• A documentaries aim is to report something with
evidence. Actual footage of an event or a
reconstruction can be used to provide evidence
or narration can be used to anchor meaning.
Sometimes the audience rely on an unseen
narrator to convey key factors of an event that
were not caught on tape. Sometimes
documentaries can be problematic as they may
come across as controversial or one sided.
• 'What distinguishes a documentary is the
portrayal of sound and images of
actuality' John Corner 1995
• Real facts cannot be made up, although
reconstructions rely on facts because not
everything can be documented.
Documentaries don't have to have an analysis
of each fact. Documentaries can deal with
political, historical, cultural and religious
issues. They can also document current affairs
and social problems.
• Documentary genres were being defined in the 1930s
by John Grierson and his team at the post office.
Grierson made a documentary called 'Coal Face' and
'Housing Problems'. His ideas were to document real
people, in real situations in their own environment. Old
style documentaries tended to have a stronger sense of
persuasion. John Grierson first coined the term
'documentary' in 1926. His definition of it was "the
creativity of actuality". Arguments have carried on in
how creative the treatment of actuality should be. The
more creative a documentary becomes the further it
may stray from the main focus of the documentary.
• Genre is important for television stations as
they won't broadcast things that are
controversial. The TV schedule was just as
important and the advertisers would be less
likely to advertise in a controversial
programme. British documentaries are known
for their investigative journalism.
• Reconstructions in documentaries are
inevitable as it is impossible for every event to
have been caught on tape. If a documentary
focuses on a group of people who are aware
of the cameras the documentary may not be
entirely truthful as the subjects may behave
differently in hopes of a claim to fame. The
cameras may effect peoples behaviour so the
documentary becomes non-reality.
• "I think 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
now covers a huge range of production methods. Some analysts
argue that it should be replaced with the term non-fictional
programming. Although people disagree on the styles of
documentary and the term there is a common thread that a
documentary has to have certain things;
• Clips - whether these are reconstructions or real footage the clips
allow for facts to be presented in a creative a believable manner.
• Facts - these are used to create socially critical arguments which
invite the audience to draw conclusions.
• "Documentaries present facts about a subject
using real persons or places then creatively
interpret or comment on these realities and
peoples concerns about them" Peter Mayeux
• Current affair programmes are midway between
documentaries and the news. They offer a more in
depth probing about the news. A current affair
programme is usually around 15 minutes long where as
anything over 30 minutes is classed as a documentary.
Documentaries usually talk about social development
and weighty issues so tend to be longer to explore the
different views. However some documentaries and
current affair programmes are causing concern as
some believe they are becoming rating driven. People
are accusing current affair programmes of distorting
and misrepresenting the views of the contributors.
• ITVs Trevor McDonald's programmes have
been accused of sensationalism. Critics have
said the programmes are becoming focused
on gaining viewers instead of focusing on the
• Features of a documentary. - John Corner (Leeds University)
• Observation - This allows the audience to almost become an eye witness to an
event that is unfolding in the documentary, it allows viewers to feel as if they are
participating in the event. The observations also allow evidence to be presented
in the documentary that can be used to back up a point.
• Interview - Documentaries rely on interviews. Viewers usually cannot see the
interviewer and the person being interviewed never normally looks at the camera.
The interviews allow contrasts to be made and help the interview become
unbiased. When someone is being interviewed sometimes they can dub pictures
over the audio as a point is being made. (The image or clip is relevant to what the
person is saying.)
• Dramatisation - This is through an observational element, usually through
reconstructions or footage. The dramatisation can build a sense of conflict.
• Mise en scene - This is used when producers are reconstructing reality. The mise
en scene allows for an entertainment value and add to the dramatisation.
• Exposition - Line of argument, this adds purpose. The description and commentary
are a key element. Different style documentaries will focus on different
• "It is critical that film makers be rid of the
fantasy that can be unproblematic
representation of reality and that the truth
can be conveniently dispensed
and received like Valium"
• Documentaries have struggled with the concept of truth vs reality.
John Corner says "all documentaries need evidence as when there is
evidence you cannot lie".
Documentaries are real based on real events even though they have
some evidence of fiction for an aesthetic appeal. Documentaries
are not good for channel ratings, they're usually the first
programmes to be cut from a tv listing if the channel is having
problems. The most popular documentaries are usually about; sex,
violence or law and order. The most popular documentary in
America was called 'Violence in America'. Controversial
documentaries are not popular with television stations, adverts will
not sell if something is seen as controversial. There is a complex
relationship between documentary maker and the audience.
Documentaries tend to be about societies victims and the
documentaries use human beings in providing evidence, this
exploits and exposes peoples lives.
• Ken Loach made a documentary
called 'Cathy come home'. After
the documentary aired the law on
homeless people was changed,
proving that documentaries can
be influential. Documentaries give
people the 'right to know' on
many different events that
governments or the news may
have stayed quiet about. Many
documentaries try and encourage
people to 'right the wrong' they
feel that when a viewer has seen
something tragic that viewers
should try and help the cause.
Fully Narrated Documentary
• A fully narrated
uses a direct mode of
address, will use a
voice over to convey a
message and explain
any visuals. This is
typically referred as
'the voice of God' in
many cases as the
voice over will provide
facts that most viewers
will believe to be true.
• A mixed documentary is
a combination of
and narration. It is more
news report in style.
They have been criticized
to only show present
objective reality. This
means they only show
the audience what they
want them to see as
they have selected the
clips they show, which
can make them more
balanced as they can
select and collect
• The subject of the
the camera. Sometimes the
documentary can become
more about the presenter
which can become
confusing and will become
about the presenters ego
and self publicity, this will
then make the
documentary lose focus on
what it was originally about.
• A reinactment of events
that have happened.
There is a fictional
narrative to go with it
and is in popular
documentary format to
create empathy. Critics
says docudramas claim
to represent the truth
but only ever hope to
Docudramas are often
• These have become very
popular over the last 10
years. They follow a
group of people or one
person, they originated
in the UK and are
usually about mundane
Docusoaps don't try to
explore facts they tend
to eavesdrop and have a
low production cost.
• "The need for televisions to broadcast things
that are bright and sparkly to please
audiences instead of broadcasting facts and
challenging ideas/exposing the truth. This is
dumbing down the TV to please an
audience". Steve Barnetts theory -
• Documentaries use traditional narratives. They have
beginning/middles/ends. They also have sound effects, character
conflicts and music. The beginning is important it can open with a
central question which introduces the documentaries theme, or in a
dramatic way by showing some real/reconstructed footage or
conflicting narrative.The middle of the documentary should
examine the issues and should cause conflict by challenging ideas. It
can also offer different ideas to keep the narrative going which can
be backed up with conflicting evidence. The end of the
documentary must make sure the point of the documentary is fully
apparent, the conflicts must then be resolved.
• Conflict is important it can be presented in a number of ways;
different people, different circumstances, different ambitions.
Conflict is shown in action and can often be used as evidence.
Music and sounds effects are important as it adds drama.