Understanding what a documentary actually is and what
makes a documentary expository
For the next few weeks you will be
studying documentary to prepare you for
your practical coursework.
• Origins and historical development
• Different modes (genres)
• Different features
• Theory and issues with the genre
What is a documentary?
Write a definition:
A documentary is…
A documentary has to/often has…
Some examples of documentaries are:
• Offer the audience a guarantee of integrity –
that we are watching ‘the truth’
• This ‘truth’ can be undefined, have a
narrative structure, be misinterpreted,
distorted or faked – but we still continue to
have faith in it.
• This ‘truth’ may be informed by a narrator,
musical moods or montage sequences.
Recent Resurgence in popularity
of Documentary Films
• Fahrenheit 9/11,
• Supersize Me,
• Touching the Void
• ‘Making of…’ documentaries in DVD
What is a documentary?
Documentaries are so-called
because they attempt to
‘document’ some feature of the
What is a documentary?
• They can be used to verify, or provide
irrefutable ‘proof’, of an event or a point
of view – a function that may take
precedence in the narrative
organisation of material.
‘The creative treatment of
John Grierson 1926
But how much creativity?
It is often suggested that the aim
of documentary should be to
present an impartial narrative with
no imaginary elements.
This is questionable:
factual texts are as
and omission and
the need to present
separate details and
incidents as a
coherent whole or
Issue of Authenticity
Carlton TV’s The Connection.
Large sections proved to be fake
and company fined.
But isn’t all film fake?
‘Everyone who makes a film is
putting their truth on the screen’.
Different styles/genres or
Thin Blue Line (1988)borrows
heavily from film noir to get
across exposition/argument of
- use of recorded
sound of actual
reality or lived
• Used as a contrast with
• Interviewer seen or
• Pictures can be dubbed
• Participant witnesses or
• Question of performing
for camera raised
• All use this through
method – audience
• Some use
portray people they
can’t gain access
to in real life -
‘based on fact’
Mise en scene
• Shots are carefully composed to
contain the images the film-maker
wants audience to see
• This helps advance the argument
• The line of argument – what the
documentary is ‘saying’
• Can be plain and direct
• or indirect and hidden –
• but always exists.
What are the features of
• Narrator – ‘voice of God’ – authority –
explains what we are looking at…
• Script – the exposition/argument – provides
a structure, anchors visual material
• Reconstructions – re-tells the ‘truth’
• Stereotypes – simplifies issues, shorthand
• Interviews – eye-witness/expert.
• What makes it an expository
• Can you explain what Flaherty does
that is successful?
• How can you compare it to any of the
documentaries you have seen.
Flaherty has been criticized for deceptively portraying staged events as reality.
 "Nanook" was in fact named Allakariallak (pronounced:
[al.la.ka. i.al.lak]), while the "wife" shown in the film was not really his wife.ɢ
According to Charles Nayoumealuk, who was interviewed in Nanook
Revisited (1988), "the two women in Nanook - Nyla (Alice [?] Nuvalinga) and
Cunayou (whose real name we do not know) were not Allakariallak's wives,
but were in fact common-law wives of Flaherty." And although
Allakariallak normally used a gun when hunting, Flaherty encouraged him to
hunt after the fashion of his recent ancestors in order to capture the way the
Inuit lived before European influence. On the other hand, while Flaherty made
his Inuit actors use spears instead of guns during the walrus and seal hunts, the
prey shown in the film were genuine, wild animals. Flaherty also exaggerated
the peril to Inuit hunters with his claim, often repeated, that Allakariallak had
died of starvation two years after the film was completed, whereas in fact he
died at home, likely of tuberculosis.
Visit to the trade post of the white man
Another scene that is much discussed is the visit to the "Trade
Post of the White Man." In this scene, Nanook and his family
arrive in a kayak at the trading post and one family member after
another emerge from a small kayak, akin to a clown car at the
circus. Going to trade his hunt from the year, including foxes,
seals and polar bears, Nanook comes in contact with the white
man and there is a funny interaction as the two cultures meet. The
trader plays music on a gramophone and tries to explain how a
man 'cans' his voice. Bending forward and staring at the machine,
Nanook puts his ear closer as the trader cranks the mechanism
again. The trader removes the record and hands it to Nanook who
at first peers at it and then puts it in his mouth and bites it. The
scene is meant to be a comical one as the audience laughs at the
naivete of Nanook and people isolated from Western culture. In
truth, the scene was entirely scripted and Nanook knew what a
Hunting of the walrus
It has been pointed out that in the 1920s when Nanook was filmed, the Inuit had already begun
integrating the use of Western clothing and were utilizing rifles to hunt rather than the harpoon; but
this does not negate that the Inuit knew how to make traditional clothing from animals found in their
environment, and could still fashion traditional weapons; and were perfectly free to utilize them if
found to be preferable for a given situation.
The film is not technically sophisticated; how could it be, with one camera, no lights, freezing cold, and
everyone equally at the mercy of nature? But it has an authenticity that prevails over any complaints
that some of the sequences were staged. If you stage a walrus hunt, it still involves hunting a walrus,
and the walrus hasn't seen the script. What shines through is the humanity and optimism of the Inuit.
Flaherty defended his work by stating that a filmmaker must often distort a thing to catch its true spirit.
Later filmmakers have pointed out that the only cameras available to Flaherty at the time were both
large and immobile, making it impossible to effectively capture most interior shots or unstructured
exterior scenes without significantly modifying the environment and subject action.
Building of the igloo
The building of the igloo is one of the most celebrated sequences in the film, but interior photography
presented a problem. Building an igloo large enough for a camera to enter resulted in the dome
collapsing, and when they finally succeeded in making the igloo it was too dark for photography.
Instead, the images of the inside of the igloo in the film were actually shot in a special three-walled
igloo for Flaherty's bulky camera so that there would be enough light for it to capture interior shots.
At the time, few documentaries had been filmed and there was little
precedent to guide Flaherty's work. Since Flaherty's time both
staging action and attempting to steer documentary action have
come to be considered unethical amongst cinéma vérité purists,
because they believe such re-enactments deceive the audience.
Cinéma vérité (/ s n mə v r te /; French: [sinema ve ite], truthful cinema) is a term, referring to aˈ ɪ ɨ ɛ ɨˈ ɪ ʁ
style of documentary filmmaking, invented by Jean Rouch, inspired by Dziga Vertov's theory about
Kino-Pravda and influenced by Robert Flaherty’s films. It combines improvisation with the use of the
camera to unveil truth or highlight subjects hidden behind crude reality.
It is sometimes called observational cinema, if understood as pure direct cinema: mainly without
a narrator's voice-over. There are subtle, yet important, differences among terms expressing similar
concepts. Direct Cinema is largely concerned with the recording of events in which the subject and
audience become unaware of the camera presence: operating within what Bill Nichols, an
American historian and theoretician of documentary film, calls the "observational mode", a fly on the
wall. Many therefore see a paradox in drawing attention away from the presence of the camera and
simultaneously interfering in the reality it registers when attempting to discover a cinematic truth.
Cinéma vérité can involve stylized set-ups and the interaction between the filmmaker and the subject,
even to the point of provocation. Some argue that the obvious presence of the filmmaker and camera
was seen by most cinéma vérité filmmakers as the best way to reveal the truth in cinema.
The camera is always acknowledged, for it performs the raw act of filming real objects, people, and
events in a confrontational way. The filmmaker's intention was to represent the truth in what he or she
was seeing as objectively as possible, freeing people from any deceptions in how those aspects of life
were formerly presented to them. From this perspective, the filmmaker should be the catalyst of a
situation. Few agree on the meanings of these terms, even the filmmakers whose films are being
“ Early documentary film critic, Grierson's principles of documentary were that
cinema's potential for observing life could be exploited in a new art form; that
the "original" actor and "original" scene are better guides than their fiction
counterparts to interpreting the modern world; and that materials "thus taken
from the raw" can be more real than the acted article. Grierson's definition of
documentary as "creative treatment of actuality" has gained some acceptance,
though it presents philosophical questions about documentaries containing
stagings and re-enactments.
With Robert J. Flaherty's Nanook of the North in 1922, documentary film
embraced the artistic trends of romanticism (emotionalism, celebration of the
traditional, human passions and shortcomings, etc.), Flaherty filmed a number of
these documentary films during this time period, often showing how his subjects
would have lived 100 years earlier and not how they lived right then. For
instance, in Nanook of the North Flaherty did not allow his subjects to shoot a
walrus with a nearby shotgun, but had them use a harpoon instead. Some of
Flaherty's staging, such as building a roofless igloo for interior shots, was done
to accommodate the filming technology of the time. ” - John Frazier