they think they their audience is full of idiots– but actually, nowadays, there are trillions of other options of things to do before going to the cinema and watching a film in your native language. So you need to offer something really good.

– Movies that are made for international audiences do not work because nobody understands the jokes.

– Movies tend to be expensive. The competition is huge. Everybody can watch everything and Europe has less money for cultural subsidies.

– European movies tend to look too much like European movies from the seventies, especially when they are conscientiously trying to look European. Sure, there are the rare exceptions from the Danish gang and bloody Haneke.

The emergence of the documentary is the consequence of a deeper shift in what humans consume. Average men and women seem to be interested in non-fiction, not just documentary films, including conferences, talks, graphics, data and long format articles. This attraction to non-fiction content grew partly due to:

– Universities not working well.

– Traditional media not working well.

– Things are going wrong and we need to change them.

– Things are going well and I want to be part of it.

– Data is God.

The 2008 economic crash contributed to the development of non-fiction. What the hell happened? We were so happy in 2007.
Most of the documentary universe has chosen its answer: greed. Or a more developed interpretation: Western civilisation is a sadistic prick.

Documentaries are powerful guilt relievers – even though the exploitation of the western world’s bad conscious has existed since 1917, there is still a need to compensate as an individual for the harm that we inflict as a society by sharing in it in public. And this has become a big driver for any sort of so called positive human activity.

It is possible that this entire process I have just described is simply a vice reserved for snobs. True. The fact is that, even though all the snobs now go to the same clubs and consume the same products, talking amongst themselves in English, they still make up enough of the population to be considered a significant audience. And an audience means money. Even though the ones who are supposed to be getting it out of them have not quite figured out how to do it yet.

We are actually paying very little if we compare the situation to any past era. Television used to be heavily subsidized via taxes so nothing is for free and nothing was. People in corporations, startups and blogs are just trying to make the same money but through different systems. Freemium, paywalls, subscriptions or t-shirts. But first of all they have to jam tons of content down our throats. Most of it non-fiction text. Fiction, piracy aside, is still trying to sell in a conventional way. You pay; I show you what I’ve got. Good. But non-fiction is more like: “Since I will become so important and so great, and you will not be using an ad-blocking browser, I will give you what I’ve got”. Quite a different approach.

Everybody needs English. English is the king. There’s no contest. Even people who speak little or practically no English write their Facebook status in English. English is really, really cool right now. Even in countries traditionally reluctant to use it (see: France, Germany and Spain). An intellectual approach to language learning is over. It is more important to speak good English than three or four languages at an-almost-but-not-quite-enough level. Science is written primarily in English and information about new technology too. I would bet even fiction writers publish early English translations of their works to get access to the big market faster.

English has also made it easy for non-fiction. Reading poetry in English is much harder than reading the subtitles of someone’s personal testimony. English basic skills have contributed to the diffusion of information. Part of the public claims that the amount of information is not helping and is, in fact, doing rather the opposite in the struggle to build a better and more solid view of the world.

Hard to say.

What is clear is that there is still no universal warning bell that dings every time we read one of the logical fallacies that are being written or when there is a misuse of editing in a documentary or when there is a direct lie or false prediction.

What we are lacking at this point are automatic fact-checkers. And this is an issue that does need to be addressed in this era and those to come.

(thanks to Julia Weitzer from for the editing)


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