Almost every Christian movie website has a category labeled something like Christian Documentaries or just Documentaries. What you find in these categories ranges from boring home movies to films so well produced they resemble action thrillers. But what are these movies really supposed to be? I mean, what is a documentary anyway? The reality is a bit more exciting than most people have given it credit for.
I would like to start by saying that I used to teach digital documentary production at the university level. And while I didn’t produce feature length documentary movies, I did write the course on the subject. Literally, I created the course after studying some of the most renown documentary producers that the world has ever known. I still wouldn’t consider myself an expert on the subject but I am speaking from experience and study.
What is a Documentary?
You’ve most likely seen one or two documentaries, you know, those retro colored productions that show mostly old documents with scripted narrative in the background. Or at least that is the mental image that most people conjure up. But that is not exactly everything that documentaries are supposed to be.
The textbook style definition of a documentary is a film or work that recreates an event, era, person’s life, etc. with factual accuracy avoiding all fiction.
That is a good academic definition, but the ebb and flow of reality leaves something to be desired. You see, aside from the Word of God there is no retelling of a story with complete factual accuracy. Everything is seen and told as we understand it; that is the nature of stories. So there is no perfect documentary movie, because no person knows all the facts, and no two people understand the facts in the exact same way.
Now yes, the goal is to tell the story with complete accuracy. But who gets to decide what complete accuracy is? That is often a decision that is shared by the writer, director, and producer. And unless all three of them were there and experienced the event first hand then they are stuck interpreting other people’s secondhand information. So in the end, it becomes a matter of telling the story as accurately as possible with no intent to fictionalize.
Enter the Christian Documentary
With Christian documentaries we have something deeper that goes into telling the story. You see, God himself is involved in the story; part of it is about Him. So no longer are we just documenting events, but we are telling the story of God’s handiwork. I’d say this ups the ante considerably. So how do we do it, how do we tell His story?
Some would advocate that we build it around facts and make the movie a chronicling of written evidence. After all, we want to represent God as accurately as possible. And there are some documentaries like this, some boring and some insightful. But when the story actually happened, it wasn’t lived as a chain of facts strung together by dull narrative. It was lively, impacting, and if God was directly involved then it was extraordinary!
So yes, we could document the story by stringing facts together, or we could tell it like it happened, vibrantly. Which of these types of Christian documentaries do you think represents God better?
Documentary Vs. Drama
If you go down the road of life like movies far enough then you run into the question of when does a religious documentary turn into a drama? I would say that shift happens when the focus of the movie goes from truth to entertainment. There are great Christian dramas that are based on true stories, but they have chosen drama over facts and sometimes slide out of the documentary category. That does not make them bad movies; it just puts them into a different category. Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
The Beauty of Christian Documentaries
These Christian movies are meant to be so much more than a drab fact reel. They proclaim the works of God hands. They are stories about Him, told with their focus on truth. And the best producers are beginning to realize that the truth isn’t boring, so the movie shouldn’t be either.
In His Service,
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