This is a good time for documentaries, according to CinemaSalem owner Paul Van Ness.
Just two months ago, Comcast started offering documentaries that viewers can download for a fee. This commercial growth has been accompanied by a corresponding rise in the quality of the documentaries being made, Van Ness said.
Now, documentary films are more likely to challenge an audience intellectually, he said, taking a balanced view of issues instead of crudely telling people what to think.
"People no longer associate them with paternal narration style," Van Ness said, "or with a condescending visual style where not much care is given to enthralling you with images."
The Salem Film Fest, which is celebrating its fifth year of screening new documentaries, has an important role to play in the development of these movies. In addition to providing an audience, the festival goes through a screening process to select movies, which in turn gives filmmakers a credential to help them gain access to commercial outlets.
Joe Cultrera, a Salem filmmaker who helped found the Film Fest and serves on its selection committee, credits advances in technology with a rise in the number of documentaries being made.
"When I got started, everything was in film, which is really expensive," said Cultrera, who has made five documentaries of his own and is currently working on a series for the National Geographic Channel. "The whole industry has gotten more democratized as video has come along."
That spread of democracy is also evident in the fact that half the films chosen for this year's festival were made by women — "which is extraordinary in this business," Cultrera said. "It's always been a very male-dominated field."
The committee only became aware of the number of women they had selected when the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, which will host a discussion at this year's festival on "How Media Covers Documentary Film," asked them to break down this year's films by gender, according to Cultrera.