Essence of Documentary
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Essence of Documentary

Generally, documentaries are about something particular, factual and concern about the populace than private ones. The people, places, and events in them are actual and always contemporary. Here are the essence of documentary.


Documentary comes from the root word document, which comes from the Latin word decere, meaning to teach. As late as the year 1800, documentary meant “a lesson; an admonition”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Documentary is one of the three basic creative styles in films.

According to John Grierson, British documentary film pioneer, he prefers that the word stand for an idea or concept, with purpose rather than a film fashion or mode. It was Grierson who first used the word documentary in connection to film.

Moana, Grierson first work has “documentary value”, judging on the new meaning of document – a record which is authentic and factual. For the intellects and scholars, documents are ‘primary resources’ of data while to the lawyers, “hard evidence” as opposed to opinions and hearsay. The American film critic Pare Lorentz defines a documentary film as "a factual film which is dramatic.”

Shot from - “Nanook of the North” by Robert Flaherty 1922

The other two are narrative fiction and experimental avant-garde. The narrative fiction we all know is the feature-length entertainment films we see on our TV screens and to theaters downtown. They arise out of literary and theatrical traditions. Observational and experimental or avant-garde films are usually short, shown in none-theatrical film societies or series on composes or film festivals. Usually, they are work of independent individual film makers and goes out of the traditions of the visual arts.

An access to the theory and history of the documentary film might to be describing what the film generally called documentary have in common, and the means in which they differ from other types of films. Another potential approach would be how to consider how documentary filmmaker defines the kind of films they make.

Featured documentaries have in common that are distinct from other film types can be taught of in terms of:

1. Subject

2. Purposes; points of view and approach

3. Forms or classes

4. Production techniques

5. Audience experience and outlook

About Subjects - They are about documentaries focus on some thing other than general human condition involving individual human activities and relationships, the province of narrative and fiction drama. For example; The “Gold Rush” (1925) was classified under ‘Fiction’ while its recreation of the registered miners climbing the Chilkoot Pass was conscientious. It is not really about the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 as much as it is about luck or pluck, poverty and riches, yearning and loneliness, friendship and love.

Shot from - “Gold Rush”

Generally, documentaries are about something particular, factual and concern about the populace than private ones. The people, places, and events in them are actual and always contemporary. Here are the essence of documentary.

About purpose, view points, approach - is what the movie makers is trying to say about the subjects of their films. They record social and cultural phenomena they consider relevant in order to inform us about these people, events, places, institutions, and problems. By then, the producers of documentary films intend to increase our understanding of, public interest, and perhaps our sympathy and concern for the subjects. They may hope that through this medium channeling informal education, they can enable us to live our lives more intelligently and at full extent. The purpose or approach of the makers of most documentary is to record, inform and interpret the actuality in order to convince us to hold some attitude or take some action in relation to the subject.

About form of the film – It is the informative process including the filmmaker’s original conception of the sights and sounds selected to appropriate for usage and the structure it correspond. Documentaries whether scripted in advance or confined to record spontaneous reactions are gained from and limited to actuality. Documentary filmmakers continued to extract and arrange from what already exist rather than composing up content. They may re-create what they have observed but they do not formulate and add any of their imagination as creators of stories can do. Although documentaries may follow a chronological line and include people in their films, they do not apply plot or character enhancement as standard means of organization as do fiction filmmakers do. The form of documentary is mainly influenced by subject, purpose and approach. Usually there is no conventional dramatically advancement from expounding in complication to discovery to climax to denouement. Documentary forms are inclining to be functional, altered, and easier than those of short stories, novels, or plays. They are more probably like non-narrative literary forms as essay, editorials or poems.

About production process and technique – This refers to the ways images are shot, the sounds recorded, and edited together. The essence of documentary is the use of non-actors, they are real peopling rather those actors who are cast, costumed and made to perform. In documentaries no sets or backgrounds are constructed or shooting on a particular location like studios. Lighting available as naturally provided on the location, supplemented only to achieve fine exposure not for mood or for climate. Exceptions of these generalizations occur, of course; but in general, any manipulation of the images or sounds is largely confined to what is required to make the recording of them possible or to make the result seem nearer the actual than inadequate technique might.

Finally, about audience experience - documentary filmmakers seek to provide in general two expressions;

An aesthetic experience of some sort

An effect on attitude possibly resulting to an understanding and action

Though such natural attractions exist in documentary films, it tends to be more functional and austere than the beauties featured in fiction films. Documentary producers’ offers more that could be described as professional skills than as personal class; communication rather that expression in what the filmmakers are meant in purpose. Therefore, the audience is responding not to the artist but to the thought of the film. The best way to understand and appreciate documentaries is to recognize the standard of the Roman poet Horace, which art should be both delight and teach. John Grierson stated that in documentary, art is the by-product of a job of work done.


The Documentary Idea by Jack C. Ellis 1989 pp. 1 – 3


Documentary Films – History and Criticism

Documentary Tradition Lewis Jacob 1979 pp. 45 – 48

Robert Flaherty: Explorer and Filmmaker; The Film of Discovery and Revelation  Frances Flaherty p. 2

Primary Image – “Battleship Potemkin”

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Comments (10)
Ranked #10 in Popular Culture

Thanks Gayle and Petal - appreciated.

Excellent detail from which I learned much.

Ranked #10 in Popular Culture

Thanks Roberta and everyone for the read and votes - appreciated.

Good details and explanation on this subject.

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Another fine piece of work Ron.

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Thanks @Jill, @Dread and @Martin - much appreciated.

As always, great and well explained presentation

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Thanks Sir Abdel-moniem - appreciated.

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