Struck dumb: why ‘the voice of God’ got booted out of documentaries

Once, no serious documentary could be without its authoritative voiceover in perfect English. But film-makers are now rejecting the whole idea. Are social media and post-truth politics to blame?

At the 1990 Academy Awards, the nominations for documentary featured a surprising number of actors. Dustin Hoffman lent his voice to a film about the Aids memorial quilt, Joe Mantegna told the tale of one US county’s crack epidemic, while Gregory Peck narrated a biography of chief justice Earl Warren. Fast forward to this year’s ceremony and the actors had gone quiet. With the exception of Riz Ahmed’s dubbing on the English-language version of Flee, the shortlisted films had no booming star narrator. In fact, they had no traditional narrators at all.

This could, of course, be a quirk of the Academy’s ever-changing preferences, or an anomalous year. But, says Dr Catalin Brylla, principal lecturer in film and television at Bournemouth University, the “traditional, authoritative voice-of-God” documentary narrator has indeed become an endangered species, as audiences have turned against their “pretentious objectivity” in favour of more personal accounts. As Roko Belic, director of the 1999 documentary Genghis Blues, put it: “You’d hear some 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.”

From the 1990s onwards, this led to a rise in personality-led documentaries by such directors as Werner Herzog, who usually narrates his own films, and Michael Moore, who tends to direct, write, star in and voice his work. Activist documentaries, such as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, had clear messages, driven home via voiceover. But in recent years, even this form of narration seems to be declining.

Medley of footage … Summer of Soul.
Medley of footage … Summer of Soul. Photograph: Album/Alamy

Summer of Soul, the 2022 Oscar-winner, was a medley of footage from the 1969 Harlem cultural festival, overlaid with a long list of interviewees. Ascension, Jessica Kingdon’s eerie documentary about rampant capitalism in China, not only had no voiceover, but no interviews, either. Stanley Nelson, one of the directors of Attica, also on the 2022 shortlist, told the Hollywood Reporter that the film-makers “knew from the beginning that we didn’t want to have narration”. Instead, the plan was to tell the story of the biggest prison riot in history through interviews with those who were there. Even an interview with a historian didn’t make the final cut because “he was talking about what he had read [while other interviewees] were talking about what they saw and heard and felt”.

Brylla connects the death of the narrator to the age of “post-truth” politics, in which “information is presented through emotions, rather than factual accuracy”. Another factor may be film-makers’ changing relationship with their interviewees and audiences. Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story, Rowan Deacon’s two-part Netflix film, used no narration to frame its archival footage and new interviews, because her many interviewees “had very different experiences of Savile and I felt that their recollections needed to be presented unmediated and without the potentially judgmental role of a narrator”.

In addition, Deacon wanted “to focus on telling the story in a way which was compelling but which also asked the audience to do a bit of the work themselves, to draw their own conclusions from the glut of evidence being presented to them” – as so many failed to do during Savile’s lifetime.

King of the voiceover … Morgan Freeman.
King of the voiceover … Morgan Freeman. Photograph: Buena Vista/Sportsphoto/Allstar

Frida and Lasse Barkfors’ trilogy of documentaries tackles uniquely taboo subjects: profiling, respectively, a community of sex offenders (Pervert Park), parents responsible for their own children’s deaths (Death of a Child), and the parents of school shooters (Raising a School Shooter). All went without narrators because, Frida says, “our goal is for the audience to make up their minds for themselves” about the complex, difficult stories they are hearing. Lasse adds that narration would give the audience “something to hold on to” while navigating the moral questions raised by the trilogy, an effect the film-makers wanted to avoid.

Mike Cooper, a BBC newsreader turned voiceover artist, points out that the trend may well be cyclical. “For a while, it felt like there were voiceovers on everything, but if you go back further to films like Grey Gardens” – part of the naturalistic cinema verité movement in the 1960s and 70s – “they were made completely without voiceovers”. Either way, Cooper is sanguine about the fortunes of his profession, given voiceovers on other formats – such as adverts and TV programmes – aren’t about to disappear. We can assume Morgan Freeman, perhaps the most sought-after voice, is also getting by.

Lasse Barkfors believes what we’re seeing in documentaries may be a reaction to the intense individualism brought on by social media. “Over the past two decades,” he says, “there’s been a lot of ‘me’.” If the decline of narrators means anything, it seems to suggest that documentary-makers are handing some of the power back to their audiences – presenting them with the evidence and the voices of those involved, then letting them find their own messages.


Barbara Speed

The GuardianTramp

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