The Aim of a Documentary
The aim of any documentary is to report something that is real, with
evidence. Documentaries are made up of real life footage and
reconstructions of events and/or situations. This is done to contrast and
question what the interviewee is saying. They also include narration to
anchor meaning, however most of the time the narrator is not seen.
“What distinguishes a
documentary is the
portrayal of sound and
images of actuality.” (John
Documentaries can be based on the following; political, historical, social, cultural and
religious issues. All documentaries have to be based on fact, however real evidence is
sometimes unavailable so we use reconstructions of past events to demonstrate what
happened these reconstructions don‟t have to contain analysis some do, however some
The History of Documentaries
The documentary genre was been developed in the 1930‟s by John Grierson and his
team at the General Post Office.
The “original” actor and “original” scene are the best guidelines for the fiction
As a result of his „research‟ he created documentires such as “Coal Face” and
In 1926 John Grierson came up with the term „Documentary‟
“The creativity of actuality”
John Grierson shot real people and real situations in a real
Old style documentaries had a sense of persuasion. Which was
usually bias to one party or side. Unlike Grierson‟s
documentaries, which were more focused on the facts.
A lot of debates have been carried out about how much creativity
should be allowed in a documentary.
Film makers argue that reconstruction is going to have to
happen as not everything that happens can be
captured, when it happens.
They also argue that when people are filmed from a “reality”
POV it is no longer reality because people change on
'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,
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
Some analysts argue that the term documentary should be
replaced with the term “non-fiction programming”, because
of creative development over the years.
People argue about what they “think” a documentary should
contain, however the most common thoughts are…
Recorded sound – real experiences or reality.
Not just facts, but some arguments so the audience draw
their own conclusion.
Five Elements of Documentary
John Corner, a professor at the University of
Liverpool, believed that there are 5 central elements to
Mise en Scene
Observation and Interviews
Most documentaries include observations. This is usually
done by placing the camera as if it is unseen and the
audience becoming a part of what is seen, almost from their
All documentaries include interviews, this is because a
documentary relies on interviews to support or contrast with
the topic/argument. The film maker has the option to cut up
an interview or just let it run as one piece, which is key in
delivering the right message to your audience.
Dramatisation, Mise En Scene and
Dramatiseation: A documentary maker will do this through
observation. It is used to build arguments and create conflict.
Mise En Scene: This a major element of any documentary.
This is done to make reality for the audience so it has to be
relevant. Mise En Scene includes; set, props, costume, makeup, lighting and colour.
Exposition: This is the part of the documentary which
explored the argument/theme of documentary. This can be
done in many ways one being interviews and another being
commentary (voiceovers). This can be approached in
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.
This is another major argument in the world of
documentaries, as it is unknown how much truth and
reality, is “actual” truth and reality. John Corner says this
is why facts or evidence is key when talking about the
The most popular documentaries are the ones that focus
on sex, violence, drugs, gangs and law and order.
People‟s Right To Know
Peoples right to know is really important as it can
change the way the world see people and the
current laws against people and things. For
example Ken Loach's documentary of Cathy Come
Home, was so influential that the laws were changed
about homeless people.
A lot of documentaries are based on peoples right
to know. For example they can be about information
the government is not saying openly to the public.
Types of Documentary
In this style of documentary DMA (direct mode of address) is
used to tell the audience what is happening on screen. This is
done through the use of voice overs, sometimes referred to as
„The Voice of God‟ . This is usually found in documentaries about
space and animals.
Fly On The Wall:
This style of documentaries rely on observations, which allows the
audience to perceive the documentary in their own way. In these
documentaries there is little/no narration to allow this perception.
This style is used commonly in Police and A&E documentaries.
Types of Documentary
This style of documentary uses a wide range of documentary
techniques to produce a detailed and informing documentary.
They use a combination of interview, observations and narration
to develop the documentaries narrative. This style is used in
documentaries about music and film.
This style of documentary acknowledges the
camera, talking/narrating what is going on in the screen. Which
some say takes the focus away from the issue and makes it more
about the star „presenting‟.
Types of Documentary
This style of documentary uses facts to create a fictional
narrative, made up of re-enactments. These type of
documentaries are some of the most popular as they are
„normally‟ about major events that have happened. For example
The Death of JFK amongst many others. This is a dangerous style
as it can be misleading.
This style of documentary is one of the most popular styles on
TV in the past 10 years this is because they follow the daily life
of celebrities. This style came from the UK with documentaries
such as; Katy Price, Airline and Peter Andre. Another reason they
are popular with TV producers is because they are low cost as
no actors have to be hired.
Steven Barnett's Theory
Steven Barnett has a theroy about television and its need to
broadcast things that get ratings instead of serious documentaries
that inform and teach the public of major events in history and the
future. 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.
All documentaries follow narrative conventions. This is important as each
documentary focuses on a beginning, middle and end. They have a strong
focus on conflict and use music and sound effects to make them more
interesting to the audience alongside a documentaries cinematography.
At the start they will pose a question to the audience and start to look
at some interviews and footage to build conflict about that question.
At this point they will look in detail at both sides of the argument and
look at different opinions about the subject. Building a stronger
At the end of the documentary they will expose the exposition and
resolve any complications for the audience.
Selection and Construction:
Conflict is important in any documentary, as it build the argument and
poses different questions to the audience. Conflict in documentaries
should be shown through reconstruction and interviews.
This is a vital part in making a documentary because you have to
think of every part of the documentary that you want to develop. From
the topic to; who, what, when, where, why, and how you are going to do
it. You also must look at the cost and time it is going to take you to
build this documentary.
To develop a documentary to a high standard, the planning has to be
in a high amount of detail and when planning you musty have a in
depth knowledge of your chosen topic and know what content you
want to shoot.