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Documentaries are hot. No longer your former science teacher’s boring film about zinc or midwestern crops, audiences are finding that today’s documentaries are engaging, cinematographically pleasing, and topical. Sales figures support the documentary’s emergence as a fresh, hip genre.

Until the late ’90s, pop culture virtually ignored documentaries. Theaters did not show them, and studios did not fund them. Everything changed with the success of Michael Moore’s films Bowling for Columbine (lifetime gross of over $50 million) and Fahrenheit 9/11 ($119 million), as well as Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 “film of epic proportions” Super Size Me ($11.5 million). These films won awards and earned big bucks for studios, but they also affirmed that documentaries can influence social, educational, and political agendas.

Reality television has helped by grooming viewers. Using small budgets and lots of action, producers of shows like “The Amazing Race” and “The Apprentice” create situations of competitive drama. Audiences emotionally invest in the characters. In essence, TV reality shows—with interviews and voice-overs—have trained audiences for viewing documentaries.

The Internet has also influenced their popularity. Internet promotion affords new films wider distribution and stronger marketing. Today, documentaries are commonly found at mainstream theaters and video stores. Consider these options for your next movie night:

Grizzly Man : Amateur grizzly bear observer Timothy Treadwell left videotape that German filmmaker Werner Herzog edited into this disturbing documentary. Though viewers learn of Treadwell’s tragic death early on, his self-recorded images show a needy man in search of identity. He slips further and further into deluded self-importance and obsession. No nature film, this explores a character who is at first laughable, then pitiable, and, finally, tragic.

Mad Hot Ballroom: In 1994, a ballroom dance program was introduced to fifth graders in New York City schools. Today, it’s a required course for 6,000 kids. As three schools prepare for a citywide competition, you can’t help but root for the children who share their difficult lives on film.

Rize : Following a form of dance called “krumping,” Rize accomplishes what a documentary does best: it carries you into an unfamiliar world and forces you to walk in another person’s shoes. Unapologetic about the importance of Christian beliefs, Rize shows how faith creates a commitment to something better in life. The performers are amazing.

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