The purpose of a documentary is to document i.e. Report with evidence,
something that has actually happened. It can show this by using actuality
footage, or reconstructions.
It can use a narrators voice over to anchor the meaning or rely on the
participants themselves, with the occasional interjection by the narrator.
The term “documentary” was coined by film-maker John Grierson in 1926
to describe a film made about life on a south sea island. He defined the
documentary as the creative treatment of actuality (or reality).
Documentaries are not just about facts. Instead, facts are used to create
socially critical arguments, thereby inviting the audience in, in which they
can draw conclusions.
• Fully Narrated – The voiceover is used to make sense of the visuals and dominates their
meaning. An example of this type of documentary is called “Planet Earth”, this is all about
the different types of wildlife around the world.
• Fly On The Wall – The cameras film the subjects without interference. An example of this
type of documentary is called “24 Hours in A & E”, this is all about what life is like in a
typical hospital in London.
• Mixed – this uses a combination of interviews, observation and narration. An example of
this type of documentary is called “The Devil Made Me Do It”, this is all about how a nun
murdered somebody in which her actions and opinions related to the singer Marilyn Manson.
• Self-Reflexive – The subjects of the documentary acknowledge the presence of the
cameras and often speak directly to the film maker. They draw attention to the film makers
role in constructing a view of reality. An example of this type of documentary is called ‘The
Call Centre’ in which it reveals what life is like in a call centre in Swansea.
• Docu-drama – (Reconstruction based) A re-enactment of events as they are suppose to
have happened. An example of this type of documentary is “Crimewatch”, this is all
about crimes that have actually happened and actors play the part in the crimes to grab
the audiences attention and make them aware of what is happening in society.
• Docusoaps – these programmes follow the daily lives of particular individuals within an
organisation. An example of this type of documentary is called “Airline”, this is all about
what happens in a specific airport which features the same people each episode.
1. OBSERVATION: the programme makers pretend that the camera is unseen or ignored, by
the people taking part in events. It places the audience (watching the programme) as an
“eye witness” to the events.
2. INTERVIEW: TV documentaries rely on interviews. The interviewee addresses the unseen
interviewer rather than the audience. Interviews are interact with images or observation
to illustrate what they are talking about.
3. DRAMATISATION: all documentaries use a sense of drama throughout the observation
element. This is designed to keep the audience interested and make them easy to follow
4. MISE EN SCENE: documentary makers carefully compose the shots so that they contain
the images they want the audience to see.
5. EXPOSITION: this is basically the line of argument. The way the argument “unfolds”
*Gate keeping – is the selection and rejection of information which documentary makers use
Here is an example of a programme that appears on TV at the moment:
Frozen Planet – David Attenborough narrates this documentary and has done
for many years. The Frozen Planet is aired on the BBC channels and are
usually shown of an evening. The documentary gives people at home a taster
of what the animal world is like in the most coldest parts of the world.
Questions are left unanswered at the end of the documentary
All questions were answered at the end of the documentary
Only one narrative thread (one storyline)
More than one narrative thread and sometimes
Follows a chronological order
Does not follow a