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What is a Documentary Film?

A documentary films actual people and events, often as they occur.
Documentaries are typically cheaper to produce than commercial movies.
Documentarians often specialize in studying one field or aspect of society.
Early documentaries sometimes included propaganda, such as one that famously tried to portray Hitler as heroic.
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  • Originally Written By: Kathy Hawkins
  • Revised By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 09 April 2014
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A documentary film is a movie that attempts to document reality. Even though the scenes are carefully chosen and arranged, usually through editing after filming, they are not scripted and the people in the movie are not typically actors. Sometimes, a documentary film may rely on voice-over narration to describe what is happening in the footage; in other films, the images speak for themselves without commentary. A documentary often includes interviews with people in the film for additional context or information.

What Makes a Film a Documentary

In general, documentary films focus on real life and include footage of events as they happened. A movie about World War II might feature actors portraying soldiers, real or fictional, in the war, recreating certain battles or events. In contrast to this, a documentary film about World War II might primarily feature news reel footage of actual fighting, with commentary from experts and veterans who were in the war. It is this focus on documenting reality above drama or a fictional narrative that typically separates these movies from summer blockbusters and other popular films.

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Different Types of Documentaries

One type of documentary film that became popular in the 1950s was called cinema verité, which is French for "cinema of truth." Cinema verité is a type of documentary film that includes no narration; the camera simply follows the subject. One famous example of such a film is Don't Look Back, a biography about Bob Dylan's tour of the UK in 1965. The "Ken Burns" style, named after the director who popularized the format, often includes narration of written documents from a historical period, with music and images shown on screen to help the past come alive for the audience.

Popularity of Documentaries

In the early 21st Century, the documentary film genre became more fashionable, though still far less popular in general than action or adventure films. Many of these films included political or somewhat controversial agendas, such as An Inconvenient Truth, Super Size Me, and Bowling for Columbine. As of 2012, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which documented the Bush family's ties to Saudi Arabia and Osama bin Laden, was the most popular documentary film of all time, with over $220 million US Dollars (USD) in worldwide gross.

Documentary films have remained fairly low on the radar for most moviegoers, but the popularity of some of these films illustrates that some audiences want to watch movies with a serious message. Because documentary films are much cheaper to produce than commercial movies, especially major projects with extensive special effects, they are a low risk for studios. Many of these movies also do well on public television and other TV networks, where the mini-series format allows filmmakers to document much larger events.

History of Documentaries

The earliest films of any sort were actually documentaries. They featured single shots of actual events, such as a boat leaving shore, and were referred to as "actuality" films. Other early forms of the documentary film included propaganda, such as the famous Leni Riefenstahl movie, Triumph of the Will, which depicted Adolph Hitler as a hero for the German people. Due to the low cost of making these films, and the use of the Internet as a distribution tool, documentaries in the 21st Century have become increasingly popular as online media.

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Discuss this Article

anon249119
Post 5

I'm trying to make a documentary about my school for an extracurricular but I don't understand what a documentary means. I'm really confused as even though the reality of a documentary is essential, my school pupils are fake. They just tag along with everyone else.

BabyBoomer67
Post 3

I have a membership to an online movie rental service which allows me to live stream movies from all types of genres. Documentary is one of my favorites and I am thankful I can watch some online because the most popular ones always have a long mailing wait. It seems up until recently most documentaries were on PBS or the History Channel and covered American history. I always knew Americans have freedom of speech, but I didn’t know how much could be exposed or questioned about the good ‘ole U.S.A. until Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 911”. And I believe it opened up a door to bring reality into everyday people’s lives.

A documentary television series I used to watch was by Morgan Spurlock called ’30 Days’. He challenged people to live in support of or against a public subject; for example he and his wife tried to live on minimum wage for 30 days. An episode that would be good for Americans to see again, in light of what’s going in Arizona right now, is about a man who is very much against illegal immigrants’ is asked to live with an illegal family for 30 days.

anon77349
Post 2

Wow. this was really useful. i am in my element on this site.

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