Introduction to Documentary – a definition…

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Introduction to Documentary

Documentary – a definition…

  • An approach to the ‘real’ as opposed to the fiction.
  • Deals with issues of fact, of real events and of actuality.
  • ‘Documentary’ is often set up in conflict with ‘fiction’ – creating a binary opposition
  • The fictional = lies….entertainment films
  • The factual = truth…documentaries & ‘realist’ films
  • “The creative treatment of actuality.” – John Grierson


  • In terms of representing the ‘truth’, documentaries are generally accorded the highest status.
  • To ‘document’ a subject implies keeping a factual record for future reference.
  • However, even the most realistic documentaries have to be constructed.
  • Bruzzi (2000) “We need to accept that a documentary can never be the real world…documentaries are performative acts whose truth comes into being only at the moment of filming.”
  • Nanook of the North (1921) is generally considered to be the first anthropological documentary film ever made

Nanook of the North

  • One of the world's first examples of a ‘cinema verite' documentary
  • A 1922 silent documentary film by Robert Flaherty
  • Explores the struggles of the Inuk Nanook and his family in the Canadian arctic.
  • The film is considered the first feature-length documentary
  • Flaherty has been criticized for staging several sequences and thereby distorting the reality of his subjects' lives
  • “A film maker must often distort a thing to catch its true spirit.”

Purpose of Documentary:

  • Portray real life
  • Focus on an issue or truth
  • Attempt to:

Types of Documentary –Reflexive

  • Purpose: To explore and experiment with the form of documentary (the aesthetic aspects)
  • Experimental, “artsy” form
    • Draws attention to the art of documenting
    • Uses an artistic form to represent an idea
    • Example: Ryan (focuses on animation techniques to depict an artist’s life), How I Met the Walrus (illustrates the words of an interview with John Lennon)

Type - Expository

  • Investigative (fact-finding, journalistic)
  • Essay style (collects evidence, then proposes an argument)
  • Usually authoritative narration explains content (this is called voiceover)
  • Can be descriptive, informative, persuasive, didactic
  • Visuals complement the information being spoken, but they are not the central focus: what is being said is important
  • Examples: An Inconvenient Truth, Are We Safer?, Football High
  • Purpose: To propose an argument or deliver an interpretation

Type - Observational

  • Purpose: To observe aspects of life with minimal interference or manipulation
  • Filmmaker is like a “fly on the wall”
  • The cameras and film crew seem not to be disturbing the scene or even be noticed by the participants
  • Camera follows action that is beyond the control of the filmmaker
  • The story unfolds in chronological order
  • The filmmaker’s point of view is hidden in the narrative structure
  • Techniques: subjects speak to one another
  • Example: Babies, The Cove, Armadillo

Type – Interactive/Participatory

  • Purpose: To interact with the subject directly in order to study it
  • Film-maker’s presence is obvious
  • Includes interviews, editing, questions to the audience
  • Manipulates and (mis) interprets events
  • Examples: Bowling for Columbine, The Dark Side of Chocolate

Type - Performative

  • Purpose: To explore or produce subjective emotional responses to the world
  • Similar to interactive, but less objective (filmmaker constructs subjective truths)
  • The filmmaker, who is the subject of the film, undergoes some sort of physical process solely for the purposes of making the film (source: HotDocs Library)
  • Topic is usually something personal to the film-maker
  • Subject speaks directly to the camera or in voice-over
  • Examples: No Impact Man, Beyond the Horizon, SuperSize Me

Features of Documentary:

  • Thesis
    • The film-maker’s message for the viewer to take away from the film
    • The film-maker may want you to agree with his/her position
  • “Talking Heads”

Features of a Documentary, cont'd.

  • Bias
    • We trust the film-maker to be objective (unbiased) and seek the absolute truth
    • As viewers, we need to ask the question: Are film-makers fair to each side of the argument?
  • Atmosphere
    • Mood or tone of each scene or interview or overall film
    • What kinds of techniques are used to create atmosphere?

Documentary Filmmaking Techniques (source: Wikipedia)

  • Voice-over: a commentary by the filmmaker, spoken while the camera is filming or added to the soundtrack; the filmmaker can speak directly to the viewer
  • Interview:
    • Common technique
    • People being filmed speak directly about the issue, events, etc.
    • Interviewees are called “talking heads” and they may represent various sides of the issue

Documentary Filmmaking Techniques (cont’d)

  • Masked Interview: an interview in which the filmmaker is both unseen and unheard
  • Archival Footage: material obtained from a film library or archive and inserted into a documentary to show historical events
  • Reconstructions: artificial scenes portraying an event (have been reconstructed and acted out based on information about the event)

Documentary Filmmaking Techniques, Cont’d.

  • Montage: conveys ideas by putting them in a specific order in the film; contains a sequence of shots that often link action with words (as manipulated by the filmmaker)
  • Juxtaposition: both sides of the issue are presented immediately following the other (ex. two interviews side by side)

Methods of Development

  • Narration: telling stories or anecdotes to illustrate a point or show the seriousness of an issue
  • Description: characteristics or features of the unfamiliar are described
  • Examples: illustrations of a concept, event, idea are given
  • Classification: ideas are grouped in categories to show or explain a bigger idea

Methods of Development (cont’d)

  • Comparison/Contrast: ideas are arranged to show the similarities and differences between things
  • Process: outlines the steps that are taken to explore the issue
  • Cause/Effect: Ideas are arranged to link a result with a series of events, showing a logical relationship (ex. Describe the cause first and then explain the effects)

Night Mail

  • The most commercially successful film of the British documentary movement
  • Made with a budget of £2000
  • A promotional film for the post office (produced by the GPO film unit)
  • A poem by English poet W. H. Auden was written for it, used in the closing few minutes

Cinema Verite

  • 1950s – more detailed and naturalistic approach to documentary film making developed
  • Cinema verite (cinema truth) style developed in France.
  • The intention was to observe and record the reality of everyday life as it happened without the usual organisational planning & structured direction.
  • The approach was made possible by new lightweight mobile cameras.

Touching the Void

  • 2003 documentary film about 2 climbers almost fatal attempt to climb a mountain in the Andes
  • Hugely successful at the box office
  • “The most successful documentary film in history” – The Guardian

Michael Moore

  • American film maker, activist, author
  • His presence and performance are key components of his popularity
  • Makes openly rhetorical documentaries –
  • Farenheit 9/11 has made more money than any other documentary to date

Supersize Me

  • 2004 American documentary written by & starring Morgan Spurlock
  • Spurlock's film follows a 30-day period from February 1 to March 2, 2003 during which he eats only McDonald's food.
  • explores the fast food industry's corporate influence
  • Nominated for an academy award

Fly on the wall

  • During the past 20 years, the cinema verite style of documentary film making has become increasingly popular in TV.
  • Known as ‘fly on the wall’, this approach represents the subject apparently unmediated by a film crew, a presenter or reshooting.
  • Those participating tend to speak for themselves.
  • Their words and actions are apparently merely recorded and observed, not reflected on or mediated by a presenter.

Fly on the Wall

  • In helping to define the distinctive fly on the wall approach, Roger Graef listed certain rules to be applied in the production:
  • Filming events exactly as they happened
  • Agreeing in advance the specific subjects to be filmed
  • Showing the edited version to the participants, but only to ensure any factual errors may be corrected.

Critics of fly on the wall have argued…

  • While seeming more natural’ and unmediated, these documentaries are subject to considerable editorial control during post production.
  • Shooting ration - up to fifty hours of recorded video to one hour broadcast
  • Editors will try to generate as much dramatic interest and entertainment as possible.

Reality Television

  • A hybrid of the documentary genre.
  • Emphasis that they feature ‘real life’ and ‘real people’.
  • A growing phenomenon which seemingly allow people to appear as themselves.
  • They utilise actual (or sometimes reconstructed) scenes, often made possible by the growth in availability/technical sophistication of the camcorder.

Reality Television

  • Covers a wide variety of programmes featuring people in different roles…


  • Seen by many as a corruption of the documentary genre.
  • Many argue that reality TV fails to be genuinely informative or revelatory.
  • Video footage of ordinary people’s personal experiences may be exploitative in pandering solely to audience voyeurism.
  • Achieves high ratings at relatively low expense.
  • Cheap programming which drives serious, expensively well researched programmes off our TVs.

Our Five Questions

  • Type?
  • What is the thesis/focus?
  • How is this thesis supported?
  • What are the filmmaker’s biases/angles?
  • How is this a “creative treatment of actuality?”

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