Tired of reading? Here’s why you should watch documentaries

Illustration of a film reel.
Willow Yang/File

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At this point in the semester, I don’t know if my brain can take any additional reading. Every semester is the same: I finish the stacks of assigned pages for reading with the question, “What now?” I mean, I’d love to sit and read a novel, something I’ve loved to do since I was a kid. But with hours on Zoom and other time spent staring at a computer screen of words, I have no more capacity to read for enjoyment.

If you feel anything like I do right now, there’s a solution for you: Replace your recreational reading with documentary films. Not fictional movies about made-up characters, but real interviews with footage of real places, events and people. There’s nothing wrong with a good make-believe tale, but documentaries offer glimpses into someone else’s reality. They are rich with information and can add depth to your understanding on different topics, similar to the act of reading new things (academically or recreationally). The next time you find yourself free and craving something enriching, you may want to consider watching a documentary! Not convinced just yet? Well, keep reading to see why you should watch them.

You’d be surprised at what you can learn from a few minutes of watching a documentary. The films feature interviews with individuals related to the subject. While not every filmmaker holds the same values, there are many whose films aim to raise awareness or call people to action. Films like “Paya offer perspectives from people who are typically silenced or erased. By using footage of interviews, some filmmakers uplift the voices of marginalized individuals, although it is important to note that, historically, some filmmakers have abused their power and harmed their subjects. For this reason, it’s important to be critical of the films you watch and learn from their failures as well as their accomplishments.

Fictional screenplays are exciting, imaginative stories that, when interpreted, may reveal some meaning or truth about the world. However, the uncovered truth in a fictional screenplay cannot be compared to the information that interviewees provide as they reflect on their experiences. Nonfiction offers firsthand perspectives rather than the imagined, written and performed perspective. 

Personally, a good documentary inspires me. I leave the screen wanting to know how I can help. Many of the ones I’ve seen have told me what I can do or have directed me in the direction of where I can help. Sometimes, I find myself thinking about what I can do in the future. Watching documentaries, especially the ones that rely on the words of the people they are covering, motivates me to seek ways I can use documentary-style storytelling to help others tell their stories. 

The internet is filled with great nonfiction films. Kanopy, Netflix or any other streaming service can give you access to many different kinds of documentary films! UC Berkeley students have access to the university library’s video streaming services. (Pro tip: Before you graduate, log in to Kanopy and watch one (or all) of the documentaries). So, next time you find yourself tired of reading but craving something educational and enriching, see what documentaries you can watch!

Contact Sera Smith at [email protected].