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What is a Documentary (Explained)

A documentary is a film or television program that informs or educates its viewers about a particular topic or issue. Documentaries can be entertaining, informative, and inspiring. They offer a unique and powerful form of storytelling that can capture the viewer’s attention and provoke thought and discussion. Documentaries can explore any subject matter, from historical events to contemporary issues to the human experience.

What Exactly Is a Documentary?

If you’re like me, you have a lot of ideas in your head. In that case, documentary is the perfect film form for you!

Documentaries are a powerful tool for preserving history and stories for future generations. A good documentary film preserves, teaches, and entertains.

Documentaries are usually well researched, planned, and executed. Documentaries connect viewers to the story and the subject. For me, every documentary is a narrative film because it either tells a story or uses one to make a point.

The Origin of the Word ‘Documentary’

The word “documentary” comes – via the word ‘document’ – from the Latin word “docere,” which means “show, teach, cause to know.”

A documentary film is a nonfiction film that attempts to provide evidence of something. In this, it differs from a fiction film where nothing needs to be proved, but everything needs to make sense!

Documentaries Can Be About Anything

Many people think that documentaries are only about nature and animals, but in reality, documentaries can be about almost any subject.

For example, a film about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. would be considered a documentary because it tells many facts about his life that the public may not have known before seeing the film.

Documentaries are produced in a variety of styles, but they all have one thing in common: they’re real. They show the world as it really is, not as it should be or as someone wants it to be.

There’s a quote by Albert Maysles (one of the most influential documentary filmmakers) that says,

As you’re shooting, you have a very good idea of what’s the good stuff we’re shooting. But there’s no planning. When you get into it, you have some hunches. You have to have some hunches as to what kinds of things may develop. But then somehow, as you film, you drop those things because something much more interesting takes place.”

ALBERT MAYSLES, interviewed by gothamist

The Purpose of a Documentary Film Production

A documentary film is different from other types of video productions. It’s a non-fictional feature film intended to document some aspect of reality, primarily for entertainment purposes, for teaching, or as a historical record.

A documentary can be either scripted or unscripted, but the subject is completely real. It focuses exclusively on truthful events and real people.

It’s usually about a specific subject, person, a real event, or topic and allows the audience to see it in a way they didn’t before.

The best documentary doesn’t just tell you about something, it lets you experience it.

These films are designed to give viewers insight into the subject in order to inform and entertain them at the same time. A documentary can draw inspiration from other genres such as drama, comedy, horror, romance, or action but is not made in the same way as them.

Many documentaries deal with controversial topics and sometimes offer alternative viewpoints on current issues and events.

There are many types of documentaries, such as historical documentaries that deal with events from the past, how-to documentaries that offer practical advice on a particular topic, and exposé documentaries that deal with social issues such as discrimination and poverty.

To accomplish this, the filmmaker must use empathy to convey an understanding of the subject. The film “must breathe life into its characters and convey a sense of their individuality.”

At the same time, the filmmaker presents his or her own subjective point of view, while keeping in mind the overall narrative arc.

What Documentaries Do

A documentary film is often created with a specific goal in mind.

It attempts to shed light on a topic or present a fact.

In most cases, its purpose is to inform or entertain.

A documentary can also serve as an alternative history that educates and enlightens the viewer.

Documentaries usually feature real people in real situations.

A documentary sometimes reports events in quasi-real-time from beginning to end.

Documentaries aren’t fictional.

Feature-length documentaries are usually 60 minutes or more in length and are produced for broadcast on television, for distribution on DVD, and for release in movie theaters. These films often include re-enacted scenes and interviews with experts.

Short documentaries are generally 30 minutes or less in length and are usually broadcast on television, distributed online, or shown in movie theaters.

Often documentaries try to highlight an issue or show some form of injustice. For example, an environmental documentary is about the environment and how we can protect it. Some documentaries are narrative films and depict events in the style of a story.

The Origin of the Documentary Film

The idea of a documentary genre has been around since 1898 when Polish filmmaker Boleslaw Matuszewski discovered the potential of film for recording facts and archiving them as such in his book Une nouvelle source de l’histoire (A New Source of History).

He’d recorded surgical operations in Poland and Russia in 1896.

With Frank Hurley’s South (1919), which documented the 1914 Shackleton Trans-Antarctic expedition, documentary filmmaking began in earnest in several countries in the 1920s.

After that, the documentary form became one of rapid and deep experimentation.

The Elements of the Documentary

Documentaries usually include interviews, narration, and sometimes short re-enacted scenes that explain what the interviewees are saying, but aren’t necessarily part of the actual events.

Documentaries often have an off-screen narrator who explains the context of the film and occasionally gives his or her opinion.

They’re shot primarily in non-studio locations and are intended to be realistic and accurate.

Making documentaries is often a collaborative process. Collaborators include interviewers, camera operators, sound technicians, lighting operators, editors, and directors.

A good documentary should provide a considerable amount of information about a subject.

A good documentary is more than an interview with a person. It should be a thorough study with an in-depth examination of the subject.

Documentaries are usually well researched, planned, and executed. A documentary script is subject to constant change throughout the entire production cycle.

As filmmaker Errol Morris puts it

What interests me about documentary is that at the beginning you don’t know how the story you’re researching with the camera is going to turn out, and the story only develops as the film progresses.

errol morris

Essential Documentary Elements and Gear

Subjects: The people at the center of a documentary’s story. They’re either interviewed on camera or their words may be read by an actor.

Film cameras: the equipment used to capture the subjects on film. A documentary filmmaker can use any camera, from a professional camera to a high-tech handheld device.

Archival footage: footage that’s been stored for a long time – often a very long time – and is being used in a new context. For example, if you want to make a documentary about the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, you could show old newsreel footage from that time.

Re-enactments: Scenes that aren’t filmed as they actually happened, but depict what probably happened. To better understand this concept, think of World War II films II, in which actors/actresses play soldiers in battle scenes. These are re-enactments, even though they’re usually based on true events.

Interviews: Conversations between filmmakers and their subjects (or between subjects themselves) that are recorded on camera and used.

Capturing Attention

The documentary film is an art that shows reality on screens around the world. It delves into the deepest aspects of life on Earth to respond, entertain, and raise awareness of humanity’s existence.

A documentary presents a non-fictional fact in a cinematic format from which viewers can draw their conclusions.

A well-made documentary conveys the subject in a clear and interesting way.

Some documentaries are intended to be purely informative. Others are meant to be pure entertainment. However, good documentaries try to convey both entertainment and information in an effective way.

In most cases, a well-made documentary captures the audience’s attention and keeps them engaged. The best documentaries engage the audience in ways that make them think, feel, and learn.

A good documentary should be comprehensive and coherent.

Sometimes the director’s point of view is prominent, leading to conflicting points and opinions.

A Brief History of Documentaries

A landmark documentary film is Nanook of the North by Robert Flaherty, one of the very first documentary makers. Shot in the early 1920s, this silent film documents the life of an Inuk family in the Arctic.

The film combines footage from reality with reenactments.

In Russia, Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov did his best to experiment with the documentary form while staying just on the right side of the terrible Stalinist censorship. His 1929 film Man with a Movie Camera is considered one of the greats of cinema and documentary filmmaking.

Vertov was very concerned with what he called “film truth,” in which the camera’s ability to see differently from the human eye opened up previously closed possibilities of observation.

The Documentary Film Becomes Political

As the world moved toward war in the 1930s and political ideologies competed for public favor, the documentary world saw the emergence of a number of films that were either pure propaganda (such as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, which documented the 1934 Nazi Party Congress) or films that had a clear political message, such as Borinage by Joris Ivens and Henri Storck, which showed the deplorable conditions in the Belgian coal-mining area.

In America, New Deal productions such as The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) by documentary maker Pare Lorentz emerged, while in Britain the educational documentary philosophy of John Grierson gained ground-his “creative approach to reality” is expressed in films such as Night Mail (1936, directed by Basil Wright and Harry Watt).

Grierson, incidentally, is said to have coined the term “documentary” when writing about Flaherty’s film Moana (1926).

Smaller Cameras Change Documentary

In the 1970s, smaller and lighter equipment enabled the emergence of a more observational style of documentary film.

The Maysles brothers’ film Grey Gardens, which documents the daily life of an eccentric mother-daughter couple in a dilapidated East Hampton mansion, is a good example.

Meanwhile, American director Fred Wiseman became known for ‘Direct Cinema’, documenting a series of abuses at Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in films like Titicut Follies (1967) among many other films of the genre.

Both Direct Cinema, and cinema verité (as practiced by French director Jean Rouch, among others) are characterized by a greatly reduced degree of involvement by the director in what occurs in front of the camera. Direct Cinema abhors it entirely; whereas cinema verité allows for the precipitation of an event by the director.

Modern Documentary Film Examples.

In recent years, there’s been a trend toward essayistic documentaries-such as An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and Food, Inc. (2008) – and personality-driven films, especially by American filmmaker Michael Moore, such as Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004).

Since streaming services such as Netflix have gained prominence, there’s been a trend toward populist documentaries and series such as American Murder and Tiger King.

The role of documentary as a tool of political and policy investigation has declined significantly and has been replaced by the investigation of crimes and celebrities.

The Types of Documentary

There are many different types of documentaries, with and without narration, with and without fictional elements or reconstruction. One of the characteristics of documentary film is its incredible dynamism over time.

Some of the main types of documentaries are:

  • Fly-on-the-wall (observational documentary).
  • Investigative
  • Poetic documentary
  • Essay
  • Travel films
  • Natural history
  • Compilation films – beginning in the 1920s, with films such as The Last Cigarette
  • Historical
  • Scientific documentaries
  • Exemplary
  • Participatory documentaries – the Morgan Spurlock film Super Size Me is a participatory documentary
  • Representational
  • Expository documentaries
  • Performative documentaries
  • Reflexive documentaries
  • Hybrid documentaries – where truth games are used to challenge assumptions about facts
  • Docufiction – where fictional elements are shown alongside facts

Related: What is an Expository Documentary

The Importance of Documentary Film

Although many professional documentaries have been taken in a populist direction by the increasing power of streaming services, documentary film still plays an extremely important role in society.

It’s one of the few mediums that can provide viewers with an insightful and holistic emotional and factual experience, revealing truths that have previously remained hidden from them. Therefore, documentary films can raise people’s consciousness in a way that few other art forms can.

Documentaries shape and anchor our collective memory, or at least they’re a major player in that process.

Related: Why is Film Important to Society

A documentary teaches us more about the world around us.

Documentary making is a powerful tool for preserving history and stories for future generations.

It can give us a unique perspective on the lives of people in the past.

A good documentary film manages to inspire compassion in its viewers.

But that doesn’t mean documentaries are perfect. They can be manipulated and controversial. Sometimes they’re plagued by poor quality, bias, and an inability to be objective.

Documentaries are important, however, because they’re a vehicle for many interpretations.

Related: Why Documentaries Are Important

Some Great Documentaries to Watch

Some excellent documentaries to check out include:

The Civil War (Ken Burns, 1990)

Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002)

Inside Job (Charles Ferguson, 2010)

Our Disappeared (Juan Mandelbaum, 2008)

Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003)

Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)