Creating Emotion-Driven Documentaries: Five Excellent Examples

July 8, 2014

At its heart, filmmaking is about telling stories. Whether real or imagined, the job of the filmmaker is to communicate the story well and connect with the audience on an emotional level; when it comes to documentaries, the recent trend has been to really pack a punch with extremely impassioned subject matter.

Over the last ten years, we’ve witnessed the release of some of the most heart-rending non-fiction documentaries ever filmed. Of course, it isn’t easy to deliver highly sensitive material without coming across as insincere or over-the-top, and it’s a fine art which can take some time to perfect during documentary filmmaking school.

In the spirit of standing on the shoulders of giants, here are five documentary masters at work which serve as excellent examples on how to do it right.

Grizzly Man

See the trailer:

We don’t need to spend any time discussing the brilliance of Werner Herzog, one of the most celebrated cinematographers in the field of non-fiction. If you’ve ever seen one of Herzog’s documentaries—even one of his worse ones—you’ll know that he has a knack for picking fascinating subject matter and bringing the best out of it.

Grizzly Man is no exception. Covering the life and (rather terrible) death of Tim Treadwell, it’s hard to imagine what drives a man to live without protection in the midst of grizzly bears but Herzog gets as close as it’s possible. Treadwell’s hubris in the face of nature’s most powerful predators is much debated and proved to be his (and his girlfriend’s) end, but everything leading up to this finality will stir your emotions and have you sympathizing with the man…for better or worse.

Jesus Camp

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Very few documentaries get as much rise out of viewers as Jesus Camp, and the emotion most elicited in this documentary is usually ‘rage.’ Even by just watching the two-minute trailer above, you’ll quickly understand why this is the case.

Where does the line between ‘cult’ and ‘religion’ lie? That’s one of many controversial questions raised in the coverage of the Kids on Fire ministry and its operator, Becky Fischer, who spends her life aggressively preparing young children for spiritual warfare in the run up to the impending ‘end times.’ It drew the ire of both religious and secular organizations to such an extent that it was forced to close.

One of the crowning achievements of Jesus Camp is that it doesn’t impose any kind of viewpoint on the part of the creators, but simply lets the material speak for itself.

Dear Zachary

Only one word can be used to describe Dear Zachary.


Without wanting to reveal too many spoilers about this harrowing and tragic story, let’s just say this documentary is the emotional equivalent of a sledgehammer and will reduce most humans into floods of tears long before the credits roll.

Kurt Kuenne’s magnum opus and very personal memorial to his deceased friend (and the injustices of his death) is better watched than described, even if it’ll leave you so drained you’ll never want to watch it again.

Man On Wire

If Dear Zachary is the most harrowing documentary out there, Man On Wire has got to be the antithesis—very few movies will leave you feel as uplifted and awestruck as this telling of the Philippe Petit story.

Aside from being an impeccably crafted documentary from a technical standpoint, the man at the center of this biopic is a fascinating character. If you’re unaware of his madcap stunt—and few were before the documentary—Petit planned and trained extensively to pull off a single idea he’d obsessed about for years. In April 1974, he snuck into the newly constructed World Trade Center in New York and fired a tightrope wire across the roofs of the twin towers. He then walked across them.

The horrors of 9/11 are purposefully kept out of the documentary in an effort to make sure they don’t blight this incredible tale of a great man and two great buildings. It works.

Paradise Lost

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The story of the West Memphis Three is a well-known and complex one. In 1994, three teenagers were sent down for life for the murder of three other boys. The case and investigation—and subsequently the teens’ innocence—was fiercely debated over the course of two decades, before the three were released under a complicated innocence plea owing to new forensic evidence.

Numerous films have been made during this time and undoubtedly there’ll be many more to come, but the best among them is Paradise Lost. It provides an impressively objective take on the failings of the case and those involved, all the while not holding anything back. Be warned, however, that some of the footage can be upsetting at times.