Genre Matters

Curator's Note

Age Of Stupid crowdsourced its funding and distribution, which is rightly garnering considerable attention among documentarians. What is less acknowledged is its strategy to change genre.

The filmmaker found on first screenings that the core audience already supports the message. If the film is to make an impact it has to reach the mainstream population, which is rare for a documentary and its traditional distribution. Her solution was to incorporate the science fiction genre, which provides a mainstream marketing hook. This is a good example of how filmmakers can plan to use genre to leverage the mainstream media to affect public engagement outcomes. The broader the communication of an issue, the stronger its rhetoric in the public sphere. As with any independent film such a breakout is not certain, but translating the message into more popular genres at least provides the potential both to harness established distribution to find wider audiences and to expand the crowdsourcing population.

The films of Michael Moore and docudramas like Good Night and Good Luck show the potential exists. Although the efficacy of these films is difficult to measure, success is felt in two ways. First, the public discourse may broaden (or even appear) with the introduction of alternative points of view. Second, any large success will itself be embedded in the genre and be a reference for future product within the genre. Repetition of a message reinforces this shift - the new DNA continually mixes into the evolution of the genre. The shift is slow, but it is progress.

This practice is slowly growing within documentary in the form of recreations and dramatizations. The technique can be pursued more widely where breakout potential is a goal. Filmmakers and audiences will need to review the ethical and practical considerations. In some cases, filmmakers may have to sacrifice journalism standards for a wider audience. But new financing possibilities allow filmmakers to break free from the discipline of traditional documentary funding and distribution, and with it the chance to popularize their message in the mainstream.

For Age Of Stupid, the trailer suggests to potential audiences that the film is foremost a documentary. That might be what holds it back.


 I think this is a really interesting area of research, one that I'm beginning to wade into as well. What does "documentary" mean anymore? Consider another example, the animated film Waltz With Bashir, which is very much a documentary despite its form. What does animating it do to it? By the same token, consider another film more in line with The Age of Stupid in terms of its commingling of documentary and science fiction generic forms, the summer sleeper hit District 9. How much of its success is due to a clever marketing campaign that allowed its audience to believe it was being sold a documentary until, suddenly, it wasn't?

As you show clearly, Andreas, genre does matter.  What we have are essentially two different texts.  I’m curious how adapting the documentary to the science fiction genre altered the textual form as well as the meaning as expressed through its reception.   

Thank you for the great comments. In fact, the questions do focus on the core of the issue. First, the term documentary and its historical reference to journalistic rigour is being whittled away from both sides, as Robert points out with District 9. This has built on its predecessors from Cloverfield back to Man Bites Dog and further to Battle of Algiers. Documentary might now more be considered a style, rather than an indication of the nature of content and its meaning.

Second, this raises Chad's question about the text and its meaning. The genre migration necessitates a change in text, to that which mostly has been defined by the audience. Popular genres have grown symbiotically with audiences and by definition try to satisfy their needs. Successful narratives embed the story in text to which the audience can relate. Documentary often sits outside of this culturally specific text, creating space between the film and the audience. This might explain why audiences have an appetite for 'true' stories, but less so in documentary form. The Age of Stupid did not alter its textual form so much as wrap it in another, which gives it look but not meaning.

Interesting post. I wonder if appropriating the sci-fi genre to make a documentary more entertaining or engaging has any relation to what something like The Daily Show does with satire and the news; it performs a journalistic function but without conforming to contemporary journalistic norms. 


In regards to the assertion "documentary often sits outside this culturally specific text" - isn't the documentary form another genre that has also grown symbiotically, as you put it, with its audience and conformed to its expectations?

Thanks for the comment Erika. I agree with your point about the Daily Show, and it is interesting that some studies indicate it contains the same amount of actual news as cable news shows.

As Robert pointed out, the term documentary is being revised, and certainly much of this is growing out of and with audience, as you say. The recent popularity of the genre has allowed it to develop in a number of directions, which we can acknowledge in our classifications. Still, in many cases documentaries that are made to satisfy funding and film festival formats are being repurposed by the audience to satisfy their needs. One example is in the education market, one of the core commercial markets for docs, where films are mostly quoted in sections rather than whole.

Perhaps the unique challenge for documentary is the need to engage with a large range of disparate audiences.

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