A documentary film is a broad category of cinematic expression united by the attempt, in one fashion or another, to "document" reality. (The term often refers to productions shot on video as well as film.)

Defining documentary

The word "documentary" was first applied to films of this nature in a review of Robert Flaherty's Moana (1926), written by "The Moviegoer", a pen name for documentarian John Grierson, in the New York Sun on 8 February 1926.

In the 1930s, Grierson further argued in his essay First Principles of Documentary that Moana had "documentary value". Grierson's principles of documentary were that cinema's potential for observing life could be exploited in a new art form; that the "original" actor and "original" scene are better guides than their fiction counterparts to interpreting the modern world; and that materials "thus taken from the raw" can be more real than the acted article. In this regard, Grierson's views align with Vertov's contempt for dramatic fiction as "bourgeois excess," though with considerably more subtlety. Grierson's definition of documentary as "creative treatment of actuality" has gained some acceptance, though it presents philosophical questions about documentaries containing stagings and reenactments.

In his essays, Dziga Vertov argued for presenting "life as it is" (that is, life filmed surreptitiously) and "life caught unawares" (life provoked or surprised by the camera).



The French used the term documentary to refer to any non-fiction film medium, including travelogues and instructional videos. The earliest "moving pictures" were, by definition, documentary. There were single shots, moments captured on film; whether of a train entering a station, a boat docking, or a factory of people getting off work. Early film (pre-1900) was dominated by the novelty of showing an event. These short films were called "actuality" films. Very little storytelling took place before the turn of the century, due mostly to technological limitations: cameras could hold only very small amounts of film; many of the first films are a minute or less in length. The earliest forms of films were made by the Auguste and Louis Lumière.


Travelogue films were very popular in the early part of the 20th century. Some were known as "scenics". Scenics were among the most popular sort of films at the time.[1] An important early film to move beyond the concept of the scenic was In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914), which embraced primitivism and exoticism in a staged story presented as truthful re-enactments of the life of Native Americans.

Also during this period Frank Hurley's documentary film about the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition South was released(1919). It documented the failed Antarctic expedition led by Ernest Shackleton in 1914-1916.



File:Nanook of the north.jpg

Nanook of the North movie poster.

With Robert J. Flaherty's Nanook of the North in 1922, documentary film embraced romanticism; Flaherty went on to film a number of heavily staged romantic films, usually showing how his subjects would have lived 100 years earlier and not how they lived right then (for instance, in Nanook of the North Flaherty did not allow his subjects to shoot a walrus with a nearby shotgun, but had them use a harpoon instead).

Some of Flaherty's staging, such as building a roofless igloo for interior shots, was done to accommodate the filming technology of the time.

The city symphony

The continental, or realist, tradition focused on humans within human-made environments, and included the so-called "city symphony" films such as Berlin, Symphony of a City, Rien que les Heures, and Man with the Movie Camera. These films tend to feature people as products of their environment, and lean towards the avant-garde.

Newsreel tradition

The newsreel tradition is important in documentary film; newsreels were also sometimes staged but were usually re-enactments of events that had already happened, not attempts to steer events as they were in the process of happening. For instance, much of the battle footage from the early 20th century was staged; the cameramen would usually arrive on site after a major battle and re-enact scenes to film them.

"Cinema truth", part one

Dziga Vertov was central to the Russian Kino-Pravda ("cinema truth") newsreel series of the 1920s. Vertov believed the camera—with its varied lenses, shot-counter shot editing, time-lapse, ability to slow motion, stop motion and fast-motion—could render reality more accurately than the human eye, and made a film philosophy out of it.

1930s-1940s: wartime propaganda


Leni Riefenstahl filming Triumph of the Will in Nuremburg in 1934.

The propagandist tradition consists of films made with the explicit purpose of persuading an audience of a point. One of the most notorious propaganda films is Leni Riefenstahl's film Triumph of the Will. Frank Capra's Why We Fight series was a newsreel series in the United States, commissioned by the government to convince the U.S. public that it was time to go to war. In Canada the Film Board, set up by Grierson, was created for the same propaganda reasons. It also created newsreels that were seen by their national governments as legitimate counter-propaganda to the psychological warfare of Nazi Germany (orchestrated by Joseph Goebbels).

In Britain, Humphrey Jennings succeeded in blending propaganda with a poetic approach to documentary.


"Cinema truth", part two

Cinéma vérité is a term similar to "Kino-Pravda", coined by Jean Rouch for his own work and as a homage to Vertov. Just as "Kino-Pravda" means literally "cinema-truth" in Russian, so does cinéma vérité mean "cinema truth" in French—although the latter relies very little on Vertovian special techniques. That said, one cannot deny that cinéma vérité (or the closely related direct cinema) was dependent on some technical advances in order to exist: light, quiet and reliable cameras, and portable sync sound.

Cinéma vérité and similar documentary traditions can thus be seen, in a broader perspective, as a reaction against studio-based film production constraints. Shooting on location, with smaller crews, would also happen in the French New Wave, the filmmakers taking advantage of advances in technology allowing smaller, handheld cameras and synchronized sound to film events on location as they unfolded.

Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there are important differences between cinéma vérité (Jean Rouch) and the North American "Direct Cinema" (or more accurately "Cinéma direct", pioneered among others by French Canadian Michel Brault, Pierre Perrault, Richard Leacock, Frederick Wiseman and Albert and David Maysles).

The directors of the movement take different viewpoints on their degree of involvement. Kopple and Pennebaker, for instance, choose non-involvement (or at least no overt involvement; Kopple is heard using her status as a filmmaker to scare off the leader of the strikebreakers in Harlan County), and Perrault, Rouch, Koenig, and Kroitor favor direct involvement or even provocation when they deem it necessary.

The films Harlan County, USA (directed by Barbara Kopple), Dont Look Back (D. A. Pennebaker), Lonely Boy (Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor) and Chronicle of a Summer (Jean Rouch) are all frequently deemed cinéma vérité films.

The fundamentals of the style include following a person during a crisis with a moving, often handheld, camera to capture more personal reactions. There are no sit-down interviews, and the shooting ratio (the amount of film shot to the finished product) is very high, often reaching 80:1. From there, editors find and sculpt the work into a film. The editors of the movement, Werner Nold, Charlotte Zwerin, Muffie Myers, Susan Froemke, and Ellen Hovde are often overlooked, but their input to the film is so vital that they were often given co-director credits.

Famous cinéma vérité/direct cinema films include Les Raquetteurs, Showman, Salesman, The Children Were Watching, Primary, Behind a Presidential Crisis, and Grey Gardens.

Political weapons

In the 1960s and 1970s, documentary film was often conceived as a political weapon against neocolonialism and capitalism in general, especially in Latin America, but also in a changing Quebec society. La Hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, from 1968), directed by Octavio Getino and Fernando E. Solanas, influenced a whole generation of filmmakers.

Modern documentaries


Fahrenheit 9/11 movie poster.

Box office analysts have noted that this film genre has become increasingly successful in theatrical release with films such as Super Size Me, Fahrenheit 9/11, March of the Penguins and An Inconvenient Truth being among the most prominent examples. Compared to dramatic narrative films, documentaries typically have far lower budgets. This has made them attractive to film companies because even a limited theatrical release can be highly profitable. Fahrenheit 9/11 set a new record for documentary profits, earning more than US$228 million in ticket sales and selling more than 3 million DVDs.[2]

The nature of documentary films has changed in the past 20 years from the cinema verité tradition. Landmark films such as The Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris, which incorporated stylized re-enactments, and Michael Moore's Roger and Me, which made claims of chronology that were later questioned by critics such as Pauline Kael, placed far more overt interpretive control in the hands of the director. Indeed, the commercial success of the documentaries mentioned above may owe something to this narrative shift in the documentary form, leading some critics to question whether such films can truly be called documentaries; critics sometimes refer to these works as "mondo films" or "docu-ganda."[3] However, directorial manipulation of documentary subjects has been noted since the work of Flaherty, and may be endemic to the form.

The recent success of the documentary genre, and the advent of DVDs, has made documentaries financially viable even without a cinema release. There are now around thirty quality feature-length documentaries on notable photographers, for instance, a situation that would have seemed incredible twenty years ago.

Modern documentaries have some overlap with television forms, with the development of "reality television" that occasionally verges on the documentary but more often veers to the fictional or staged. The making-of documentary shows how a movie or a computer game was produced. Usually made for promotional purposes, it is closer to an advertisement than to classical documentary. Modern lightweight digital video cameras and computer-based editing have greatly aided documentary makers, as has the dramatic drop in equipment prices.

Other documentary forms

Compilation films

Compilation films were pioneered in 1927 by Esfir Schub with The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty. More recent examples include Point of Order (1964), directed by Emile de Antonio about the McCarthy hearings and The Atomic Cafe which is made entirely out of found footage that various agencies of the U.S. government made about the safety of nuclear radiation (e.g., telling troops at one point that it's safe to be irradiated as long as they keep their eyes and mouths shut). Similarly, The Last Cigarette combines the testimony of various tobacco company executives before the U.S. Congress with archival propaganda extolling the virtues of smoking.

Notes and references

  1. Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film, 2005.
  2. [1] Slate, "Paranoia for Fun and Profit: How Disney and Michael Moore cleaned up on Fahrenheit 9/11". May 3, 2005.
  3. Wood, Daniel B.. "In 'docu-ganda' films, balance is not the objective", Christian Science Monitor, June 02, 2006. Retrieved on 2006-06-06. 

See also

  • Lists of directors and producers of documentaries
  • Docu-drama
  • List of motion picture-related topics
  • Mockumentary
  • Mondo film
  • Nature documentary
  • Political Cinema
  • Women's Cinema

Documentary film festivals

Documentary Film Awards

  • Channel 4 Sheffield Pitch

Significant institutes dealing with documentary

Further reading

  • Ian Aitken (ed) Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film, Routledge, 2005
  • Documentary Film Bibliography (via UC Berkeley)
  • Erik Barnouw, Documentary. A History of the Non-Fiction Film, Oxford University Press 1993 - still a useful introduction
  • Sheila Curran Bernard, Documentary Storytelling, Focal Press 2003
  • Julianne Burton (ed.), The social documentary in Latin America, Pittsburgh, Pa. : University of Pittsburgh Press 1990
  • Jonathan Dawson, "Dziga Vertov";
  • Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Indiana University Press 1991
  • Bill Nichols, Introduction to documentary, Indiana University Press, 2001
  • Paul Rotha, Documentary diary; an informal history of the British documentary film, 1928–1939, New York, Hill and Wang 1973
  • Janet Walker and Diane Waldeman, Feminism and Documentary, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1999.
  • Markus Nornes, Japanese Documentary Film: The Meiji Era through Hiroshima,University of Minnesota Press 2003
  • Jim Leach (ed.), Candid eyes : essays on Canadian documentaries, University of Toronto Press, 2003

Documentaries about documentary filmmakers

  • Devotion. A film about Ogawa Productions, Director: Barbara Hammer, 2000

External links