What is Documentary?

By dictionary definition, documentary as a noun is “a film or television or radio programme that provides a factual report on a particular subject”. While this loosely describes the widely accepted nature of such storytelling, filmmakers and academics in the field alike delve deeper into the genre and further explore its elements. According to Bill Nichols, Author of Introduction to Documentary (2001), documentary is ‘not a reproduction of reality, rather it is a representation of the world we already occupy.’ He believes that documentaries represent a specific view of the world, one of which we may be unfamiliar to us, despite being presented with recognisable aspects.

Pepita Ferrari’s film Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary (2008) features some of the world’s most influential documentarians as they explore and share the distinctive power of the genre. Offering an insight into the creative processes that are undertaken to produce non-fictional films, Capturing Reality begs the question ’can film capture reality?’ while cleverly reporting on the filmmaker’s quest for an answer.

The general understanding conveyed by these documentarians in relation to the unique genre is that it provides an opportunity to emotionally engage audiences through real life stories. They portray documentaries as visual archives of human experience that lend themselves to a personal voice and/ or comment on society. Director Werner Herzog- a contributor to Capturing Reality who is known for his challenging shoots as demonstrated in his film Grizzly Man (2005)- expressed his belief that ideas force themselves upon him like “unwanted guests” that won’t leave him alone until he translates them into films (Ferrari, 2008).

Drawing a comparison between the definition of documentary as presented in Nichols’ book and in the film, it is evident that there are more similarities than differences. Both sources of information bring to light the genres power to share genuine human experiences and real-life stories.  Furthermore, they both have a central focus on the purpose of documentary as a story telling tool as opposed to the various conventions and modalities within the genre.

When looking at documentary as a genre, there are many aspects that set the film style apart from others, such as drama. For example, a drama can be identified as films with “serious” plots whereby the settings and/or situations portray ‘realistic characters in conflict with themselves, others or forces of nature.’ A dramatic film heightens the reality of human experiences showing people at their best, their worst and everything in between (Film Site, 2018).

With this in mind, I think the biggest and most insightful aspect of documentary that sets the genre apart from any other, is best summarized by filmmaker Kevin MacDonald:

“Real life is so much more interesting than anything you can make up” (Capturing Reality, 2008)

As a whole, this film, Capturing Reality, highlights the fundamental purpose for documentary filmmaking as well as how they are made and the impact they have. As a budding filmmaker with interests in the realm of documentary, this film was enlightening.


Capturing Reality : The Art of Documentary (Clip) [Video file]. (2008, November 19). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPavxiKKT2w&feature=youtu.be

Ferrari, P. (Director). (2008). Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary [Motion picture].

Film Site. (2018). Drama Films. Retrieved from http://www.filmsite.org/dramafilms.html

Herog, W. (Director). (2005). Grizzly Man [Motion Picture].

Nichols, B., Nichols, & Bill. (2001). Introduction to documentary. Bloomington, Ind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s