The aim of a documentary is to report something real with evidence. Documentaries contain
actual footage and/or reconstructions of events and situations to provide evidence or contrast
with the interviewee's account. They also include narration to anchor meaning, sometimes
relying on the unseen narrator. Documentaries are often defined as problematic.
Documentaries have to be real but unfortunately they can't always document with evidence. By
reconstructing the event that the interviewee describes it can help the audience to visualise a
portrayal of evidence, reconstructions must be based on fact. They don't have to contain
analysis and can cover a wide range of genres from political, historical, social, religious and
cultural. However they are NOT classed as current affairs.
THE AIM OF DOCUMENTARIES
'What distinguishes a documentary is the
portrayal of sound and images of actuality'
- John Corner 1995.
Genres were being defined in the 1930's by John Grierson and his
team at the general post office. 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. He created
documentaries such as Coal Face and Housing Problems.
THE HISTORY OF DOCUMENTARY
He shot real people and real situations in a real environment and believed that is
what documentary should be. He wanted to give people a glimpse of other
people's lives, which in contrast to our modern day society it had not been
something available to the 1930's audience, real life hadn't been exposed before
this was an entirely new concept. Old style documentaries had a sense of
Genre is important, especially for television. Documentary makers would have to
carefully consider their genre -would television find is acceptable to air? is it too
controversial?- and then plan their scheduling cleverly to fit in with their target
audience. British documentaries are renowned for their investigative journalism.
The word documentary was coined by documentarian John Grierson and defined
as 'the creativity of actuality'.
A range of arguments have carried on since about the balance of creativity. This is
because problems arise of authenticity, the more creative the documentary is the
more it runs away from focus.
However film makers argue reconstruction is inevitable as not everything can
be/is captured when it happens.
All attempts to record reality is affected as people act differently when they
are on camera.
'I think that the truth is what you actually come away with at the end of seeing
a film. I mean it's your truth that you're seeing. Everybody who makes a film is
putting their own truth on screen.' - Diane Tammes, Film Maker.
Creative development over the years means the term documentary covers a huge range
of production methods. Some analysts argue it should be replaced with the term 'non-
Although people disagree on the styles and term of documentary, they do have a
common thread of what a documentary is and should contain. Some of these are:
Recorded sound- actual reality/experiences
Not just about facts- socially critical arguments, also inviting the audience to draw their
Peter Mayeux says that 'documentaries present facts about a
subject using real events, people, places then creatively
interpret all comments on those realities and peoples
Current Affairs: Midway between documentaries and the news, for example
Current affairs are more in-depth information about what is happening on the
news. They can range from a couple of minutes up to 15 minutes. Features that
are 30 minutes or longer is then a documentary. Current affairs are important for
exploring weighty issues and social development. However, there is a growing
concern that they are edging towards being 'rating driven'.
ITV's Trevor McDonald was accused of being sensationalist. He was criticised for
distorting the truth and misinterpreting the views of contributors.
Documentary maker John Corner, a professor at the University
of Liverpool, believed that there are 5 central elements to
4. Mise en Scene
FIVE ELEMENTS OF
Observation: Most documentaries will include observations. Usually they
pretend that the camera is unseen which places the audience as an eye witness.
Observations are also used as evidence for interviews. However, they have
been criticised for portraying participants as objects instead of subjects.
Interview: Documentaries rely on interviews and these are used to support or
contrast with the observation. The interviewer can be seen or unseen and
pictures are often played to anchor meaning and make the interviews more
interesting. Documentary makers have the choice to intercut fragments of
interviews with other material or to just let the interview run.
OBSERVATION AND INTERVIEWS
Dramatisation: This is done through the observational element. It is used to
create a sense of conflict and build up the arguments. The audience is placed
as an eye witness and they portray people in the events based on fact.
Mise En Scene: This is used in documentaries to construct reality. Mise en
scene is extremely important and must be relevant to the documentary. It
includes things such as; set, props, costume, make-up, lighting and colour.
Exposition: This element of the documentary reveals what argument is being
explored (topic of the documentary). This is done through description and
commentary. Exposition can be obvious, direct or indirect and finally it can be
hidden. Documentaries can also leave it up to the audience to make up their
DRAMATISATION, MISE EN
SCENE AND EXPOSITION
Since the beginning documentaries have struggled with the truth and reality resulting in
many counter claims. John Corner says that this is why they need evidence. Documentaries
are real though they have elements of fiction, for example scripted voice overs, and they are
not good ratings boosters. Because of this documentaries are normally the first
programmes to be cut. The most popular documentaries are the ones that look at topics
such as sex, violence and law and order. The most watched documentary is US Violence In
America. Controversial documentaries are not popular with television as it is difficult to get
advertisers to play their adverts in the middle of the documentary since they don't want to
be associated with the controversy. The triangulation of documentary, documentary
producer and the audience is a complex relationship. Normally documentaries are used to
tell the stories of society's victims. They use human beings as evidence and exploit and
expose people's lives.
TRUTH AND REALITY
'It is critical that the film makers be rid of the fantasy that the
documentary can be unproblematic representation of reality
and that the 'truth' can be conveniently dispensed and
revealed like valium.' -Dennis O'Rourke.
Documentary maker Ken Loach's documentary of Cathy Come Home, was so
influential that the laws were changed about homeless people.
Documentaries aim to work on people's right to know. For example producing
documentaries on information that the government aren't saying openly to the
public. They expect the audience to notice there is a problem and then right
that wrong. They show people that something needs to be done in hope that
they will do something.
PEOPLE’S RIGHT TO KNOW
•Fully narratored: This type of documentary has a direct
mode of address and uses a voice over to convey
meaning which also makes sense of what's on screen.
This is sometimes referred to the 'voice of God' in
documentaries. This can be found in documentaries
about space and animals.
• Fly on the wall: These documentaries rely almost
entirely on observations. There is no/almost no
narration and lets the audience watch the events as eye
witnesses, as if they are actually there. These
documentaries appear to be the truth though they are
heavily edited which instead means that they are only a
version of the truth. This is found in documentaries
including police camera action or A&E documentaries.
TYPES OF DOCUMENTARY
Mixed: Mixed documentaries use a combination to advance the
argument, combining; interviews, observations and narration. They have a
news reporting style to them. They have however been criticised for
representing 'objective' reality but they are more edited and balanced and
contain the most evidence. Mainly in documentaries about music or film etc.
-Bruno Mars - Coming Home Documentary
TYPES OF DOCUMENTARY
•Self Reflective: The subject of this documentary acknowledge the camera
and the documentary tends to lose its importance as it becomes more about
the host. Critics have said that the are confusing and fall into empty
• Docudrama: These documentaries contain re-enactments of events based on
fact with a fictional narrative. Docudramas are very popular with television
and some examples are Hillsborough and Death of JFK. Critics say that they can
only ever hope to deliver fiction though they claim to represent the truth.
They don't film actuality so they are at best misleading and possibly
•Docusoaps: This type of documentary has become really popular over the
past 10 years, they follow the daily lives of people. For example, Katie
Price, Nurses, The Saturdays, Airline and Peter Andre. They originated in the
UK and have helped increase the subjects interest from the public making
them more famous. Some consider The Only Way is Essex and Jersey Shore as
docusoaps however this is seen to untrue by many since the shows are actually
scripted and not 'reality'. Docusoaps don't seek to explore topics instead they
are more eavesdropping on people's lives. They have no particular story and
are a low cost production as they don't have to pay actors.
TYPES OF DOCUMENTARY
Theory: Disneyfiction: Steven Barnett's Theory
Steven Barnett looked at the need for television to broadcast things that win
ratings instead of serious documentaries. He believes that documentaries have
been 'dumbed down' for audiences since this is what people have become used
to. There are claims that this shows television being 'cheap' and being more
concerned about getting 'ratings' instead showing useful or important
Documentaries rely heavily on narrative conventions. They have a definite
beginning, middle and end also they have a strong focus on conflict. They also
include music and sound effects to make them more interesting.
Beginning: This will lay out the central question of the documentary and go
into some action footage or quick interview conflicts.
Middle: This is where the documentary will become more complicated and it
will examine the issue in more detail and voice differences in opinions and the
argument becomes strengthened. It will offer a range of different arguments
creating complications and conflicting evidence.
End: The end makes the exposition fully apparent. The complications are
resolved and there is no doubt for the audience.
Conflict: This would include different people with different beliefs in different
circumstances with different opinions. It should be shown in action through
reconstructions for evidence (drama element).
Music and Sound Effects: These are used to create an emotional response from
the audience in reconstructions and music is sometimes quietened throughout
Selection and Construction: This is very important. Documentary makers must
think about the type of documentary they're going to
produce, topic, who, what, when, why and how. They must also consider time and
cost and be realistic. Then in the editing suite they must select carefully the
footage and interviews and music etc that they are going to use to create the
documentary, they MUST be careful of misrepresentation.
Overall to create a good documentary the producer must be professional and have
knowledge of their chosen subject and discuss and plan techniques and content.
Finally they must be organised!