Why Oprah Winfrey’s Documentary Club could be a good thing

This week the OWN network announced via press release that Oprah is stepping into the documentary fray and this news has has been met with mixed feelings throughout the documentary community. From this year’s Sundance through to HotDocs the presence of Oprah’s OWN network as a new documentary player has been distinctly felt, especially in terms of acquisitions, with the network snapping up films like Family Affair at Sundance. There has also been the appearance of documentary filmmakers such as Kimberley Reed (director of the excellent Prodigal Sons) and Louie Psihoyos (director of the Oscar-winning The Cove) on her show, indicating a distinct growing interest on her part when it comes to documentary.

Of the style of documentaries they will be focusing on, the press release states:

“All of these documentaries fundamentally explore human interaction, relationships and emotions. We’re excited to provide viewers with new perspectives and new ways of looking at core themes that shape and affect their lives.”

Included in the press release was the announcement that they will be producing five two-hour documentaries for inclusion in a monthly documentary film club. These films will have the involvement of Julia Roberts, Forest Whitaker, Goldie Hawn, Gabriel Byrne and Mariel Hemingway and will look at a range of subjects from homelessness in Nashville, Tennessee (Byrne) to Louisiana’s maximum security prison at Angola (Whitaker).

I can understand why this aspect of the club has produced a tentative and slightly fearful reaction in those writing about the news. Yes, it is a shame that in order to promote our industry there needs to be a celebrity involvement, and I can understand apprehension over the quality of the output when considering this factor. But this is not something new in either documentary or fiction film. Independent projects have always gained more exposure when a high-profile name is attached to a project. Earlier this year the excellent Out of the Ashes gained news coverage when Sam Mendes came on board as an executive producer through his love of the subject matter: cricket. Do I think this impinges on the quality of the film itself? It had already been made, so of course not. It’s a shame that a project gains more interest with a name attached, but this is a film industry-wide problem. With the power that Oprah has, she could possibly avoid perpetuating this problem but it is understandable that she would choose not to, in order to raise the profile of her new endeavor.

Documentary can sometimes be seen as the bastard child of the film industry, felt by some to be a kind of high-brow, self-righteous art form that excludes the mainstream. While this is obviously not the view I have of the industry I work in and love immensely, I believe that Oprah’s programming could see audiences’ minds opened to documentary as a style of storytelling that does include them.

The industry as a whole is changing, especially when it comes to funding, and having a new player who is a broadcaster, no less, is something I entirely welcome. In terms of its potential standing in the industry as a whole, documentarytelevision.com has written an excellent breakdown of where it could sit in terms of financing and whether this could be a game-changer for documentary.

Other comments about the club have been directed at the thematic choices of the potential programming and its focus on ‘Oprah’-style stories. There are fears that the subjects will largely appeal to her demographic alone, thereby excluding the harder-hitting documentary stories. Again, this is something I don’t see as something to be feared. I feel optimistic that any kind of promotion of documentary is a positive step for the industry.

What the impact will be for documentary remains to be seen, but having experienced this industry as one that thrives on collaboration and community, I wholeheartedly welcome anyone making an attempt to champion the power of the medium and promoting it–whatever the platform. The more the merrier.

Let us know what you think in the comments below.

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