Documentary is one of three basic creative modes in film, the other two being narrative fiction and experimental avant-garde. Narrative fiction is well known as the feature-length and short story movies in theatres, on TV or computers, and now mobile phones and tablets. They grow out of literary, story-telling, and artistic and stage traditions. Experimental or avant-garde films are generally shown in nontheatrical film societies, in museums and art galleries, or are available in a few video anthologies; usually they are the work of individual filmmakers and the traditions of the visual arts and later aural experimentations mix with those of film.
Traditionally, the characteristics most documentaries have in common, but that are distinct from other film types (especially from the fiction film), can be thought of in terms of: (1) subjects and ideologies; (2) purposes, viewpoints or approaches; (3) forms; (4) production methods and techniques; and (5) the sort of experiences they offer audiences, including actions that result from the films.
As for subjects
– what they’re about – documentaries for many decades focused on something other than the general human condition involving individual human feelings, relationships and actions; these were the province of narrative
fiction and drama. For example, a British documentary made by Paul Rotha entitled The Fourth Estate
(1940) is about a newspaper, The
, whereas Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane
(1941) is more concerned with a fictional character who is modelled on William Randolph Hearst, the powerful American press lord, than with the publishing of newspapers. The National Film Board of Canada’s City of Gold
(1957) made by Wolf Koenig and Colin Low from still photographs taken in Dawson City, in the Yukon Territory, in 1898 was set within a brief frame of live action in then present-day Dawson. In terms of library catalogue headings, City of Gold
would be listed under ‘Canada. History. Nineteenth century’, ‘Gold mines and mining. Yukon’, ‘Klondike gold fields’, and the like. On the other hand, if Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush
(1925) were to be similarly catalogued, it would be in the Cs (alphabetically by author) under the general heading Fiction, Comedy, Chaplin. Though its unforgettable recreation of the file of prospectors climbing over Chilkoot Pass is remarkably painstaking, The Gold Rush
is not really about the Klondike Gold Rush as much as it is about loneliness and longing, pluck and luck, failure and success, friendship and love personified in an actor, in this case a world-renowned movie star. Generally documentaries are about something specific and factual; traditionally they concerned public matters rather than private ones. People, places, processes, politics, problems and events in documentary are actual, and, except for strictly historical work, are contemporary. Much of this categorical approach has been challenged in recent years, but to understand those changes it is necessary to understand the roots of documentary philosophy.
The second aspect – purpose/viewpoint/approach – is what the filmmakers are trying to say with their films. Today they record social, cultural and personal, as well as natural, institutional and political phenomena in order to inform us about these people, events, places, institutions and problems. In so doing, documentary filmmakers intend to increase our understanding of, our interest in, our sympathy for their subjects, and perhaps our future actions. They may hope that through this means they will enable lives to be lived more fully and intelligently. At any rate, the purpose or approach of the makers of most documentaries is to record and interpret the actuality in front of the camera and microphone in order to inform and/or persuade us to hold some attitude or take some action in relation to their subjects.
evolves from the formative process, including the filmmakers’ original conception, the sights and sounds selected for inclusion, the artistic vision and the structures into which they are fitted. Documentaries, whether scripted in advance or confined to recorded spontaneous action, are derived from and limited to actuality. Hybrids continue to multiply, but documentary is based in reality. Documentary filmmakers limit themselves to extracting and arranging from what already exists rather than making up content. They may recreate what they have observed, but they do not create totally out of imagination as creators of stories can do. Though documentarians may follow a chronological line and include people in their films, they do not employ plot or character development as standard means of organization as do fiction filmmakers. The form of documentary is mainly determined by subject, purpose and approach. Usually there is no conventional three-act dramaturgical progression from exposition and complication to discovery to climax to denouement. Documentary forms tend to be functional, varied, and looser than those of short stories, novels, or plays. Sometimes they are more like non-narrative written forms such as essays, advertisements, editorials, or poems. More and more documentaries in the last decade blur the boundaries between the forms.
Fourth, production method and technique refer to the ways images are shot, sounds recorded, and the two edited together. Arguments can be made for exceptions, but a basic requirement of documentary is the use of nonactors (‘real people’ who ‘play themselves’) rather than actors (who are cast, costumed and made up to play ‘roles’). Another basic requirement is shooting on location (rather than on sound stages or studio back lots). In documentaries sets are very seldom constructed. Other than lighting for interviews, lighting is usually what exists at the location, supplemented only when necessary to achieve adequate exposure. Exceptions to these generalizations occur, of course; but, in general, any manipulation of images or sounds is largely confined to what is required to make the recording of them possible, or to make the result seem closer to the actual than inadequate technique might. Special effects might be used to make clear a point, as in a science film for example, but technological effects are not a primary element of documentaries. Experimental documentaries are quite different, but their categorization is always difficult.
Finally, the audience response
documentary filmmakers seek to achieve is generally twofold: an aesthetic experience of some sort, and an effect on attitudes, possibly leading to action. Though much beauty can exist in documentary films, it tends to be more functional, sparse and austere than the constructed beauties offered by fictional films. Also, much documentary filmmaking offers more that would be described as professional skill
rather than as personal style
; communication rather than expression is what the documentary filmmaker is usually after. Consequently, the audience is responding not so much to the artist (who traditionally keeps under cover) as to the subject matter of the film (and the artist’s more or less covert statements about it). Generally the best way to understand and appreciate the intentions of documentarians is to accept the precept of the Roman poet Horace that art should both please and instruct. Another key factor is to understand for whom the film was made; in other words, follow the money.
Traditionally, the English-language documentary is said to start with American Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, shot in Canada and released in the United States in 1922. Flaherty wanted to show his version of the Eskimos – the people whom he had gotten to know in his travels – to audiences who had little or no knowledge of them. In the early twentieth century, few had seen a photograph or moving image of Eskimo life. To accomplish this goal he fashioned a new form of filmmaking. The worldwide success of Nanook, along with the influence of his wife Frances, drew Flaherty further away from exploring (which had been his profession) and still photography, and into filmmaking. His second film, Moana (1926), prompted John Grierson – then a young Scot on an extended visit to the United States – to devise a new use for the word documentary. Grierson introduced the word, as an adjective, in the first sentence of the second paragraph of his review in The New York Sun (February 8, 1926): ‘Of course, Moana being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth and his family, has documentary value.’ ‘Documentary’ film slowly developed as a stand-alone noun, due in no small part to Grierson’s own efforts.
Fig 1 Nanook of the North
(US, 1922, Robert Flaherty). Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Library
has as its root word document
, which comes from the Latin docere
, to teach. As late as ...