Documentary: What Is It?

The traditional perception of documentary film is quite common: it is a serious film that showcases real life as it is. However, this term does not have a clear definition, and it can hardly be limited by any confines due to a certain amount of differences between documentaries. Undoubtedly, documentary film cannot exactly represent the real life without manipulating it for a simple reason: they are made by people who have their own vision of the story they are telling. Filmmakers keep arguing about how to achieve truthfulness, which is supposed to be one of the key elements of a documentary, continuing to redefine this term (Aufderheide, 2007, p. 2). Bill Nichols defines documentary as a “representation of the world we already occupy”, pointing out that this includes an inevitable expressive factor hidden in every film. As long as documentaries are created by humans, they show the whole story from a particular point of view of a storyteller (2010, p. 13).


Although the term “documentary” is broad, all the films related to it share some characteristics. “Characteristics documentaries have in common that are distinct from other film types (especially from the fiction films) can be thought of in terms of: (1) subjects; (2) purposes, viewpoints, or approaches; (3) forms; (4) production methods and techniques; and (5) the sort of experience the offer audiences” (Ellis & McLane, 2005, p.1). The subject of a documentary film is usually an actual up-to-date issue which concerns mostly concerns a public matter. Purposes and approaches are varied as they are individual depending on what the filmmaker wants to say about the chosen subject. However, the final goal is usually to inform and persuade people by interpreting actuality in the film (Ellis & McLane, 2005, p. 2). Although form is also variable, it is operated by such tools as sound, images, special effects, and pacing. By deciding upon how they can be used a filmmaker structures the story according to the meaning he puts in it (Aufderheide, 2007, p. 11). Production methods and techniques refer to the way of the shooting process, and the basic requirements are to use not actors but real people and shoot on real locations. Audience response usually depends on two aspects: visual experience and impact on viewers’ attitudes (Ellis & McLane, 2005, p. 3).


Documentary filmmaking plays an important role in the modern society as it shapes public understanding of the world and our place in it. Patricia Aufderheide writes: “Documentary is an important reality-shaping communication, because of its claims to truth” (2007, p. 5). These films are telling the stories about something worth knowing and thinking about, and the art of making documentaries has a significant value in the contemporary culture. Their purpose is not only to entertain the audience but to give it a deeper understanding of an actual public issue, which is important for us as for the members of the society.


Aufderheide, P. (2007). Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ellis, J. C., & McLane, B. A. (2005). A New History of Documentary Film. London: A&C Black.

How To Deal With Ethical Challenges In Documentary Filmmaking [Online image]. (2014, September 23). Retrieved October 16, 2017 from

Nichols, B. (2010). Introduction to Documentary (2nd ed.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Suitedumonde-blogheader [Online image]. (2014, August 4). Retrieved October 31, 2017 from


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