Choosing the right documentary

Jon Hokenson, Editor

This September, the documentary section of Netflix has 952 available titles. Hulu has 554. Amazon Prime has 130 for 2019 alone, and HBO is too expensive to know, but presumably, it has some too.

“This is the golden age of the documentary, there’s no question about it,” says documentary producer Cynthia Lukas. Like the rest of us though, she doesn’t have four thousand hours of free time to watch them all. So these are her recommendations to narrow the field and get the most out of a documentary experience.
Lukas has been making documentaries for over 25 years. Her most recent projects are two tandem films: “Gandhi’s Gift” and “Gandhi’s Awakening,” available now through American Public Television. In addition to making them, Lukas is also fan of documentaries. She says she’s watched two documentaries in the last week. One was “This Changes Everything,” a 2018 documentary about the ongoing lack of female writers and directors in Hollywood. It is not the 2015 film of the same name about climate change, which became clear after a moment of confusion during Lukas’s interview.

“I also just watched ‘Tony Morrison: The Pieces I Am.’ It was a great tribute to her as an author and very well done. They had a lot of resources from her and her family that allowed them to make a great documentary.”

Lukas’s praise of the Morrison biography brings up the three most important things she says she looks for when vetting a documentary. The first is its sources. Lukas’s most recent productions about Gandhi, for instance, feature first-hand sources such as Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, Ph. D.
“You want to look at who’s in it,” says Lukas. “Do they have a top scholar? Do they have one or more people who are top in their field? Are they legitimate commentators: author, scholar, whatever it is they are? You want to find quality sources.”

This information is usually available in the short description that accompanies most documentaries on streaming services. If it isn’t, that may indicate how confident the producers are in their sources. Another tool usually available on streaming services is a brief preview of the documentary, which Lukas uses to gauge another of her criteria: craftsmanship.

“I think you can tell a lot by the summary of the documentary that pops up,” says Lukas. “You don’t even have to watch the full three minutes, probably. I think you can tell pretty easily. You see if it’s well photographed and if the people are speaking well. You want to look at quality.”

Lukas’s final word of advice is to truly ask yourself if the topic is meaningful or relevant to you. For instance, her decision to watch “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” was partially prompted by Morrison’s recent passing in August. Similarly, Lukas says her role as a woman in the film industry, prompted her to watch “This Changes Everything,” a documentary about the patriarchal structure of Hollywood.

Although Lukas spoke at length about this topic, demonstrating her intense feelings and depth of knowledge on it, she doesn’t recommend only watching documentaries you think you’ll agree with.

“I see a value in both,” she says. “I would say it is a good thing to watch documentaries about things you might disagree with.” She encourages viewers, though, to hold them to the same standards of quality, reliability and relevance.

“Make sure that they too follow these criteria, you know.” says Lukas. “If they don’t have reliable sources and are not well done and not on a topic worthwhile, you may not want to force yourself to sit down and watch. It shouldn’t be torture to watch a documentary, but, in terms of broadening your outlook, yes, you may learn something.”