AIn the 1990 Oscar nominations, a surprising number of actors were nominated for documentaries. Dustin Hoffman lent his voice to a film about the AIDS memorial, Joe Mantegna told the story of a crack epidemic in one US state, while Gregory Peck narrated a biography of Chief Justice Earl Warren. Fast forward to this year’s ceremony and the actors had gone silent. With the exception of Riz Ahmed’s dubbing of the English-language version of Flee, the shortlisted films lacked a booming star narrator. In fact, they had no traditional narrators at all.
Of course, this could be a quirk of the Academy’s ever-changing preferences, or an anomalous year. But, says Dr. Catalin Brylla, senior lecturer in film and television at Bournemouth University, the documentary narrator’s “traditional, authoritative voice of God” has indeed become an endangered species as audiences have turned against her “pretentious objectivity” in more personal accounts. As Roko Belic, director of the 1999 documentary Genghis Blues, put it: “You heard a guy’s perfect English voice, [talking about] Zebras in Africa and you didn’t really feel like you were there. I wanted to know the whole story and not just this one guy’s point of view.”
Beginning in the 1990s, this led to a rise in personality-driven documentaries, from directors such as Werner Herzog, who usually narrates his own films, and Michael Moore, who tends to direct, write, star and to express his works. Activist documentaries like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth had clear messages that were carried home via voiceover. But even this form of storytelling seems to have been on the decline in recent years.
The 2022 Academy Award winner, Summer of Soul, was a medley of footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, overlaid with a long list of interviewees. Ascension, Jessica Kingdon’s chilling documentary about rampant capitalism in China, not only had no voiceover, it also had no interviews. Stanley Nelson, one of the directors of Attica, also on the 2022 shortlist, told the Hollywood Reporter that the filmmakers “knew from the start that we didn’t want a narrative.” Instead, the plan was to tell the story of the largest prison riot in history through interviews with those who witnessed it. An interview with a historian also did not make it into the finals because “he was talking about what he had read [while other interviewees] talked about what they saw, heard and felt”.
Brylla links the narrator’s death to the age of “post-factual” politics, in which “information is presented through emotion rather than factual accuracy”. Another factor may be the filmmakers’ changing relationship with their interviewees and audiences. Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story, the two-part Netflix film directed by Rowan Deacon, didn’t use narration to frame the archive footage and new interviews because her many interviewees “had very different experiences with Savile and I felt that their memories had to be presented abruptly and without the potentially judgmental role of a narrator”.
Additionally, Deacon wanted to “focus on telling the story in a way that is compelling, but also encourages the audience to do some of the work themselves, to draw their own conclusions from the barrage of evidence he is presented with.” become” – like so many others didn’t make it during Savile’s lifetime.
Frida and Lasse Barkfors’ documentary trilogy explores uniquely taboo subjects: profiling a community of sex offenders (Pervert Park), parents responsible for the deaths of their own children (Death of a Child), and the parents of school gunners (Raising a Schul -shooter). All did without a narrator because, according to Frida, “our goal is for the audience to make up their own minds” about the complex, difficult stories they’re hearing. Lasse adds that the narrative would give audiences “something to hold on to” as it navigates the moral issues raised by the trilogy, an effect the filmmakers wanted to avoid.
Mike Cooper, a BBC news anchor-turned-voice actor, suggests the trend may well be cyclical. “For a while it felt like everything had voiceovers, but if you go further back to films like Gray Gardens” – part of the naturalistic cinema verité movement of the 1960s and 70s – “they became complete done without voice-over”. In any case, Cooper is confident about the fortunes of his profession, since voiceovers in other formats — like ads and TV programs — aren’t going away. We can bet Morgan Freeman, perhaps the most coveted voice, can handle it too.
Lasse Barkfors believes what we see in documentaries could be a reaction to the intense individualism evoked by social media. “In the last two decades,” he says, “there’s been a lot of ‘me’.” If the decline of narrators means anything, it seems to indicate that documentary filmmakers are giving some power back to their audiences – by giving them the evidence and the Present voices of stakeholders and then let them find their own messages.