Features of a documentary

What is Documentary?

Ellis, Jack. The Documentary Idea: A Critical History of English-Language Documentary Film and Video. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall. 1989.

Chapter One: What is Documentary?

ocumentary is one of three basic creative modes in film, the other two being narrative fiction and experimental avant-garde. Narrative fiction we know as the feature-length entertainment films we see in theaters on a Friday night or on our TV screens; they grow out of literary and theatrical traditions. Experimental or avant-garde films are usually shorts, shown in nontheatrical film societies or series on campuses and in museums; usually they are the work of individual filmmakers and grow out of the tradition of the visual arts. One approach to the theory, technique, and history of the documentary film might be to describe what the films generally called documentaries have in common, and the ways in which they differ from other types of film. Another possible approach would be to consider how documentary filmmakers define the kinds of films they make. Both approaches will be followed in this chapter.


Characteristics documentaries have in common that are distinct from other film types (especially from the fiction film) can be thought of in terms of: 1)subjects; 2) purposes, points of view, or approaches; 3) forms; 4) production methods and techniques: and 5) the sorts of' experiences they offer audiences.

As for subjects-what they're about-documentaries focus on something other than the general human condition involving individual human actions and relationships, the province of narrative fiction and drama. For example, The Fourth Estate (1940), a British documentary made by Paul Rotha, is about a newspaper, the London Times, whereas Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) is more concerned with a character modeled on William Randolph Hearst, the powerful newspaper publisher, than the process of publishing newspapers. City of Gold (1959), made at the National Film Board of' Canada by Wolf Koenig and Colin Low, comprises still photographs taken in Dawson City in 1898 set within a live-action frame of the actualities of present-day Dawson City. 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 The Gold Rush (1925), by Charles Chaplin, were a book in the library, it would be shelved under the general heading "Fiction." Though its recreation of the file of' prospectors climbing over Chilkoot Pass is remarkably painstaking, The Gold Rush is not really about the Klondike Gold Rush of' 1898 as much its it is about loneliness and longing, pluck and luck, poverty and wealth, friendship and love. Generally, documentaries are about something specific and factual and concern public matters rather than private ones. The people, places, and events in them are actual and usually contemporary.

The second aspect-purpose/point of view/approach-is what the filmmakers are trying to say about the subjects of their film. They record social and cultural phenomena they consider significant 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, and perhaps our sympathy for their subjects. They may hope that through this means of informal education they will enable us to live our lives a little more fully and intelligently. At any rate, the purpose or approach of the makers of most documentary films 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.

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