This year, we’re starting a new Fanhackers initiative, where once a month or thereabouts we will be asking a Fan Studies Scholar to give us a personal perspective on their research. This month, Dr. Julia E. Largent, Assistant Professor of Communication at McPherson College, talks about her research into documentary fans.
Documentary fans – they do exist!
Although the first classified documentary is from 1922 (Nanook of the North) and the word itself wasn’t coined until 1926 (by John Grierson when referring to Moana, Robert Flaherty’s later film—not the popular Disney movie), documentaries are as old as the first film. Thomas Edison and the Black Maria, as well as the Lumière brothers and their cinematograph, helped bring the real to the screen for others to view—and run away from. Documentaries have since morphed into an industry where scholars and practitioners frequently fight over the definition of a documentary and what makes a documentary a documentary. Regardless of the definition, which John Grierson first coined as “a creative treatment of actuality,” fans of the genre exist. And that is what part of my research focuses on.
I have been interested in documentaries ever since I can remember. Learning about other people, other cultures, social topics, and about the world around me fascinated me. It allowed a different form of escape that I sought in other mediums; it allowed an escape to the real. As I entered graduate school, I became more interested in the genre and learned the techniques, the styles, and the vocabulary that encapsulates the field of documentary studies. But I also began to wonder why no one talked about documentaries the same way they do other forms of media, especially fictional media. Fan studies provided me a way to research this question and provided me with an answer. In short, documentary fans exist and they don’t behave any differently than other types of media fans. They write fanfic, create fan art, have hierarchies within the fandom, and splinter fandoms exist.
To answer my question, I used a variety of research methods. First, I collected tweets from three different documentaries, all within the first 30 days of their release. First was This American Life’s hit podcast Serial. The second film was FRONTLINE’s quadrennial documentary, The Choice (of which I used the 2016 edition focusing on Trump and Clinton). Lastly, Audrie & Daisy was chosen as an example of a streamed documentary (available on Netflix). A sample of tweets from each set of tweets were chosen and categorized into themes by myself and another colleague. The same tweets were then categorized into the emotion of each tweet.
After the tweets were categorized, a survey was created and disseminated to fans of Serial. Fans were targeted via Twitter, Facebook, and reddit. The goal was to get fans’ views into the phenomenon that was Serial—why was it so popular? What about the series made fans want to listen to, talk about, and reference the podcast in conversation and popular culture? Finally, interviews were held with three documentary filmmakers (not associated with the aforementioned documentaries) and two individuals from FRONTLINE’s social media and website development.
All of this research, as well as research and understanding of the documentary genre, led to the previously mentioned conclusion: that documentary fans behave the same way other media fans do. Among this exciting conclusion, a conversation about the term “documentary fan” has started and needs to continue. My hypothesis is that few people use the phrase to describe themselves because of the nature of documentary films—they are often sad and/or infuriating. Someone does not want to necessarily be a fan of something depressing. So, is there a better word to describe these devoted fans? That has still yet to be determined. In the meantime, keep on watching documentaries and actively participate in the conversations that follow. Be a proud fan of the genre, I’m right there with you.