The white-hot market for the next entertaining, obsessive, engaging, gasp-inducing docuseries that leads to real-world change is still very much alive and well.
In the past six months alone, docuseries including HBO’s “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children,” Lifetime’s “Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning,” Netflix’s “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez” and ESPN’s “The Last Dance” have been released and received widely. Each series was made with the intent to inform as well as entertain, leaving filmmakers in the precarious position of not only having to report and make sense of the facts, but also order those truths in a compelling, and at times dramatic, fashion.
While editing the 10-part series “The Last Dance,” about the Chicago Bulls 1997-98 season, director Jason Hehir says he had a “philosophy that we had to keep people entertained and keep them off balance a little bit by telling different stories and jumping back and forth to different time periods, but not make it so confusing that it turned them off.”
To do that, Hehir knew that he couldn’t tell the story linearly because “I’d have to start the series in 1984 when Jordan arrived,” he says. “We wouldn’t get to the ‘98 season until Episode 8 or 9.
“The analogy that I hammered home to the editors was that our story was the ‘97 to ‘98 season and that was the freeway that we were on,” he continues. “You can get off at exits as you go to tell little stories, but you have to get back on that freeway. You can stop and eat at an exit, but you can’t stay overnight at any time.”
“Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered” is a five-parter about an African American community that endured the abduction and murder of at least 30 Black children and young adults between 1979 and 1981. The series’ backbone is the murders, as well as the indictment and prosecution of then-23-year-old Wayne Williams. But by meshing archival footage, present-day footage and unseen court documents with talking heads that included victims’ family members, law enforcement and journalists, directors Sam Pollard, Maro Chermayeff, Jeff Dupre and Joshua Bennett also examined Atlanta’s racial tensions and political clashes.
“When ‘O.J.: Made in America’ came out we all realized that there were stories that we thought we knew that we didn’t know,” Chermayeff says. That series “dug way deeper and contextualized the crime in an entirely new way that made it incredibly relevant. We also had that same goal with ‘Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered.’ We really felt that this case had not been addressed in the context of what was happening racially, politically and socially during that time.”
“The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez” is also about a child murder. Executive producer and director Brian Knappenberger says he used the murder trial of Isauro Aguirre, the boyfriend of the titular Gabriel’s mother, as the central storyline of the six-part series. The audience discovers what happened to Gabriel just as the jury did in 2018. But by editing the trial down to six hours, Knappenberger was able to construct a series that kept the audience at the edge of the seats and waiting for justice. It was the streaming plaform’s most-popular original series from its premiere in February to mid-March.
The idea of taking a story about murder or rape and creating a compelling docuseries that contains cliffhangers and reveals to keep audiences engaged is a “delicate dance,” notes Lifetime’s Brie Miranda Bryant, who was executive producer on the first and second installments of the “Surviving R. Kelly” series. If done right, such a project can lead to real reform.
And Bryant should know: Just weeks after the first installment of last year’s “Survivin R. Kelly” aired, the series accomplished what decades of reporting, legal action and public outcry did not — the singer’s arrest. Facing multiple charges in three states, Kelly could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Bryant was initially “adamantly against” making “Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning,” due to fears of “diluting” the original series. But when told that there were more victims whose voices hadn’t been heard, Bryant felt compelled to make a followup five-part series. To relate the new stories, Bryant and her team relied on archival footage and talking heads that included survivors, friends, the singer’s siblings, as well as journalists, clinical psychologists and sexual violence experts.
“We made sure that each act of Part I and Part II led with a captivating story first,” says series’ executive producer Jesse Daniels. “Whether it was a survivor, a family member or a former employee, we were reliving that story with them. Once we did that we were able to follow up with an educational takeaway from that story via a psychologist or a cultural critic. But we couldn’t have one without the other.”
Over time, a filmmaker’s involvement with a subject can begin to color how that subject is portrayed in the project. Due to Michael Jordan’s partnership with “The Last Dance,” which allowed the basketball legend to give feedback on the series, veteran documentarian Ken Burns told the Wall Street Journal that he would “never, never, never, never” agree to a partnership like that on a documentary, calling it “not the way you do good journalism.” (He later apologized). Hehir’s response is that he’s not a journalist.
“I’m a storyteller and I try to tell stories in the most intriguing way possible, but I also have a reputation to uphold,” he says.
As storytellers dealing in facts, documentarians are digging for truths, but the drive to draw viewers to the series also requires a certain sense of style to the piece that goes beyond straight reporting.
“Our job is to educate and take people into worlds that people don’t know much about and do the deep dives into subject matters,” says Pollard. “That’s a documentary filmmaker’s responsibility. We also have to entertain, but we do not have to titillate.”
Adds Chermayeff: “There are many different arms of documentary filmmaking, whether that’s series or one-off films that are full of opinions that make great personal films or art films. They’re not meant to be vetted as a journalistic piece.”