A documentary is a film, television or radio programme which provides the audience with a report informing us about an important issue.
Although the filmmakers might strive to offer the truth, documentaries are a mediated version of reality because they are shaped by the perspectives and choices of the people behind the production. Perhaps the best definition comes from John Grierson, a pioneer of the form, who said a documentary was “the creative treatment of actuality”.
Since documentary film is a very popular media form, it is no surprise there are a range of theories which attempt to define its codes and conventions. This guide will outline some very useful approaches and explain the key terms that will help your own analysis of documentaries.
Four Fundamental Tendencies
In “Theorizing Documentary”, Michael Renov (1993) identified “Four Fundamental Tendencies of Documentary”:
Record, Reveal, or Preserve
We all like to take photographs to record important moments in our lives. Some documentaries are also attempting to preserve significant events for posterity. A really great example of this type of film is the “Up” series which is directed by Michael Apted and follows the lives of 14 people. The first episode was aired in 1964 with the most recent instalment broadcast on ITV in 2019. It is a very interesting longitudinal study into life in Britain.
Any of the “All Or Nothing” films from the sports docu-series which appear on Amazon Prime are excellent examples of this tendency and certainly worth watching.
Persuade or Promote
Renov noted that “persuasive and promotional modality is intrinsic to all documentary forms”, but he also felt propaganda-style films needed to have their own category. The theorist suggested the audience might be persuaded by the “ethical status of the filmmaker or interview subject, by the tug of heartstrings, or by a barrage of bar graphs”. In other words, documentaries will appeal to our values, emotions and logic to influence our opinion towards a controversial or challenging topic.
Any propaganda piece from the Second World War would fit into this tendency.
Analyse or Interrogate
Many documentaries encourage the audience to analyse social and cultural issues. For example, “The Great Hack” explored how a data company had an incredible influence on elections in the America, the UK and elsewhere in the world by harvesting our data from social media accounts.
By exposing a scandal or raising awareness of an injustice, the producers hope to activate the audience and inspire us to intervene by demanding action.
Renov offered the documentary film “Stations of the Elevated” as an example of this tendency. The film, which is about graffiti on the New York subways, is composed of images and an engaging jazz score. There are no interviews or voice overs. Just the expressive footage. The trailer offers a good feel for the whole film.
One final point: the critic argued documentaries contained one or more of these “poetics” and his list of purposes is a very useful framework for analysing a variety of texts.
Five Elements of Documentary Film
John Corner argued documentaries contained five central elements:
Documentaries are often at their most persuasive when they contain footage of the subject matter.
Documentary makers have an agenda and need to communicate clear meanings to the audience, so the narrative has to be carefully controlled in order for it to make sense. The position of the camera in relation to the subject, non-verbal codes, lighting, props and other elements of the mise-en-scène will all combine to create that message.
Documentaries use interviews with experts and eyewitnesses in order to authenticate the views expressed in the film. The interviewee is usually framed within the shot and speaks to the offscreen interviewer rather than addressing the audience directly. Their testimony is vital in positioning our attitude towards the subject matter.
If archival footage is not available, many documentaries use actors to dramatize the events. Of course, non-diegetic sound will help anchor our interpretation of the scene. Real-life crime documentaries use these techniques a lot to increase the terrible tension of the crime.
Voice overs, commentaries and narration are used by documentaries to make sure the preferred reading is decoded by the audience. Interviews are another obvious way of integrating exposition into the text.
Bill Nichol identified six different modes of documentary films.
- Contains invisible camera so the audience is an eye witness.
- Voiceover, addresses the audience directly: The voiceover may be a ‘voice of God’ commentator (heard but not seen) or ‘voice of authority’ (seen and heard- usually an expert in the relevant field).
- Images are used to illustrate (or sometimes counterpoint) the voiceover;
- Editing is used for continuity, to link together images which support the argument put forward in the voiceover;
- Assembles a variety of footage, interviews, stills, archive material to support the argument;
- Attempts to persuade the audience of a particular point of view, often by appealing to logic and the idea of a common sense response.
- Documentary maker (and crew) interacts with subject.
- Documentary maker comments on the process of making the documentary.
- The documentary is often shaped in to the narrative of an investigation or search- which there may be no satisfactory conclusion to.
- Addresses the audience in an emotional and direct way.
- Subject matter often to do with identity (gender, sexuality) – rather than ‘factual’ subjects.
- Location shooting- handheld cameras.
- Long takes dominate
- Synchronous (direct) sound recording
- No voiceover (in its purest form)
- No interviews
- Documentary makers presence is hidden
- Subjects pretend they are not being filmed.
Also referred to as interactive.
- Documentary maker (and crew) interact with subject;
- Interviews dominate but tend to be formal- literally ‘on the run’ questioning;
- Use of archive material- stills, news; footage, newspaper headlines, letters etc;
- Location shooting- handheld camera;
- Long takes dominate;
- Synchronous (direct) sound recording;
- Voiceover- usually by the documentary maker;
- Documentary maker is visible to the audience- Intervenes and participates in the action.
- Borrows techniques from fiction film for an emotional, subjective response;
- Emphasises the expressive nature of film, anti realist techniques e.g, re enactments, expressive lighting, dramatic music;
- Voiceover (When present) is likely to be questioning and uncertain – rather than authoritative;
- Reliance on suggestion rather than fact.
Steven Barnett, a professor of communications who has advised government ministers in the UK on policies regarding the media, expressed his concern about the “Disneyfication” of documentaries, such as the rise of docusoaps on television or the focus on populist topics rather than culturally important issues.
Documentaries are often cheap and quick to produce. Some are hard-hitting, but the impressive ratings achieved by docusoaps suggests they can also be very entertaining. However, are these programmes dumbed down to satisfy the advertisers who want to place their products on primetime television?
If you can, watch “Educating Yorkshire” which is billed as “a warm and humorous exploration of what it’s like to grow up or work in a secondary school in the heart of a diverse northern community”. This is a good example of easy-to-watch documentary that makes no attempt to challenge the audience.