The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Documentary film

Documentary film is a broad category of cinematic expression united by the intent to remain factual or non-fictional.




The French used the term to refer to any non-fiction film, including travelogues and instructional videos. The earliest "moving pictures" were by definition documentary. They 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 "actualities." 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.


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 does not allow his subjects to shoot a walrus with a nearby shotgun, but has them use a harpoon instead, putting themselves in considerable danger).

Some of Flaherty's staging, such as building a roofless igloo for interior shots, was done to accommodate the filming technology of the time. In later years, attempts to steer the action in this way, without informing the audience, have come to be considered both unethical and contradictory to the nature of documentary film. On the other hand, both the story line and content of any documentary are imposed by the filmmaker. In a notorious instance, for the Academy award winning documentary White Wilderness in 1958, Disney technicians built a snow-covered turntable to create the impression of madly leaping migrating lemmings and then herded the lemmings over a cliff into the sea. This fakery distorts the popular understanding of lemmings to this day. While lemmings do swarm in some years, they do not commit mass suicide.

Newsreel tradition

The newsreel tradition is an important tradition in documtentary film; newsreels were also sometimes staged but were usually reenactments 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 reenact scenes to film them. Dziga Vertov was involved with the Russian Kino-Pravda newsreel series ("Kino-Pravda" means literally, "film-truth," a term that was later translated literally into the French cinema verite). 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.

Realist tradition

The continental, or realist, tradition focused on man within man-made environments, and included the so-called "city symphony" films such as Berlin, Symphony of a City , Rien Que Les Heurs , and Man with the Movie Camera. These films tended to feature people as products of their environment, and leaned towards the impersonal or avant-garde.

Propagandist tradition

The propagandist tradition consisted 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. Why We Fight was explicitly contracted as a propaganda newsreel series in response to this, covering different aspects of World War II, and had the daunting task of persuading the United States public to go to war. The series has been selected for preservation in the United States' National Film Registry.

J. Grierson and D. Vertov

In the 1930s, documentarian and film critic John Grierson argued in his essay First Principles of Documentary that Robert Flaherty's film Moana had "documentary value," and put forward a number of principles of documentary. These principles 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 Dziga 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, Vertov argued for presenting "life as it is" (that is, life filmed surreptitiously) and "life caught unawares" (life provoked or surprised by the camera). Cinema verite borrows from both Italian neorealism's penchant for shooting non-actors on location, and the French New Wave's use of largely unscripted action and improvised dialogue; the filmmakers took advantage of advances in technology allowing smaller, handheld cameras and synchronized sound to film events on location as they unfold.

Cinema vérité

The films Harlan County, U.S.A. (directed by Barbara Kopple ), Don't Look Back (D. A. Pennebaker), Lonely Boy (Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor) and Chronicle of a Summer (Jean Rouch) are all considered cinema vérité. Although sometimes used interchangeably there are important differences between Cinema vérité (Jean Rouch) and the american Direct Cinema , pioneered by Richard Leacock, Frederick Wiseman and the Maysle Brothers. The directors of the movement take different viewpoints on their degree of involvement, Kopple and Pennebaker, for instance, choosing non-involvement, and Rouch, Koenig, and Kroitor favoring direct involvement or even provocation when they deem it necessary.

The sixties and seventies

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

Compilation films

The creation of compilation films is not a recent development in the field of documentary. It was 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 which 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). Meanwhile The Last Cigarette combines the testimony of various tobacco company executives before the U.S. Congress with archival propaganda extolling the virtues of smoking.

Non-fiction film can also be used to produce the more subjective reflective attitude characteristic of essays. Important essay film makers include Guy Debord, Raoul Peck and Harun Farocki .

Moderns documentaries

Modern documentaries have a substantial overlap with other forms of television, with the development of so-called reality television that occasionally verges on the documentary but more often veers to the fictional.

Box office analysts have noted that this film genre has become increasingly successful in theatrical release with films like Bowling for Columbine, Super Size Me and especially Fahrenheit 9/11 being the primary examples. However, there has been some debate over whether or not these three films are actual documentaries or not. It is speculated that this trend could be further encouraged by the major film companies considering that compared to dramatic narrative films, documentaries typically have far lower budgets which can make even limited theatrical releases highly profitable.

Lists of producers of documentaries





Latin America

  • Tomas Gutierrez Alea
  • Santiago Alvarez
  • João Batista de Andrade
  • Fernando Birri
  • Sergio Bravo
  • Patricio Guzman
  • Leon Hirszman
  • Miguel Littin
  • Paul Leduc
  • Marta Rodríguez
  • Fernando E. Solanas
  • Gerardo Vallejo

North America

Significant institutes dealing with documentary

See also


  • Erik Barnouw, Documentary. A History of the Non-Fiction Film, Oxford University Press 1993
  • Julianne Burton (ed.), The social documentary in Latin America, Pittsburgh, Pa. : University of Pittsburgh Press 1990
  • Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Indiana University Press 1991

Documentaries about documentary filmmakers

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

External links

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