What is a documentary?
John Grierson came up with the term documentary in 1926. The purpose of
documentaries is to document something that has actually happened it can be
shown using literal footage or reconstruction. It can use a narrator’s voiceover to
anchor the meaning or rely on the participants themselves with perhaps an
occasional interjection by the narrator. Documentaries are not just about facts
instead facts can be used to create socially critical arguments inviting the audience
to draw their own conclusion.
Central to documentary is that it focuses on and questions actual people and
events, often in a social context, placing the audience in a position to form an
opinion about who or what we are seeing. Documentaries purport to present
factual information about the world. We understand what we are seeing is a
documentary as it is often flagged up as such using on screen labels e.g. persons
name and job title. This leads the audience to believe that the people and events
actually exist and that the information being conveyed is correct.
• Features of documentaries
There are five central elements of the documentary according to John Carner from
the University of Liverpool. These are:
-Observation (Fly on the wall) - Putting the audience in a rule of eye witnesses
were the camera appears to be on scene. Indirect address to the audiences i.e.
speech overheard is a common factor of this en-scene observation.
-Interview – Television documentaries use interviews to make a contrast between
observation sequences and are structured in two ways: either intercut fragments
of observation or a completely uninterrupted sequence.
- Dramatisation – Even though all documentaries use a sense of drama, it is
specifically used to portray people and events the film maker cannot gain access to
in real life. These sequences are said to be based on fact.
- Mise-en-scene - Literally what the directors and producers put directly into the
scene, so for example lighting and props in interviews.
- Exposition – Simply means the line of argument in a documentary, which is what
the documentary is saying. Sequences that lead the audience to make their own
• Types of documentaries
There at least six types which include: Fully narrated, fly on the wall, mixed, self reflexive and docu-
drama, with a possible addition of docu-soaps.
- Fully Narrated
Direct address documentaries use an off screen voiceover to convey the exposition. Voiceover is
used to make sense of the visuals and dominates their meaning. The narrator often gives such an
impression of authority about the topic the critics have dubbed the style ‘the voice of god’
-Fly on the wall
These documentaries rely almost totally on observation. There is no commentary or narration: The
cameras are left to record the subjects without interference and viewers come to their own
Many documentaries use a combination of interview observation and narration to advance the
argument. In contrasts to the ‘voice of god’ style, the narration is often from within the frame (and
therefore the action) Narration from within the scene, is also the style adopted in modern news
reporting. The journalist speaks to the camera and then clips of the action continue over his/her
When the subjects of a documentary acknowledge the presence of the camera and often speak
directly to the film maker this style is said to be self reflexive. These documentaries make a point of
drawing attention to the film makers role in constructing a view of reality.
A docu-drama is a re-enactment of events as they are supposed to have
happened. In this style, the elements of argument and exposition are combined
with those of the fictional narrative. The resulting story is then said to be ‘based
on fact’. The format is particularly popular with TV companies and many striking
examples have succeeded invalidly recreating dramatic and often tragic events e.g.
Hillsborough (ITV 1996). Critics say that doc-dramas claim to represent the truth
but can only ever deliver fiction. And passing themselves off as reality they are at
best misleading and at worst positively dangerous in their inevitable partiality.
• - Docu-soaps
A phenomenon of recent years has been the explosion of programmes that follow
the daily lives of particular individuals with a designated occupation.
These are different from documentaries. They are journalist based programmes
that aim to address news in more depth. Differences include the pressure of
deadlines e.g. documentaries may take several months to create therefore
allowing them to be in a lot of detail, whereas current affairs must have new
stories daily, so each story will only be examined in five to ten minute slots. The
emphasis is on the investigatory and the political, seeing out atrocity and political
Structuring a documentary – Narrative conventions
Documentaries rely heavily on traditional conventions of narrative. There should be a
structure a company with a variety of other conventions.
Needs to capture the audience’s attention. Central question of the documentary can be
posed at the beginning in an intriguing way. Quick interviews capturing conflict with
different people is an example.
Voxpops is short for vox populi or voice of the people. This technique consists of street
interviews of the general public with each person being asked the same question. The
replies are then strung together in a fast sequence. Voxpops are good for suggesting
that there is a general agreement or the opposite on the topic.
Otherwise known as the complication stage, it needs to be the most compelling and
often examines the issue in human terms e.g. the focus on people and the opinions.
Conflict is strengthened to provide blockages for the fulfilment of the exposition.
Makes the exposition fully apparent by the resolution stage. The audience by this time
has no doubts what the argument is saying.
Can be between people with different beliefs, goals, circumstances or ambitions. It is shown developing
through different stages which allows the documentary to use the narrative technique.
Sense of movement
This can add strength to the narrative elements. There are three types of movement; physical e.g. change
of location, movement in time e.g. a change of season and psychological e.g. an ex prisoner having to
adapt to the outside world.
Music and sound effects
Sound can be effective in producing an emotional response in the audience. Documentaries rely heavily on
The source of lighting in a documentary usually originates naturally of the environment being filmed. If
you’re trying to create realism or authenticity per lighting is one of the first things to give the game away.
Construction of reality
When you watch a documentary you should always ask yourself not just what they are showing but also
question what they are not showing. This could be due to bias or preference along with the selection and
rejection of information by producers (This known as gatekeeping).
What we see on the screen and archive footage. Stock materials are used to support the intended
In a documentary either the researcher or producer arranges the interviews during the planning and
development stage. An interview can be held anywhere but the setting does effect the meaning.
Open narrative structure; The audience is left to make up their own mind at the
end of the documentary.
Closed narrative structure; There is a definitive ending and outcome.
Single stranded narrative; There is only one main plot throughout the
Multi-stranded narrative; There are many subplots which interweave throughout
Linear narrative; the documentary is told in chronological order.
Non-Linear narrative; The documentary is not told in chronological order. It is
disrupted in some way e.g. flashbacks.
Circular narrative; There is a question at the start of the documentary which is re-
visited at the end of the documentary. Circular narratives can tie in with open