In 2013, Black Fish by Gabriela Cowperthwaite proved the power of the persuasive documentary film. Black Fish shows shocking and emotional footage of orcas, the species’ cruel treatment in captivity and fatal accidents involving trainers (Black Fish, 2016). In response to her one-hour-and-twenty-minute documentary film, viewers stopped visiting the multi-billion-dollar chain of Sea World parks, dropping their profits by 84% (Rhodan, 2016).

The amount of persuasive documentary films is growing. Recent documentaries, such as Before the Flood (2016) and The Ivory Game (2016) focus on environmental issues such as climate change and the extinction of animal species like the elephant and the rhinoceros. These documentaries show a series of events that take place in a setting and involve one or more characters. They make complex subjects understandable and are meant to change the attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of the viewer. This is also called story-based or narrative persuasive communications.

One could argue that narrative persuasion in documentary films is not possible in every situation. It involves change and it requires more (subconscious) cognitive processing from a viewer than none-persuasive documentary films. It operates as a process and involves aspects of narrativity, media- and neuropsychology. Therefore, from a filmmaker’s perspective, it is important to understand this process and know how to implement it in a documentary. How then can a filmmaker persuade people with a documentary film? This essay is about how a viewer assimilates psychological processes which are derived from the stimuli of a documentary film, and how they lead to narrative persuasion. This essay will cover vital aspects of narrative persuasion, which include narrative transportation, retrospective reflection, narrative self-referencing, identification, setting and audience.

Download: The Persuasive Documentary Film