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  1. Plural of documentary

Extensive Definition

Documentary film is a broad category of visual expression that is based on the attempt, in one fashion or another, to "document" reality. Although "documentary film" originally referred to movies shot on film stock, it has subsequently expanded to include video and digital productions that can be either direct-to-video or made for a television series. Documentary, as it applies here, works to identify a "filmmaking practice, a cinematic tradition, and mode of audience reception" that is continually evolving and is without clear boundaries.

Defining documentary

The word "documentary" was first applied to films of this nature in a review of Robert Flaherty's film Moana (1926), published in the New York Sun on 8 February 1926 and written by "The Moviegoer", a pen name for documentarian John Grierson.
In the 1930s, Grierson further argued in his essay First Principles of Documentary that Moana had "documentary value". Grierson's principles of documentary 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 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, Dziga Vertov argued for presenting "life as it is" (that is, life filmed surreptitiously) and "life caught unawares" (life provoked or surprised by the camera).



The filmmaker John Grierson used the term documentary in 1926 to refer to any nonfiction film medium, including travelogues and instructional films. The earliest "moving pictures" were, by definition, documentaries. They were single-shot moments captured on film: 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. (The term "documentary" was not coined until 1926.) Very little storytelling took place before the turn of the century, due mostly to technological limitations, namely, that movie cameras could hold only very small amounts of film. Thus many of the first films are a minute or less in length, as made by Auguste and Louis Lumière.


Travelogue films were very popular in the early part of the 20th century. Some were known as "scenics". Scenics were among the most popular sort of films at the time. An important early film to move beyond the concept of the scenic was In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914), which embraced primitivism and exoticism in a staged story presented as truthful re-enactments of the life of Native Americans.
Also during this period Frank Hurley's documentary film about the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition South was released (1919). It documented the failed Antarctic expedition led by Ernest Shackleton in 1914.



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 did not allow his subjects to shoot a walrus with a nearby shotgun, but had them use a harpoon instead).
Some of Flaherty's staging, such as building a roofless igloo for interior shots, was done to accommodate the filming technology of the time.

The city symphony

The continental, or realist, tradition focused on humans within human-made environments, and included the so-called "city symphony" films such as Berlin, Symphony of a City (of which Grierson noted in an article that Berlin represented what a documentary should not be), Rien que les Heures, and Man with the Movie Camera. These films tend to feature people as products of their environment, and lean towards the avant-garde.


Dziga Vertov was central to the Russian Kino-Pravda (literally, "cinema truth") newsreel series of the 1920s. Vertov believed the camera -- with its varied lenses, shot-counter shot editing, time-lapse, ability to slow motion, stop motion and fast-motion -- could render reality more accurately than the human eye, and made a film philosophy out of it.

Newsreel tradition

The newsreel tradition is important in documentary film; newsreels were also sometimes staged but were usually re-enactments 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 re-enact scenes to film them.


The propagandist tradition consists 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. Pare Lorentz's The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River are notable New Deal productions, each presenting complex combinatons of social and ecological awareness, government propaganda, and leftist subversion. 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. In Canada the Film Board, set up by Grierson, was created for the same propaganda reasons. It also created newsreels that were seen by their national governments as legitimate counter-propaganda to the psychological warfare of Nazi Germany (orchestrated by Joseph Goebbels).
In Britain, a number of different filmmakers came together under John Grierson. They became known as the Documentary Film Movement. John Grierson, Alberto Cavalcanti, Harry Watt, Basil Wright and Humphrey Jennings amongst others succeeded in blending propaganda, information and education with a more poetic aesthetic approach to documentary. Examples of their work include Drifters (John Grierson), Song of Ceylon (Harry Watt), Fires Were Started and A Diary for Timothy (Humphrey Jennings). Their work involved poets such as W. H. Auden, composers (Benjamin Britten) and writers eg J. B. Priestley. Perhaps amongst the most well known films of the movement are Night Mail and Coal Face.



Cinéma vérité (or the closely related direct cinema) was dependent on some technical advances in order to exist: light, quiet and reliable cameras, and portable sync sound.
Cinéma vérité and similar documentary traditions can thus be seen, in a broader perspective, as a reaction against studio-based film production constraints. Shooting on location, with smaller crews, would also happen in the French New Wave, the filmmakers taking advantage of advances in technology allowing smaller, handheld cameras and synchronized sound to film events on location as they unfolded.
Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there are important differences between cinéma vérité (Jean Rouch) and the North American "Direct Cinema" (or more accurately "Cinéma direct", pioneered among others by French Canadian Michel Brault, Pierre Perrault, Americans Robert Drew, 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, choose non-involvement (or at least no overt involvement), and Perrault, Rouch, Koenig, and Kroitor favor direct involvement or even provocation when they deem it necessary.
The fundamentals of the style include following a person during a crisis with a moving, often handheld, camera to capture more personal reactions. There are no sit-down interviews, and the shooting ratio (the amount of film shot to the finished product) is very high, often reaching 80 to one. From there, editors find and sculpt the work into a film. The editors of the movement — such as Werner Nold, Charlotte Zwerin, Muffie Myers, Susan Froemke, and Ellen Hovde — are often overlooked, but their input to the films was so vital that they were often given co-director credits.
Famous cinéma vérité/direct cinema films include Les Raquetteurs, Showman, Salesman, The Children Were Watching, Primary, Behind a Presidential Crisis, and Grey Gardens.

Political weapons

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 a changing 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.

Modern documentaries

Box office analysts have noted that this film genre has become increasingly successful in theatrical release with films such as Bowling for Columbine, Super Size Me, Fahrenheit 9/11, March of the Penguins and An Inconvenient Truth among the most prominent examples. Compared to dramatic narrative films, documentaries typically have far lower budgets which makes them attractive to film companies because even a limited theatrical release can be highly profitable. Fahrenheit 9/11 set a new record for documentary profits, earning over US$228 million in ticket sales and selling over 3 million DVDs.
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 incorporated stylized re-enactments, and Michael Moore's Roger & Me placed far more interpretive control with the director. Indeed, the commercial success of these documentaries may derive from this narrative shift in the documentary form, leading some critics to question whether such films can truly be called documentaries; critics sometimes refer to these works as "mondo films" or "docu-ganda." However, directorial manipulation of documentary subjects has been noted since the work of 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. Yet funding for documentary film production remains elusive, and within the past decade the largest exhibition opportunities have emerged from within the broadcast market, making filmmakers beholden to the tastes and influences of the broadcasters who have become their largest funding source.
Modern documentaries have some overlap with television forms, with the development of "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 closer to an advertisement than a classic documentary.
Modern lightweight digital video cameras and computer-based editing have greatly aided documentary makers, as has the dramatic drop in equipment prices. The first film to take full advantage of this change was Martin Kunert and Eric Manes' Voices of Iraq, where 150 DV cameras were sent to Iraq during the war and passed out to Iraqis to record themselves.

Other documentary forms

Compilation films

Compilation films were 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 that 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). Similarly, The Last Cigarette combines the testimony of various tobacco company executives before the U.S. Congress with archival propaganda extolling the virtues of smoking.

Documentaries about documentary filmmakers

See also

Documentary film festivals

Significant institutes dealing with documentary

Notes and references

Further reading

  • Aitken, Ian (ed.). Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film. New York: Routledge, 2005. ISBN 1579584454.
  • Barnouw, Erik. Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, 2nd rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0195078985. Still a useful introduction.
  • Bernard, Sheila Curran. Documentary Storytelling for Film and Videomakers. Burlington, Mass.: Focal Press, 2004. ISBN 0240805399.
  • Burton, Julianne (ed.). The Social Documentary in Latin America. Pittsburgh, Penn.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990. ISBN 0822936216.
  • Dawson, Jonathan. "Dziga Vertov".
  • Ellis, Jack C., and Betsy A. McLane. "A New History of Documentary Film". New York: Continuum International, 2005. ISBN 0826417507, ISBN 0826417515.
  • Goldsmith, David A. The Documentary Makers: Interviews with 15 of the Best in the Business. Hove, East Sussex: RotoVision, 2003. ISBN 2880467306.
  • Leach, Jim, and Jeannette Sloniowski (eds.). Candid Eyes: Essays on Canadian Documentaries. Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2003. ISBN 0802047327, ISBN 0802082998.
  • Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary, Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2001. ISBN 0253339545, ISBN 0253214696.
  • Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1991. ISBN 0253340608, ISBN 0253206812.
  • Nornes, Markus. Forest of Pressure: Ogawa Shinsuke and Postwar Japanese Documentary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. ISBN 0816649073, ISBN 0816649081.
  • Nornes, Markus. Japanese Documentary Film: The Meiji Era through Hiroshima. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. ISBN 0816640459, ISBN 0816640467.
  • Rotha, Paul, Documentary diary; An Informal History of the British Documentary Film, 1928-1939. New York: Hill and Wang, 1973. ISBN 0809039338.
  • Saunders, Dave. Direct Cinema: Observational Documentary and the Politics of the Sixties. London: Wallflower Press, 2007. ISBN 1905674163, ISBN 1905674155.
  • Walker, Janet, and Diane Waldeman (eds.). Feminism and Documentary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. ISBN 0816630062, ISBN 0816630070.

External links

documentaries in Azerbaijani: Sənədli film
documentaries in Bengali: প্রামাণ্যচিত্র
documentaries in Bosnian: Dokumentarni film
documentaries in Bulgarian: Документален филм
documentaries in Catalan: Documental
documentaries in Czech: Dokumentární film
documentaries in Danish: Dokumentarfilm
documentaries in German: Dokumentarfilm
documentaries in Estonian: Dokumentaalfilm
documentaries in Spanish: Documental
documentaries in Esperanto: Dokumenta filmo
documentaries in Persian: فیلم مستند
documentaries in French: Film documentaire
documentaries in Galician: Documental
documentaries in Hindi: वृत्त चित्र
documentaries in Indonesian: Film dokumenter
documentaries in Icelandic: Heimildarmynd
documentaries in Italian: Documentario (film)
documentaries in Hebrew: סרט תיעודי
documentaries in Hungarian: Dokumentumfilm
documentaries in Dutch: Documentaire
documentaries in Japanese: ドキュメンタリー
documentaries in Norwegian: Dokumentarfilm
documentaries in Polish: Film dokumentalny
documentaries in Portuguese: Documentário
documentaries in Romanian: Film documentar
documentaries in Russian: Документальное кино
documentaries in Finnish: Dokumenttielokuva
documentaries in Swedish: Dokumentärfilm
documentaries in Thai: ภาพยนตร์สารคดี
documentaries in Turkish: Belgesel film
documentaries in Ukrainian: Документальний фільм
documentaries in Chinese: 紀錄片
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