Documentary film

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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 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.


Nanook of the North movie poster.
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 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 documentary 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 Heures, 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

Adolf Hitler being filmed in Paris 1940.
Adolf Hitler being filmed in Paris 1940.

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

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.

Cinéma 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 cinéma vérité. Although sometimes used interchangeably there are important differences between cinéma vérité (Jean Rouch) and the North American "Direct Cinema", 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, choosing non-involvement, and Rouch, Koenig, and Kroitor favoring direct involvement or even provocation when they deem it necessary.

The '60s and '70s

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 the then turbulent 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.

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.

Modern documentaries

Fahrenheit 9/11 movie poster.
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 and March of the Penguins being the most successful 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.

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. However, directorial manipulation of documentary subjects has been noted since the work of Robert 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. Documentaries are also being released only on the internet for those with broadband access, notably Stolen Honor (2004) about John Kerry.

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 or staged.

The making-of documentary shows how a movie or a computer game was produced. Usually made for promotional purposes, it is usually closer an advertisement than to classical documentary.

Modern lightweight digital film cameras and computer-based editing have greatly aided documentary makers, as has the dramatic drop in equipment prices.

Lists of directors and producers of documentaries

See Lists of directors and producers of documentaries

See also

Documentary film festivals

Significant institutes dealing with documentary


  • Documentary Film Bibliography (via UC Berkeley)
  • Erik Barnouw, Documentary. A History of the Non-Fiction Film, Oxford University Press 1993 - still a useful introduction
  • 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
  • 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
  • Ian Aitken (ed) Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film, Routledge, 2005

Documentaries about documentary filmmakers

External links

Distributors of documentary films

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