Documentary film – Definition & Detailed Explanation – Film Genres Glossary Terms

I. What is a Documentary Film?

A documentary film is a non-fictional motion picture intended to document reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction, education, or maintaining a historical record. Unlike fictional films, documentaries strive to capture real-life events, people, places, and issues in an objective and truthful manner. Documentaries can cover a wide range of subjects, including social, political, environmental, historical, and biographical topics. They often use interviews, archival footage, photographs, and narration to convey their message.

II. History of Documentary Films

The history of documentary films dates back to the early days of cinema. One of the earliest examples of a documentary film is “Nanook of the North” (1922) directed by Robert J. Flaherty, which follows the daily life of an Inuit family in the Canadian Arctic. In the 1930s, documentary filmmakers such as John Grierson in the UK and Pare Lorentz in the US began to use the medium to raise awareness about social and political issues.

During World War II, documentaries were used as propaganda tools by governments to shape public opinion. In the post-war era, filmmakers like Dziga Vertov in the Soviet Union and Frederick Wiseman in the US pushed the boundaries of documentary filmmaking by experimenting with new techniques and styles.

In the 21st century, documentaries have gained widespread popularity thanks to streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu, which have made them more accessible to a global audience.

III. Different Types of Documentary Films

There are several different types of documentary films, each with its own unique style and approach. Some common types include:

1. Observational Documentaries: These films observe and capture real-life events as they unfold without any interference from the filmmaker.

2. Expository Documentaries: These films present a specific point of view or argument on a particular issue, often using interviews and narration to convey their message.

3. Participatory Documentaries: In these films, the filmmaker actively participates in the events being documented, often becoming a part of the story themselves.

4. Poetic Documentaries: These films focus on the visual and emotional aspects of a subject, using imagery and music to evoke a certain mood or feeling.

5. Mockumentaries: These films parody the conventions of traditional documentaries, often using humor to explore serious issues.

IV. Techniques Used in Documentary Filmmaking

Documentary filmmakers use a variety of techniques to capture and convey real-life events. Some common techniques include:

1. Interviews: Filmmakers often interview subjects to gather information and insights on a particular topic.

2. Archival Footage: Documentaries often use archival footage, photographs, and documents to provide historical context and background information.

3. Reenactments: In some cases, filmmakers may use reenactments to recreate events that cannot be captured on camera.

4. Voiceover: Narration is often used in documentaries to provide additional information or context for the audience.

5. Handheld Camera: Many documentary filmmakers use handheld cameras to create a sense of intimacy and immediacy in their films.

V. Impact and Importance of Documentary Films

Documentary films play a crucial role in raising awareness about important social, political, and environmental issues. They have the power to educate, inspire, and provoke change by shining a light on underrepresented voices and marginalized communities. Documentaries can also serve as a historical record, preserving important events and stories for future generations.

In recent years, documentaries like “Blackfish” (2013), “13th” (2016), and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (2018) have sparked national conversations and influenced public policy. They have also helped to launch social movements and hold powerful institutions accountable for their actions.

VI. Notable Documentary Films and Filmmakers

There have been many influential documentary films and filmmakers throughout history. Some notable examples include:

1. “Hoop Dreams” (1994) directed by Steve James, which follows the lives of two inner-city high school basketball players in Chicago.

2. “Man on Wire” (2008) directed by James Marsh, which tells the story of Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974.

3. “Citizenfour” (2014) directed by Laura Poitras, which documents Edward Snowden’s release of classified NSA documents to journalists.

4. Errol Morris, known for films like “The Thin Blue Line” (1988) and “The Fog of War” (2003), which explore the nature of truth and justice.

Documentary filmmakers continue to push the boundaries of the medium, using innovative techniques and storytelling methods to shed light on important issues and inspire change.