There’s a saying that reality is stranger than fiction, but what if you could watch that reality play out, frame by frame?
Welcome to the real world, where documentaries tell raw and often unique stories.
But what exactly defines a documentary, and how has this genre evolved over the years? If you’ve ever pondered these questions or harbored dreams of creating your own documentary, you’re in the right place.
Stay with me as we explore the question: “What is a documentary?” and go over some iconic examples!
What is a Documentary?
So, what is a documentary? At its core, documentary filmmaking is about capturing reality. It’s about taking life’s raw, unscripted moments and weaving them into a narrative film that informs, inspires, and sometimes even challenges our preconceived notions.
Unlike fictional movies, which are born from the creative minds of writers and directors, short form and feature length documentaries stem from the world around us. They aren’t afraid to capture real-life stories, explore authentic emotions, and shed light on the truths that often go unnoticed in our daily lives.
Documentary films showcase the power of truth in storytelling, from heartwarming tales of triumph over the odds to insightful cultural explorations.
As an aspiring filmmaker, embracing documentary filmmaking means not just directing a film but curating a slice of reality for your audience to experience and learn from.
A Brief History of Documentaries
Documentaries, as we know them today, have been a century in the making.
They originated in the early 20th century when filmmakers began using a movie camera to capture reality and tell real-life stories. The first documentaries were silent newsreels, showcasing events of significance and public interest.
As technology evolved, so did the documentary genre, with sound introducing a new dimension to cinematic storytelling. Over the decades, documentaries have weathered various social, political, and cultural changes, each era adding its own unique touch to the genre.
Over the decades, this genre has not only acted as a mirror to society but also as a catalyst for change, shedding light on hidden truths and echoing the voices of the unheard through an observational style.
From the gritty war documentaries of the mid-20th century to the insightful social commentaries of the ’60s and ’70s, to the point-of-view factual film of the ’90s and ’00s, and onto the intimate character studies of today, the evolution of this genre is a testament to the adaptability and resilience of this form of narrative filmmaking.
Characteristics of a Documentary
Now, let’s take a look at some of the aspects of documentary film production that are unique to documentaries.
1. Factual Basis: Unlike fictional narrative films, documentaries ground themselves in reality. They offer a lens into real events, experiences, or phenomena. While creative liberties might be taken in presentation, the essence remains rooted in fact. This makes them a trusted source of information and insight.
2. Objective or Subjective Perspective: Every documentary filmmaker faces the choice of presenting an objective overview of their subject or intertwining their personal interpretations. An objective point of view in documentary film strives for unbiased reporting, while subjective ones echo the filmmaker’s sentiments, beliefs, or personal experiences related to the topic.
3. Research and Preparation: Before a single frame is shot, documentary filmmakers invest countless hours in research. This might involve reading, interviews, archival footage, or firsthand exploration of the subject. This foundational work ensures that the content presented is accurate, well-informed, and comprehensive.
4. Narrative Voice: The voice guiding a documentary can vary. It might be an unseen narrator providing context, experts in the field offering insights, or subjects of the documentary sharing their personal stories. This narrative voice guides viewers through the documentary’s journey.
5. Cinematic Techniques: While they are about real life, great documentaries employ filmmaking techniques and a cinematic style to enhance their storytelling. This can include artistic camera angles, mood-setting lighting, and thoughtful editing to emphasize certain points or emotions.
6. Real Footage and Interviews: Authenticity is paramount in documentaries. Utilizing real footage – whether historical clips or freshly filmed content – and conducting genuine interviews lends credibility and immediacy to the narrative film.
7. Emotional Engagement: Beyond just relaying facts, successful documentaries resonate emotionally. They have the power to evoke a range of feelings, from outrage to empathy, ensuring viewers remain invested in the subject matter. One way to support the emotion in a scene is to add music – you can hire a composer, use AI music software, or license instrumental cues or songs from artists.
8. Ethical Integrity: Documentary filmmakers bear the weighty responsibility of portraying reality. This necessitates respecting the privacy and rights of those filmed and avoiding misrepresentation or oversimplification of complex issues. Ethical considerations are critical for documentary makers, ensuring that the truth isn’t sacrificed for sensationalism.
9. Reflective: Reflective documentaries break the “fourth wall”. Filmmakers might openly discuss the process of making the documentary, their challenges, biases, or dilemmas. This transparency fosters a deeper trust and connection with the audience.
10. Educative Intent: At their core, many documentaries aim to enlighten. Whether it’s introducing viewers to an unfamiliar culture, shedding light on historical events, or explaining complex issues, the educative intent ensures that viewers walk away with newfound knowledge or understanding.
11. Social Commentary: Documentaries often serve as a mirror to society, reflecting its triumphs, flaws, and complexities. Through in-depth exploration, they can catalyze discussions on societal issues, potentially driving change or advocacy.
12. Engagement with Reality: Unlike fictional films and reality TV, where scenes are staged and rehearsed, documentaries thrive on spontaneity. Whether it’s capturing unscripted moments, raw emotions, or unforeseen real life events, this genuine engagement with reality sets documentaries apart, offering viewers a genuine glimpse into the nuances of the world.
Types of Documentaries
Documentaries come in a variety of styles, each with its own unique approach and focus. Here are some prominent types:
- Expository Documentaries: This is perhaps the most recognizable style for many viewers. Expository documentaries aim to inform and/or persuade by directly addressing the viewer with voiceover narration. They present a particular perspective or argument, often using a “voice of God” narration that’s detached from the visuals but guides the viewer’s understanding of them. Films like March of the Penguins fall into this category.
- Observational Documentaries: These are also known as “fly on the wall” documentaries. They aim to simply observe the world around them without any interference or manipulation from the documentary filmmaker. With little to no narration, the camera acts as a passive observer, allowing events to unfold organically. An example of an observational documentary is Grey Gardens by the Maysles Brothers.
- Participatory Documentaries: In this style, the filmmaker actively engages with the subject matter, often becoming a part of the story themselves. This direct involvement allows for a personal and dynamic insight into the narrative. The films of Michael Moore, such as Bowling for Columbine, are the most famous examples of this type.
- Poetic Documentaries: These types focus on experiences, images, and mood rather than a linear narrative. They prioritize visual associations, tonal or rhythmic qualities, and poetic juxtapositions to evoke emotions. Early documentaries, like the work of Soviet filmmaker, Dziga Vertov, employed this style.
- Reflexive Documentaries: These documentaries draw attention to their own making process and challenge the idea of objectivity in filmmaking. They might address the audience directly, discuss the process of capturing footage, or reflect on the nature of documentary filmmaking itself. Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of a Summer is a pioneering documentary film in this style.
- Performative Documentaries: This type emphasizes the filmmaker’s own involvement with the subject matter, often using personal experiences to provide context and insight. They are a more subjective interpretation of the world, prioritizing emotional engagement over objective facts. The Fog of War by Errol Morris is a blend of participatory and performative styles.
- Investigative Documentaries: As the name suggests, these delve deep into particular topics, often uncovering new information or shining a light on injustices. They require extensive research and often involve uncovering hidden details, scandals, or truths. Films like Blackfish and Making a Murderer can be classified under this category.
- Historical Documentaries: These focus on the historical record, providing a detailed account of past events, often using a combination of reenactments, photos, and expert interviews. The World at War series and Ken Burns’ many documentary series, like The Civil War, exemplify this style.
- Mockumentary: This is a hybrid genre, combining elements of documentary and comedy to create a fictional story that appears to be real. This is Spinal Tap, a hilarious take on rock band documentaries, is a classic mockumentary.
Iconic Examples of Documentaries
Documentaries have given us remarkable viewing over the years, each leaving a significant imprint on culture and society. Here are ten of the most famous examples, each of which not only showcased exemplary filmmaking but also ignited conversations, inspired change, and provided profound insights into various aspects of human existence:
Nanook of the North (1922)
Often regarded as the first full-length documentary, Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North offers a captivating glimpse into the life of an Inuit man and his family as they grapple with the harsh realities of living in the Canadian Arctic. Though the film provides a rare insight into the lives of indigenous peoples, modern audiences should be aware that certain scenes were staged for dramatic effect, highlighting early tensions between documentary authenticity and storytelling.
Gimme Shelter (1970)
Directed by Albert and David Maysles along with Charlotte Zwerin, Gimme Shelter is an electrifying and controversial documentary that chronicles the infamous 1969 Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway in California, which resulted in the stabbing death of a young black man by the Hells Angels, who were hired as security. Beyond being a concert film, this documentary raises poignant questions about the counterculture of the 1960s and the dark side of the hippie dream.
Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)
In Harlan County U.S.A., filmmaker Barbara Kopple captures the raw and intense struggle of Kentucky coal miners during their 1973 strike against the Eastover Coal Company. Through her lens, viewers are plunged into the miners’ world, facing violence, intimidation, and brutal working conditions. The film stands as a testament to the resilience and determination of the American working class, earning it an Academy Award for Best Documentary.
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line is not just a documentary; it’s a meticulous investigation. By dissecting the wrongful conviction of Randall Adams for a police officer’s murder in Dallas, Texas, the documentary film presents a potent commentary on the flaws within the justice system. With its innovative use of dramatic reenactments and probing interviews, the documentary directly impacted Adams’ eventual release from prison, showcasing the potential real-world implications of documentary filmmaking.
Bowling for Columbine (2002)
In Bowling for Columbine, filmmaker Michael Moore delves deep into America’s complicated relationship with firearms. By examining the tragic events of the Columbine High School shooting, Moore sparks a broader conversation about the nation’s cultural and political landscapes. This provocative exploration, which blends Moore’s characteristic humor with a serious examination of gun violence, positioned the documentary film as a trailblazer in activist documentaries and earned it numerous accolades.
March of the Penguins (2005)
Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins transports audiences to the frozen expanses of Antarctica, where they journey alongside emperor penguins on their epic migration. Narrated by Morgan Freeman, this nature documentary resonated with viewers worldwide, transforming these flightless birds into symbols of endurance and love. The film’s immense commercial success underscored the potential of wildlife documentaries in mainstream cinema.
An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
Al Gore’s passionate and informed presentation forms the backbone of An Inconvenient Truth. This groundbreaking documentary successfully pushed the conversation about climate change into global parlors, intertwining hard data with a sense of urgency. Winning multiple awards, it demonstrated the role of documentaries in galvanizing public opinion on pressing environmental issues.
Man on Wire (2008)
Man on Wire is a gripping chronicle of Philippe Petit’s audacious high-wire walk between New York’s World Trade Center Towers in 1974. Seamlessly blending archival footage with reenactments, director James Marsh captures the exhilaration and danger of Petit’s unauthorized feat. Beyond the physical act, the documentary film serves as a tribute to ambition, artistry, and sheer human spirit.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish offers a scathing critique of the marine park industry through the tragic story of Tilikum, a captive orca at SeaWorld. Highlighting the psychological and physical toll of captivity on these majestic creatures, the film ignited global discussions about animal rights and led to significant changes in practices at marine theme parks, particularly SeaWorld.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
Morgan Neville’s heartwarming documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? celebrates the life and legacy of Fred Rogers, the gentle soul behind Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. By highlighting Rogers’ enduring message of love, acceptance, and understanding, the documentary film underscores the transformative power of kindness in media and its lasting impact on generations of children.
The Impact of Documentaries on Society
Documentaries have long been recognized as a powerful tool for social change. They offer a unique platform to shed light on important issues, challenge prevailing narratives, and inspire action. By capturing real-life stories and presenting them on film, documentaries can make complex issues more accessible.
Social Change Through Storytelling
One of the most significant impacts of documentaries is their ability to drive social change through storytelling. As noted by Hotdocs, there is a rich history of documentary films being used by community groups and social movements to advance their causes. Whether it’s raising awareness about climate change or advocating for human rights, documentaries can be a powerful catalyst for change.
In addition to driving social change, documentaries play a crucial role in educating audiences about critical global issues. As our world becomes increasingly interconnected, understanding these issues has become more important than ever. Documentaries tell important stories that can help us make sense of these complex realities.
Documentaries also provide an opportunity to understand and connect with the world. According to ONE, they offer a way for us to gather together and engage with issues on a deeper level. This can foster empathy, break down barriers, and bring people together in meaningful ways.
Documentaries have the remarkable ability to generate powerful audience responses while advancing the objectives of exceptional organizations. They educate individuals and shape attitudes, making them a powerful tool for advocacy and education.
Driving Measurable Impact
Finally, documentaries are increasingly being used to drive measurable impact. This involves defining what kind of impact a documentary can achieve and seeking tangible results. This shows the growing recognition of the power of storytelling to effect real-world change.
In all, documentaries have a profound impact on society. They inform, educate, inspire, and drive social change. Whether you’re a filmmaker or a viewer, there’s no denying the potential of documentaries to make a difference.
Final Thoughts on Documentary Production
Documentaries offer us a lens through which we can explore, understand, and connect with the world around us.
They are a powerful medium that can evoke emotion, provoke thought, and inspire action. From capturing raw human experiences to shedding light on social issues, documentaries can transform our perspectives and challenge our preconceptions.
Whether you’re an aspiring filmmaker eager to tell your own stories or a curious viewer looking to expand your horizons, delving into the world of documentaries can be a richly rewarding journey.
Remember, every documentary started as an idea, a curiosity, or a passion. Who knows? Your unique perspective might just lead to the next groundbreaking documentary. So go ahead, pick up that camera, start asking questions, and let the world see through your lens.
Common Questions About the Documentary Form
What is the main purpose of a documentary?
The main purpose of a documentary nonfiction film is to inform, educate, and provoke thought by presenting real-life situations or events in a compelling manner. It aims to create awareness, change attitudes, and potentially cause people to take action, striving towards societal betterment by giving voice to important, often unknown stories.
What is the difference between a documentary and a movie?
A documentary presents factual information, stories, or events with the intent to inform, educate, or raise awareness, often using real-life footage and interviews. In contrast, a movie, especially a fiction film, is primarily a work of creative storytelling. It’s created from scripted scenarios and character performances, aiming to entertain, inspire, or artistically express ideas.