What is documentary? The genre defined

What is documentary? What qualifies as a documentary film? Let's dig deeper.

The most interesting documentaries are the ones that teach us something about ourselves. 

Documentary trailblazer Sheila Nevins, current Head of MTV Documentary division and former President of HBO Documentary says: 

“When you look at the great documentaries, they focus on one person; it’s one person’s struggle. And you say, ‘hey, you know, I’m not so different from that person.’”

Besides creating empathy, documentary creates awareness about important social issues. This mode of filmmaking gives the viewer access to foreign subjects and exotic environments that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Documentary exposes corruption or injustice and serves as a vehicle for change.

When you attach the power of story to reality, you create a deeper level of understanding, a connection between subject and viewer — a documentary.

The definition of documentary

The Wikipedia definition of a documentary film is this: a non-fiction motion picture intended to document reality primarily for the purposes of instruction, education, or maintaining a historical record.

American film critic and filmmaker, Pare Lorentz, defines a documentary film as a factual film which is dramatic. 

The Scottish documentary trailblazer John Grierson, who first coined the term documentary in 1926, defined it as “a creative treatment of actuality.” This definition of documentary still stands strong almost a century later.

News tells us what happened; art explores what it means to be human. Documentary is a sort of synergy of news and art. It elevates both mediums to a higher form.

Documentary and pop culture

With the advancement of technology and accessibility of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, documentary film entered into the mainstream consciousness as one of the dominant art forms of cinematic storytelling, journalism, advocacy and personal expression.

In popular editing software like Apple’s Final Cut Pro, we even find specific effects named after popular documentary techniques. The Ken Burns Effect, for instance, is a filter that adds movement to a still image to enhance the documentary storytelling process.

What constitutes a documentary? 

Documentary varies from the abstract to narrative, big-budget or no budget. They champion people that have nothing or let you into the lives of people that have everything. It is life around the world presented to the viewer on a screen.

There are six modes of documentary production according to film critic Bill Nichols which include expository, observational, participatory, reflexive, poetic and performative. 

Most docs are not made in any one mode but use a combination of more than one style.

The 6 modes of documentary filmmaking

Let’s take a quick look at the six modes of doc production. For a more in-depth analysis, read “The six primary types of documentary.”

Expository docs

Expository mode docs are heavily researched. Sometimes referred to as essay films, they aim to educate about things such as past events, issues or ways of life. 

An example of this would be “The Dust Bowl” by documentarian Ken Burns. (Yes, this is the same guy the Ken Burns effect is named after.)

Observational docs

Observational mode docs strive for cinematic realism. The form is often referred to as cinema verite. A simpler description would be the fly on the wall approach of documentary filmmaking. 

This type of documentary tends to be low budget, with a small crew and natural lighting. The filmmaker follows the drama as it unfolds in real-time. 

Frederick Wiseman is the Godfather of observational cinema with his documentation of social institutions and big social issues. Other examples include “Don’t Look Back” by DA Pennebaker and “Salesman” by Albert and David Maysles.

Participatory docs

Participatory mode shows the filmmaker and the subject actively interacting in the situation that is being filmed. The participatory mode often presents the filmmakers point of view and provides some type of social commentary. 

Several doc filmmakers popularized this style of first-person documentary storytelling. They include Michael Moore with “Bowling for Columbine,” Nick Broomfield with “Kurt and Courtney” and Morgan Spurlock with the classic “Supersize Me.” 

This mode often includes the film director’s voice as the narrative thread throughout the film.

Reflexive docs

Reflexive mode docs are a sort of construction of reality that can often leave the audience wondering about the authenticity of the film. 

The clearest and most outstanding example of this mode is “This is Spinal Tap.” It’s a mockumentary by director Rob Reiner about a fictional heavy metal band in their decline.

Poetic docs

Poetic mode is also referred to as abstract or avant-garde. The emphasizes form over function, sacrificing narrative arc for a more aesthetically pleasing presentation.  

Performative docs

Performative mode is when the filmmaker depicts a larger political or historical reality through their own POV. 

The filmmaker becomes a personal guide and includes their own emotion as part of the story. 

In performative mode, the filmmaker gives a first-person look at what it’s like to be there. An example of this mode would be the fierce documentary “Paris is Burning” by Jenny Livingston. The film chronicles New York’s drag scene in the 1980s and what it was like to be a gay, transgender minority during that time in society.

Documentary film vs narrative film

Documentary film and narrative film can be one in the same or distinguished as two completely different art forms. It’s like comparing apples to oranges; they are two different fruits, distinguished by color, taste and texture but at the end of the day, they are both still fruits.

The biggest difference in the two forms is the point at which the narrative develops. The story, in a narrative film, comes out during the writing of the screenplay before production even begins. For documentary, the narrative arc or story usually emerges in the edit room during post-production, long after production begins.  

There are always exceptions to the rule, of course. For instance, history-focused documentaries often have a clear script and intention before production begins. Documentaries centered around current events, however, don’t have this luxury.

Regardless of the differences between documentary and narrative filmmaking, most popular modern-day documentaries rely on a very strong narrative structure.

A Golden Age in doc production?

Many critics have argued this is the Golden Age of documentary because there is more demand than ever for it. Streaming services are paying millions of dollars to acquire doc projects. Plus, more broadcast networks are programming feature-length documentaries during prime time.

One could argue that doc films’ strong narrative presentations are more interesting and relatable than the played-out Hollywood superhero blockbusters.

Another reason for the surge in popularity could be the public’s craving for authentic storytelling. In the age of filters and fake news, documentary is where you can find truth.

Are YouTube videos and reality TV the same?

Most feature documentaries focus on having a strong narrative structure or telling some sort of fact-based story. This makes it is easy to distinguish from most reality TV or “non-fiction” television programming where the goal is entertainment.

In other words, most reality-based TV programming is scripted. In contrast, documentary is generally unscripted.

Some Youtube videos can be considered documentary if they record events or actions based in reality. YouTube videos can also be informational or narrative in nature. The issue is complicated, however. Youtube videos are produced for any number of reasons and can present fictional narratives as well as actuality. 

Deciphering documentary, narrative and Youtube filmmaking is hard to do. They can all fall under one umbrella or be a combination of more than one genre or mode.

To work in documentary

As someone who has produced four feature documentary films, youtube videos and narrative films, I think Steven Bognar described it best in the acceptance speech he gave at the 2019 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

At the festival, Bognar and filmmaking partner Julia Reichert recieved the prestigious Tribute Award. 

Bognar’s acceptance speech described what it’s like to work in documentary:

“To work in documentary is to feel a lack of confidence in your abilities, to feel uncertainty that you know what you’re doing, to feel doubt that you are making a worthy film, to feel guilt that people, good people, have trusted you to tell their story, to feel you’ve snuck into the party and pretty soon someone is going to come up to you and say, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’

To work in documentary is to feel a constant anxiety about the moments you are missing, that you should be filming right now, about the questions you forgot to ask, about the camera angle and shots you didn’t think of, about the loud refrigerator hum you didn’t even notice, about the spare batteries you forgot, about the dumb thing you said to the most important person you are following.

To work in documentary is to cut scenes from your film that you dearly love, to cut people from your film whom you adore, to second-guess every edit you make, for weeks or months or years thereafter.

To work in documentary is to spend two years, or four, or seven, or nine years on one film, with the sneaking feeling that it would have been a better film if you had finished it three years earlier, and with the delusional hope that you’ll figure it out and get it done about eight months from now.

To work in documentary is to wonder, will a funder see in your rough cut what you saw in the idea?

Will a programmer feel the story you constructed the way you felt it when you were living it? To wonder, will anyone ever like this film? Will anyone ever even see this film? 

And yet, are we not so incredibly fortunate to work in documentary?”

Bognar and Reichart won this year’s Oscar for “Best Documentary” for their 2019 film “American Factory”.  “American Factory” is a great example of documentary at its purest form and I highly recommend it!

Parting Words from Werner Herzog

And lastly, what would an article about documentary be without a maxim from the documentarian and legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog. He said: 

“Get used to the bear behind you.”  

If you are a documentary filmmaker or ever aspire to be one, this quote will make a lot of sense to you! 

If you are a fan of documentary, go check out Herzog’s 2005 classic doc “Grizzly Man.” It’s about the life and death of grizzly bear activist Timothy Treadwell. It’s simply unforgettable!