The aim of a documentary is to report on a
subject using evidence to back up an
argument. This can be done by using real
footage of an event or a reconstruction of an
event. narration is nearly always used in a
documentary, its use is to anchor meaning.
sometimes the audience relies upon an
unseen narrator this style is called voice of
god. sometimes a documentary can be
problematic as it could come across as being
‘what distinguishes a documentary is the
portrayal of sound and images of actuality’
John Corner 1995
Real facts cannot be made up, however
reconstructions rely on facts as everything
can be documented.
documentaries do not have to analyze each
a documentary can deal with political,
historical, religious and cultural issues.
they can also document current affairs and
John Grierson was defining documentary genres in the
1930’s. he 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. he was the first person to coin the phrase
‘Documentary’ and his definition was
‘the creativity of actuality’.
Genre is important for television stations as
they would not broadcast productions which
were controversial. the television schedule
was just as important as it allowed
advertisers to pay more for a programme
which lots of people would watch.
reconstructions are going to always be in
documentaries as it is impossible for
everything to be caught on tape.if a
documentary focuses on a group of people
who are aware the camera is there the
reliability could be questioned as they could
act differently for the camera, this means 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
Diane Tammes (filmmaker)
development in creative technologies means that the term
documentary now covers a large range of production
methods. some analysts have argued that the term should be
replaced with the term ‘non-fictional programming’ however
there is a list of conventions a documentary must have:
• visual clips - either reconstruction or real footage the use of
clips allows facts to be presented in a creative yet believable
• 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’
Current affair programmes are a midway
between documentaries and news
they offer a more in-depth look about current
they are usually on around 15 minutes rather
than around 30 or 60 minutes for a
current affair programmes are being accused
Sir Trevor McDonald’s programmes have
been accused of sensationalising the facts.
critics have said that the programmes are
becoming more and more focused on gaining
viewers rather than focusing on the facts.
features of a documentary John Corner
• observation- this allows the audience to almost become an eyewitness 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 upon interviews. viewers usually cannot see
the interviewer and the person being interviewed never normally looks at
the camera. the interviews allow contrast to be made and help the
documentary to become unbiased.
• 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 entertainment value and adds to the
• exposition- line of argument, this adds purpose. the description and
commentary are a key element. different style documentaries will focus on
‘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
‘all documentaries need evidence as when
there is evidence you cannot lie’
the Documentary ‘cathy come home’ by ken
loach highlights the importance for
documentaries after it was aired the law was
changed regarding its topic homeless people.
although documentaries cannot be bias they
can try to give people a sense of right or
A fully narrated documentary usually uses a
direct mode of address, it will use a voiceover
to convey a message and explain any
visuals. this sort of narration is referred to as ‘
voice of god’
A mixed documentary is a combination of
interviews, observation, and narration.it is
more news report in style.
They have been criticised to only show
present objective reality. this means they only
show the audience what they want them to
a self reflective documentary will try to alter a
viewer's opinion about something. a self
reflective documentary will usually have a
presenter and a good example is louis
Docudrama / Docusoap
Reenacts events that have happened
there is a fictional narrative to accompany the
these sort of documentaries claim to represent
the truth but in fact are usually misleading
‘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 the
Steve Barnett's theory - Disneyfication.
• Documentaries use traditional narratives,
they have a defined beginning, middle, and
• they also have sound effects, character
conflicts and music.
• conflict is important, it can be presented in a
number of ways. conflict is shown in action
and can often be used as evidence.