I love documentaries, and if the topic is something I’m personally curious about or actively invested in, you’ve got my attention – especially if it’s online.
The reason for this love of online docs is because they are more accessible, and I think this is the appeal for many people. YouTube, Vimeo, Netflix, Lovefilm – in the UK alone there are multiple sources of documentary content, and original documentaries are rapidly appearing on these services due to the sheer size of the audiences they’re serving. I’ve looked into the aforementioned four platforms, and I’d like to share my findings and favourites with you.
YouTube is a filmmaker’s dream. A free hosting service for videos that can be 4K HD and as long as you want them to be. The odd thing is how difficult it can be to find documentaries on YouTube. There’s no centralised system for narrowing the wealth of material down, nor any formal submissions process to take original documentaries specifically made to be published on Google’s video platform and help audiences find them.
Quite frequently in the search for original content, I found myself scoping out comment threads and video info only to discover it was either unclear whether it was the property of the uploader, or it was obvious that it wasn’t (ie it was nicked). That’s a shame when it’s someone’s hard work and the ad money isn’t going into the pockets of the people who contributed to it, but at the same time it makes an argument that said documentary is not as accessible as it could be.
Of course, any original content you do find is also integrated into the world’s most popular video-based social network, so that’s not a bad thing, either. The amazing thing about YouTube is that you can jump on for five minutes and end up staying there for hours due to the sheer amount of content available for free. Some of this stuff, interestingly, is documentaries, and I thought I’d take some time to hunt for good examples for you to watch, so you can dodge a long slow search through the site itself in the hope of finding something good.
The thing about YouTube is that because it’s free to upload, people don’t have the same obligations when it comes to quality. Luckily, that’s not always an issue, as short mini-documentaries like 3D Printed Guns exist and are not only well-made, but also incredibly engaging. In 3PG, renowned content creator Vice delve into the career of one Cody Wilson, who is known the world over as the man who uses 3D printing to create firearms.
It’s a dark look into a practice that the American government simply aren’t up-to-date enough with to regulate properly, and that’s a scary thought. Thousands of dollars later, anyone in the world with the right designs could be printing weaponry. In the documentary it does specify that it only prints a certain part of the gun, but when you can order everything else legally, the implications are scary. At just over 24 minutes long, it’s not the most in-depth coverage of the 3D-printing arms race, but it’s definitely worth watching, chilling as it is.
To look at something a little brighter after the “storm is coming” 3PG, I’d recommend taking a look at Les Paul – Chasing Sound. It documents Les Paul himself, discussing both his personal history and his work creating one of the most iconic guitars in history. Music fans will love this, but for guitar players, this is nothing short of pornography, and wonderful at that. The selection of interviews is apt, and the documentary itself can hold its head high at being authorised by Les Paul himself.
I’ve developed a nice little evening routine, lately, on coming home, settling down, and then letting Netflix seep into my brain until I fall asleep. If you’re the documentary type, this is definitely an option you’ll want to pursue.
What’s interesting about it is that Netflix has recently taken to actually putting out original content exclusive to its platform. It’s not too frustrating, either – they do a free trial, and a subscription is only £5.99 a month (at my last check), so it’s not going to break the bank to dig into a large amount of video content.
Netflix’s aim is, as it states, to “become HBO faster than HBO can become [them].” In the documentary space, it aims to start putting out original documentary content. Quite what they feel are “broadly appealing” documentaries isn’t clear, but I hope they’re not thinking of sacrificing niche topics and in-depth, through-the-looking-glass peeks into other worlds for something that’s a little more palatable for the general, casual audience. A good mix would be both, really.
Vimeo has, without fault, always been a source of extremely high-quality video content, in my experience. The sort of things that appear on my radar that come out of Vimeo are usually displays of cinematographic skill that make me admire the craft as well as the output.
An award-winning documentary sits at the top of my Vimeo pile, right now, and it’s Amar (All Great Achivements Require Time), a quiet, atmospheric look into the life of Amar, a 14 year-old boy who gets up at four in the morning and goes to bed past ten at night, as he attends school and works two jobs to bring in money for his family. It’s wonderfully shot, with no music to interfere with the raw emotions the documentary inspires. It’s short, coming in at just under ten minutes, but this is the ideal length for a Vimeo documentary, I feel.
A Letter From Fred, however, is simply beautiful. Fred is an old man who wrote a song for his late wife, which he sent into a competition at a local studio. The studio then worked, unpaid, to produce the song to the best of their ability, and Fred’s response is worth watching. It’s an incredibly emotional piece and costs precisely zero anything to watch, so there’s no reason not to. Again, not very long at just under ten minutes, but I can’t recommend it enough.
LoveFilm, for those not in the know, is now owned by Amazon, and thus Amazon Studios has a route into a publishing platform for cinema that has a considerable audience in the UK. Like Netflix, LoveFilm is subscription-based, but that seems like a small price to pay for a considerable amount of choice.
While they have announced their intentions to produce and release original documentary content, we’re still waiting, but patiently – Amazon have a fair amount of cash to throw at projects, one would imagine, and thus the result should at least be well-funded.
The amazing thing about internet streaming is that it takes almost nothing, bar the odd bit of cash, to get a good documentary day-in going. I could quite feasibly lock myself in my room for three full months and only then run out of documentaries on Netflix, watching them constantly without a break. YouTube has quite a lot of documentaries available, but the reason I was reluctant to post some wasn’t because they were bad, it was simply because I had no idea whether some of them were actually originals for YouTube or ones lifted off a legally-obtained broadcast/recording.
Documentaries are fantastic – I’ve come out of them feeling significantly more educated (although it’s always wise to appreciate that documentaries are not always as objective as we’d like to believe), and to be able to absorb more of them for little or no money isn’t something I’m saying no to any time soon.