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Festival Films: Inform, Educate or Entertain?

When people talk about the public service broadcasting remit of the BBC they often invoke the words of its founder, Lord Reith, who said that the broadcaster’s mission was to ” inform, educate and entertain” and in that order. As serious documentaries have become increasingly sidelined on mainstream television in favour of drama and reality formats, it sometimes seems that the only way to get a concentrated dose of information and education – with or without a smattering entertainment – is to buy a pass to one of the great international documentary festivals, such as Sheffield Doc/Fest or Hot Docs in Toronto. Films that do well on the festival circuit are then just as likely to find a general audience via one of the new challenger platforms, such as Netflix or Amazon, as they are on the traditional TV networks.

My Beautiful Broken Brain, Lotje Sodderland’s intimate self-portrait of her recovery from a brain haemorrhage, which premiered at IDFA 2014, gets its premiere on Netflix on March 18th 2016. So which other documentaries have made, or could make, the transition from festival circuit to inform, educate and entertain the world on a wider platform.

Here is a selection of documentaries that played at IDFA 2015 and could be coming to a small screen near you in the future.

Inform audience what is going on in the world

Among the Believers – charts the personal quest of a Pakistani cleric whose mission is to train thousands of children to take part in jihad (holy war).

In Transit – One of the last completed films of legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, this film takes viewers aboard America’s busiest long-distance train route – gives us a glimpse into the lives of people from all walks of life.

Every Face Has a Name – On April 28, 1945, survivors from German concentration camps disembarked from ferries at the harbour of Malmö, Sweden and news crews captured their first steps on dry land. Seventy years on, some of these people see this footage of themselves for the very first time, stirring up some emotional memories.

New York Cuts – We eavesdrop on conversations between a diverse range of of NYC residents and their hairdressers in six salons across NYC.

Cartel Land – Follows two modern-day vigilante groups as they attempt to combat lethal Mexican drug cartels.

Next Stop: Utopia – A cooperative of jobless Greek workers try to resurrect a closed factory so they can find economic security, but democracy turns out to be harder than they think.

Bolshoi Babylon – Behind scenes of the most famous ballet company in the world, emotions run high as egos clash with devastating results.

The Confessions of Thomas Quick – Sweden’s most notorious serial killer claimed responsibility for a number of murders during the 1980s and 1990s; but was he telling the truth?

3 1/2 Minutes Ten Bullets – The story of what happened in 3½ minutes, when a car of unarmed black teenagers parked next to a middle-aged white man with a gun. What really happened in those few minutes and why did a 17-year-old end up dead?

Educate the audience how to understand/analyse/process what is happening in the world

Rebels – A group of delinquent teenagers are offered a lifeline by a programme that teaches them employability skills. But will they take the opportunity or throw it away?

Requiem for the American Dream – Noam Chomsky explains 50 years of economic policies that have led to growing inequality between the haves and the have-nots.

Poverty Inc. – Explores how international aid might be inadvertently doing more harm than good.

Thank You for Playing – The very personal and emotional journey of games designer Ryan Green who deals with his grief over his one-year-old son’s terminal cancer diagnosis by inventing a video game, That Dragon, Cancer. Will the gaming community take his unconventional game to their hearts?

Live From New York! – Explores how iconic TV show Saturday Night Live has influenced American culture for forty years.

Entertain the audience

Hot Sugar’s Cold World – Hot Sugar is obsessed with creating and capturing sounds to use in his unique musical compositions.

Thru You Princess – Nurse Samantha, aka Princess Shaw, has a dream to be a singer and has a growing YouTube following for her video diaries. Unbeknownst to her, an Israeli musician, Kutiman, has been using her clips in his own compositions, and suddenly her life takes off in an unexpected direction.


Sonita – Eighteen-year old Afghani refugee Sonita has an ambition of being a famous rapper in a culture that doesn’t allow women to sing; to make matters worse her family think she’s worth more as a bride. Can she find away break free from tradition and convention to live her dream?


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