Introduction to Documentary
Documentary – a definition…
Documentary – a definition…
• An approach to the ‘real’ as opposed to the
• Deals with issues of fact, of real events and of
• ‘Documentary’ is often set up in conflict with
‘fiction’ – creating a binary opposition
• The fictional = lies….entertainment films
• The factual = truth…documentaries & ‘realist’
• “The creative treatment of actuality.” –
What makes a film realistic?
• Blair Witch Project
• In terms of representing the ‘truth’,
documentaries are generally accorded the
• To ‘document’ a subject implies keeping a factual
record for future reference.
• However, even the most realistic documentaries
have to be constructed.
• Bruzzi (2000) “We need to accept that a
documentary can never be the real
world…documentaries are performative acts
whose truth comes into being only at the
moment of filming.”
Nanook of the North
A 1922 silent
One of the world's
film by Robert
first examples of a
Explores the struggles
of the Inuk Nanook and
The film is considered his family in the
the first feature-length Canadian arctic.
Flaherty has been criticized for
“A film maker must often staging several sequences and
distort a thing to catch thereby distorting the reality of
its true spirit.” his subjects' lives
• 1898 – 1972
• Scottish documentary maker
• Founder of British documentary film making.
• Influential friendship with Robert Flaherty (who he
referred to as the ‘father of documentary’)
• Argued that documentaries should combine information
with education and propaganda.
• He oversaw the production of over 40 documentaries on
aspects of British life in the 1930s and 1940s.
• The idea was to engineer social reform by highlighting
some of the deprivation endured by working class people
• Focus on ordinary lives (‘Night Mail’ 1936)
Night Mail 1936 documentary
about a mail train
from Scotland to
The most London
successful film of the
A promotional film budget of
for the post office £2000
(produced by the
GPO film unit)
A poem by English poet W. H.
Auden was written for it, used
in the closing few minutes
• 1950s – more detailed and naturalistic approach
to documentary film making developed
• Cinema verite (cinema truth) style developed in
• The intention was to observe and record the
reality of everyday life as it happened without
the usual organisational planning & structured
• The approach was made possible by new
lightweight mobile cameras.
• The television had become the principal medium for
• The genre was typified by the use of an authoritative
presenter and/or voiceover,
• Recorded interviews with experts and ordinary
• Visual ‘evidence’ via location shots, archive film,
• Seamless editing and smooth narrative flow of such
documentaries (still prevalent today), contribute to
creating a sense of irrefutable truth and
• This disguises the editorial values and choices which
shape the making of all documentaries.
• This is an era where it has been argued that the
documentary is outmoded.
• “We are in post documentary times.” (Corner
• However, the success of ‘nature’ or ‘wildlife’
documentaries continues to grow.
• Popularity of BBC series such as ‘The Blue
• Recent successes for cinematic documentaries –
‘Touching the Void’ (2003)
Touching the Void
about 2 climbers
Hugely almost fatal
successful attempt to climb a
at the box mountain in the
“The most successful
documentary film in
history” – The
Michael Moore American film
components of Makes openly
his popularity rhetorical
Farenheit 9/11 has
films which are upfront
made more money
about wanting to
than any other
persuade the audience
of a particular viewpoint
Supersize Me 2004 American
by & starring Morgan
Spurlock's film follows a 30-
day period from February 1
to March 2, 2003 during
which he eats only
explores the fast
Documentaries on TV
• Find a definition and example the different types
• Wednesday 2nd Feb
Fly on the wall
• During the past 20 years, the cinema verite style
of documentary film making has become
increasingly popular in TV.
• Known as ‘fly on the wall’, this approach
represents the subject apparently unmediated by
a film crew, a presenter or reshooting.
• Those participating tend to speak for
• Their words and actions are apparently merely
recorded and observed, not reflected on or
mediated by a presenter.
Fly on the Wall
In helping to define the distinctive fly on the wall
approach, Roger Graef listed certain rules to be
applied in the production:
• Filming events exactly as they happened
• Agreeing in advance the specific subjects to be
• Showing the edited version to the participants,
but only to ensure any factual errors may be
Critics of fly on the wall have argued…
• While seeming more natural’ and unmediated,
these documentaries are subject to considerable
editorial control during post production.
• Shooting ration - up to fifty hours of recorded
video to one hour broadcast
• Editors will try to generate as much dramatic
interest and entertainment as possible.
• There is a growing overlap and convergence of
documentary and drama on TV.
• As early as 1966 – Ken Loach applied cinema
verite style filming to a drama about
• Cathy Come Home
• The documentary feel of the film created a
stronger sense of realism and contributed to its
strong impact on audiences.
• A hybrid of the documentary genre.
• Emphasis that they feature ‘real life’ and ‘real
• A growing phenomenon which seemingly allow
people to appear as themselves.
• They utilise actual (or sometimes reconstructed)
scenes, often made possible by the growth in
availability/technical sophistication of the
• Covers a wide variety of programmes featuring
people in different roles…
• Seen by many as a corruption of the documentary
• Many argue that reality TV fails to be genuinely
informative or revelatory.
• Video footage of ordinary people’s personal
experiences may be exploitative in pandering solely
to audience voyeurism.
• Achieves high ratings at relatively low expense.
• Cheap programming which drives serious,
expensively well researched programmes off our