what is a documentary

What Is a Documentary?

“You should bear in mind that almost all my documentaries are feature films in disguise.” -Werner Herzog

Documentary remains one of the most discussed, if not hotly debated, genres of film and television.

Documentaries have the power to educate and entertain in ways that traditional narrative films don’t. Documentarians have the ability to capture and communicate a truth to their audiences that narrative filmmakers can’t. And yet, even though documentary stands as such a great medium for those who choose to produce or consume it, neither producer nor consumer can agree on what the medium is.

I hope to add my thoughts to the conversation about documentaries by way of my own definition. Moreover, I hope to share my passion for documentaries with filmmakers and fans alike to encourage as many people as possible to go out and start creating.

Now, more than ever, the power to shoot and edit films and TV shows is at your fingertips, and I’m here to tell you to start sharing stories with the world.

What Is a Documentary?

According to Wikipedia, a documentary film is a nonfictional motion picture intended to document some aspect of reality. A fine definition as long as you don’t include fictional documentaries like This Is Spinal Tap. Some would call This Is Spinal Tap a “mockumentary,” a totally different genre. Fine, but what about reality television?

Everyone who watched The Hills thought that they were watching something real… and then the show famously ended on a scene where two of the characters said goodbye to each other while the backdrop of the scene was wheeled away, revealing that the entire scene was being shot on a Hollywood backlot.

Each reality television show poses unique challenges to the definition of documentary, and the best ones are constantly pushing the boundaries.

“Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” -Martin Scorsese

There are extremely subtle ways of manipulating the truth in documentaries, bordering on scripting them entirely. The truth is affected every time a documentarian chooses what to shoot, who to interview, and how to edit all of the footage together.

So, how can you possibly define documentary?

Embrace the Gray Area

To me, documentary is the gray area between neutral and nonfiction. What does that mean?

If you were to draw a chart — a spectrum — and on one side is “fiction,” the other side is “nonfiction,” and in the middle is “neutral,” most documentaries would fall somewhere between neutral and nonfiction. This is general and vague, but that’s the point.

As filmmaking evolves it becomes increasingly complex. The rules bend and the genres spill into each other. It’s important not to think about film or television genres as strict categories, but rather general descriptors that help understand the work.

What Is a Good Documentary?

When I think documentary, I generally imagine a combination of interviews and sound ups (also known as sound on tape, reality, or vérité). That’s as far as my definition will go and, I admit, it’s not perfect. There are plenty of documentaries comprised only of vérité, no interview, and there are plenty of narrative films that have interviews.

Are you starting to notice a trend? It’s impossible to define documentary objectively. Even technical criteria like total run time (TRT) are insufficient, as social media continues to redefine the genre.

So, in order to get more specific, I have to get more subjective.

To me, the question is not what makes a documentary but what makes a good documentary.

You may recognize part of this quote:

“You should bear in mind that almost all my documentaries are feature films in disguise. Because I stylize, I invent, there’s a lot of fantasy in it—not for creating a fraud, but exactly the contrary, to create a deeper form of truth, which is not fact-related. Facts hardly ever give you any truth, and that’s a mistake of cinéma vérité, because they always postulate it as if facts would constitute truth. In that case, my answer is that the phone directory of Manhattan is a book of books. Because it has 4 million entries, and they are all factually correct, but it doesn’t illuminate us. You see, I do things for creating moments that illuminate you as an audience, and the same thing happens with feature films as well.” -Werner Herzog

To me, a good documentary is one that communicates truth, by any narrative means necessary. If a story is better served by narration or interviews, and these tools help convey the truth, then they should be utilized. If a story is better served by reality or vérité, then it should be utilized and the other tools should not.

As you can already tell, the point of all of this is not to give a black and white definition of documentary.

The point of all of this is to try to get you thinking about documentary as a genre and how wildly different documentary projects can be.

Spending too much time sitting around thinking about the documentary genre and trying to determine what is and what is not a documentary is futile. It means you are spending too little time going out and making documentaries, which is much preferred.

In my next post I explore documentary storytelling and get into the nitty gritty of story, structure, and style.

My hope is that, by the end of this series, you’ll be able to approach your next documentary project with more skill and more confidence.

Most important, my hope is that you’ll go out and make more movies.

Want to support my blog? Use my Amazon Affiliate link to give me a small commission (a few pennies for every dollar you spend) on any items you purchase at no added cost to you!

1 reply
  1. Jen Pack
    Jen Pack says:

    I always hear people talking about documentary films, so I appreciate you talking about what they exactly are. I like how you point out that a documentary is a nonfictional movie intended to document an aspect of reality. I imagine that they could be a great way to teach people about events and situations that they may not understand.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *