What Is Documentary?

A Documentary is a genre of film that tells true stories. This has been my definition since starting film school. As I never went out of my way to investigate or learn more, I stuck with it and only watched the occasional documentary when I couldn’t find anything else. It was never really a genre that intrigued me (like horror films or music videos). After watching ‘Capturing Reality’ (Ferrari, 2008) however, I changed my mind. Capturing Reality is a documentary, about documentaries. It features 33 filmmakers of different races, genders and filming backgrounds. Each filmmaker described what they have worked on, how it affected them/their lives and how it was made. They also describe documentary in varying ways, but with the same undertone as my original statement. Alanis Obomsawin, director of ‘Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance’ (1993) defines it as ‘[Documentary] filmmaking is about being inspired by the moment, it’s about the joy of letting something effect you and respond. Whether it’s with your camera or yourself as a person”. Although there were multiple quotes that I could’ve used for this definition, I found this one the most relevant for my understanding of documentary. After doing more research on the topic I found a lot of feedback to be that people don’t connect enough emotionally with the story that they write or produce. In order to create a successful documentary it seems, one must really find that emotional connection and protect and encourage it. Not only to create a fantastic film but also to influence yourself as a person and your experiences.


In the book, ‘Creative Documentary: Theory and Practice’ documentary is defined as  
“Documentary is increasingly an umbrella term for diverse formats, narrative forms and different distribution platforms, with one generic aim: to record and represent fragmented realities to their audiences. The ambition to reveal ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ has been rightfully challenged, but the aim to ‘be truthful’ and to reveal experiences (‘realities’) is central to the documentary ambition.” (De Jong, Knudsen, Rothwell, 2011) I found this definition to be really effective as it shares similarities to the definition from ‘Capturing Reality’ but they aren’t exactly the same. In this book about creating creative documentaries, the authors often emphasise the need for truth, regardless of how it changes someone’s life. That being said, they also emphasise the ethics in regards to those challenges. Alanis Obomsawin however really expressed the need for a documentary to change you as a person as well. Combining these two definitions would create the best overall impression of documentary and has changed how I see it. In my own words now I would define documentary as, ‘Documentary films are showing someone’s (or group) truth/reality to change someone’s (or your own) perspective’.

Documentaries are quite different to other genres of film because they don’t require a completely new story. Although they still need a story arch and something to drive the film, it’s not as important to create something fictional. While making a documentary as well you rely on the protagonist to tell and express the emotions behind the events while also expressing their truth. Another filmmaker from ‘Capturing Reality’, Kim Longinotto said, ‘Rather than telling people what to think… we’re taking them through an emotional experience’. I thought this was a really good example of how different documentary and dramatic filmmaking are. Instead of shaping people’s minds and viewing experience with an unreal situation, you can connect them with a real life even that makes them think and relate.


Throughout the coming weeks I plan on doing a lot more research into documentary filmmaking as it seems like a genre I can see myself enjoying making. Truth and emotion are two of the most intriguing topics for me to create with and it seems to go hand in hand with documentaries.



Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary. (2008). Canada.

de, J. W., Knudsen, E., & Rothwell, J. (2011). Creative Documentary : Theory and Practice. Florence, GB: Routledge. Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com
YouTube. (2017). Capturing Reality : The Art of Documentary (Clip). [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPavxiKKT2w


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