Documentary films have significant appeal because of their claim to represent truth and authenticity. Within the criminal justice system, they are important not only because of the public fascination with crime and punishment, but also because the everyday workings of the criminal justice system often remain outside of the direct experience or sight of most people.
There have been major stages in the technical and institutional development of documentary film. In its early years, actualités, short shots of realistic events, illustrated the new technology. As rudimentary narrative forms emerged, real events, including crimes, were recreated on film for paying audiences. Fiction films soon came to dominate and documentary was relegated to a supporting role, particularly in the form of newsreels that offered news and features prior to movie presentations. It was during the late 1920s and 1930s that the potential for film, including documentary, came to be recognized as a potential medium of state power. This was most notoriously seen in Nazi Germany, but also more benevolently in New Deal America. In the United Kingdom, John Grierson’s documentary movement spearheaded the use of documentary in workplaces, professional clubs and institutions as a means of promoting state sponsored social improvement. State control remained important during the Second World War and the subsequent period of reconstruction. The growth of television and the development of portable cameras and sound equipment opened up a new approach in the late 1950s and 1960s. Cinéma-vérité and direct cinema not only brought about stylistic innovations, such as hand held camerawork, but also took the filming into new spaces and offered a voice to previously unheard people, reflecting the social upheavals of the age. This approach became more widespread as a stylistic trope, but its original political purposes waned. Since the 1980s, the documentary field has become more diverse and fragmented, as a result of deregulation and the expansion of media markets, and the greater accessibility of equipment. Popular documentary on large network channels has often focused on entertainment, leading to new forms of infotainment. In contrast, there has been more opportunity for critical voices to be heard that contest dominant ideas. Throughout these eras, documentary has featured and responded to crime and criminal justice within the context of broader social change.
The evolution in documentaries about crime and criminal justice has, in particular, been shaped by three factors. The first is the role of individual agents, such as prominent filmmakers whose work has stood the test of time or has influenced the field. Second, there have been institutional factors, including the technology of film, notably the development of more portable and affordable equipment, but also there have been changes in the production process including sources of funding and distribution. The third factor is ideology. Cultural products, including documentaries about criminal justice, are created and consumed within a contested ideological context, and their meanings or significance can only be understood by reference to that context. As a result, these documentaries are important means of understanding the criminal justice system and the wider social context in which they are situated.