News Tip: Documentary Films' Growing Audience Engaged by Stories of Individual and Community

Summer's documentary hits show an appeal for the genre beyond the film festivals, says film programming expert Dawn Dreyer


DURHAM, N.C. -- The success of three documentary films this summer shows that documentaries' appeal has spread beyond the film-festival crowd, says an expert at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.

"It's not just a niche audience," said Dawn K. Dreyer, director of film programming at CDS. "When people are exposed to documentaries, they realize it's not an obscure experience."

This summer's art-house hits, "Capturing the Friedmans," the story of a Long Island family embroiled in a sex-crime scandal; "Spellbound," a documentary about students competing in the National Spelling Bee; and "Winged Migration," about the migration of birds, have made more than $11 million.

"Ken Burns and Michael Moore raised awareness of the documentary form with a broad audience," said Dreyer. "The success of these newer films shows that a wider spectrum of work exists beyond historical and overtly political documentaries, and that audiences are eager to connect with the stories being told."

Audiences become engaged with not only the film, but with the communities and issues being portrayed. "People see part of themselves in other people's stories," she said. "In contrast to the overwhelming amount of information that floods our lives every day, documentary films are grounded in the particular."

That experience means people are more willing to take a chance on a documentary film, she said.

"They're getting over the initial sense of documentary as something you watched in school when substitutes were there," she said. "The more documentaries people see, the more people want to see documentaries."

She said the summer's hits have more in common with fictional films than people might expect, and that contributes to their popularity.

"It's narrative. It's storytelling. It's becoming engaged with people's lives," she said.

Dreyer said she thinks the popularity of documentaries will continue to grow, and audiences will take more chances on films such as "Flag Wars," a film about gays and lesbians gentrifying a historically African-American neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, and "Two Towns of Jasper," about the 1998 murder of a black man in Jasper, Texas.

The directors of both those films won the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award. The Center for Documentary Studies is an interdisciplinary educational organization affiliated with Duke University and is dedicated to advancing documentary work that combines experience and creativity with education and community life.

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Dreyer can be reached for further comment at (919) 660-3680 or by e-mail at