Documentaries – research

Documentary film is a broad category of moving pictures intended to document some aspect of reality. A “documentary film” was originally a movie shot on film stock—the only medium available—but now includes video and digital productions that can be either direct-to-video or made for a television program. “Documentary” has been described as a “filmmaking practice, a cinematic tradition, and mode of audience reception” that is continually evolving and is without clear boundaries.

In the 1900 film production was dominated by the novelty of showing an event. Many of the films made back then were filmed in a single shot, and they usually had a very simple theme: a train entering a station, a boat docking…These type of movies were called “actuality” films, and the term “documentary” appeared later on, in 1926.

Searching on the internet about documentary films I’ve found out a very good website with many interesting information:

Documentary films have comprised a very broad and diverse category of films. Examples of documentary forms include the following:

  • ‘biographical’ films about a living or dead person (Madonna, John Lennon, Muhammad Ali – When We Were Kings (1996), Robert Crumb, Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time (1992), or Glenn Gould)
  • a well-known event (Waco, Texas incident, the Holocaust, the Shackleton expedition to the Antarctic)
  • a concert or rock festival (Woodstock or Altamont rock concerts (Woodstock (1970) and Gimme Shelter (1970)), The Song Remains the Same (1976), Stop Making Sense (1984), Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991))
  • a comedy show (Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy shows)
  • a live performance (Cuban musicians as in Buena Vista Social Club (1998), or the stage show Cirque du Soleil-Journey of Man (2000))
  • a sociological or ethnographic examination following the lives of individuals over a period of time (e.g., Michael Apted’s series of films: 28 Up (1984), 35 Up (1992) and 42 Up (1999), or Steve James’ Hoop Dreams (1994))
  • an expose including interviews (e.g., Michael Moore’s social concerns films)
  • a sports documentary (extreme sports, such as Extreme (1999) or To the Limit (1989), or surfing, such as in The Endless Summer (1966))
  • a compilation film of collected footage from government sources
  • a ‘making of’ film (such as the one regarding the filming of Apocalypse Now (1979), or Fitzcarraldo (1982))
  • an examination of a specific subject area (e.g., nature- or science-related themes, or historical surveys, such as The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, or World War II, etc.)
  • spoof documentaries, termed ‘mockumentaries’ (such as This is Spinal Tap (1984), Zelig (1983), and Best in Show (2000))

Originally, the earliest documentaries in the US and France were either short newsreels, instructional pictures, records of current events, or travelogues (termed actualities) without any creative story-telling, narrative, or staging. The first attempts at film-making, by the Lumiere Brothers and others, were literal documentaries, e.g., a train entering a station, factory workers leaving a plant, etc.

The first documentary re-creation, Sigmund Lubin’s one-reel The Unwritten Law (1907) (subtitled “A Thrilling Drama Based on the Thaw-White Tragedy”) dramatized the true-life murder — on June 25, 1906 — of prominent architect Stanford White by mentally unstable and jealous millionaire husband Harry Kendall Thaw over the affections of showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (who appeared as herself). [Alluring chorine Nesbit would become a brief sensation, and the basis for Richard Fleischer’s biopic film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955), portrayed by Joan Collins, and E.L. Doctorow’s musical and film Ragtime (1981), portrayed by an Oscar-nominated Elizabeth McGovern.]


The first official documentary or non-fiction narrative film was Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), an ethnographic look at the harsh life of Canadian Inuit Eskimos living in the Arctic, although some of the film’s scenes of obsolete customs were staged. Flaherty, often regarded as the “Father of the Documentary Film,” also made the landmark film Moana (1926) about Samoan Pacific islanders, although it was less successful. [The term ‘documentary’ was first used in a review of Flaherty’s 1926 film.] His first sound documentary feature film was Man of Aran (1934), regarding the rugged Aran islanders/fishermen located west of Ireland’s Galway Bay. Flaherty’s fourth (and last) major feature documentary was his most controversial, Louisiana Story (1948), filmed on location in Louisiana’s wild bayou country.

Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, better known for King Kong (1933), directed the landmark documentary Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925), the first documentary epic, which traced the travels of the Bakhtyari tribe in Persia during their migrational wanderings to find fresh grazing lands. The filmmakers’ next film was the part-adventure, travel documentary filmed on location in the Siamese (Thailand) jungle, Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927), about a native tribal family.

Other European documentary film-makers made a series of so-called non-fictional city symphonies. Alberto Cavalcanti and Walter Ruttman directed Berlin – Symphony of a Big City (1927, Ger.) about the German city in the late 1920s. Similarly, the Soviet Union’s (and Dziga Vertov’s) avante-garde, experimental documentary The Man with a Movie Camera (1929, USSR) presented typical daily life within several Soviet cities (Moscow, Kiev, Odessa) through an exhilarating montage technique. And French director Jean Vigo made On the Subject of Nice (1930). Sergei Eisenstein’s October (Oktyabr)/10 Days That Shook the World (1928, USSR) re-enacted in documentary-style, the days surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution, to commemorate the event’s 10th anniversary.

Documentaries of The War Years:

Documentaries during the Great War and during WWII were often propagandistic. Innovative German film-maker Leni Riefenstahl’s pioneering masterwork epic Triumph of the Will (1935, Germ.) was explicitly propagandistic yet historical in its spectacular yet horrifying documentation of the Nazi Party Congress rally in Nuremberg in 1934. It was a revolutionary film combining superb cinematography and editing of Third Reich propaganda. She also documented the 1936 Berlin Olympics in the stunning film Olympia (1938, Germ.) – with graceful and beautiful images of ‘Aryan’ athletes in competition. To respond to the Nazi propaganda, Frank Capra was commissioned by the US War Department to direct seven films in a Why We Fight (1943) series of narrated WWII newsreel-style films. The first in the series, “Prelude to War,” a look at the events from 1931-1939, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1942. David Lean’s and Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve (1942, UK) was not a pure documentary film, although it boosted the wartime morale of the beleaguered Britishers.


The Oscar-winning wartime documentary The Memphis Belle (1944), directed by famed William Wyler (then a Lieutenant Colonel) and released by the War Department, presented real-life footage of dozens of Allied bombing missions by the Flying Fortress’ B-17 bomber during the war. A Hollywood-style, sentimental version of this documentary, Memphis Belle (1990), starred Matthew Modine and Eric Stoltz.

Director Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (aka Nuit et Brouillard) (1955, Fr.) harshly judged the Nazis for inflicting the horrors of the Holocaust on the world. Marcel Ophuls’ four-hour epic The Sorrow and the Pity (1971) (aka Le Chagrin et La Pitie), mentioned in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), used an interview technique and archival footage to tell the story of the Nazi occupation of France and subsequent French collaboration. Claude Lanzmann’s unforgettable, eloquent 570-minute epic Shoah (1985) (Hebrew for ‘annihilation’) documented the personal experiences of several death-camp survivors of the Holocaust through interviews.

Furthermore, I found some information about the most famous documentary film – makers:

Errol Morris –

Errol Morris’ unique contributions to the documentary film category were significant with many examples of weird films with offbeat and unusual subject matter: the looney Gates of Heaven (1978) about a bankrupt N. California pet cemetery and its devoted pet-owners, Vernon, Florida (1981) about the quirky inhabitants of a backwater Floridian town, the controversial The Thin Blue Line (1988) that helped free accused and convicted murderer Randall Dale Adams on Texas’ death row, the biographical A Brief History of Time (1992) with ALS-afflicted and wheelchair-bound cosmologist Stephen Hawking discussing quantum physics, the fascinating Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997) about four eccentric individuals (a topiary gardener, a lion tamer, a mole-rat expert, and a robotics scientist/inventor), and Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (2000) – about a caffeine-addicted specialist who designed execution equipment.

Barbara Kopple –

Director Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA (1976), another Academy Award winner for Best Documentary, documented a Kentucky coal miners’ strike in the early 1970s against the Eastover Mining Company. She also directed a second Oscar-winning documentary film on labor struggles, American Dream (1990), about striking employees at a Hormel meat-packing plant in Austin, Minnesota. In addition, she filmed an in-depth documentary on comedian/musician/director Woody Allen and his 1996 jazz band tour of Europe, titled Wild Man Blues (1997).

Michael Moore –

Iconoclastic, sardonic, independent film-maker/journalist Michael Moore has had varied success with his personally-made films about the excesses and abuses of corporate America, social issues and politics, including The Big One (1997) filmed during a 1996 promo tour for his own first book Downsize This!, and the darkly humorous Roger & Me (1989) – Moore’s first documentary, and the most successful documentary film up to its time in film history (Moore broke his own record 15 years later). With scathing commentary, it examined the devastating effects of the 1986 closing of auto factory plants in Flint, Michigan (Moore’s hometown) by GM’s unavailable former CEO Roger Smith.

Moore’s next film, Bowling for Columbine (2002), the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award-winner, presented the US’ trigger-happy obsession with gun rights, violence, and the American culture of fear, including a remarkable interview with NRA spokesman/actor Charlton Heston. The film was the first documentary to compete in the Cannes Film Festival’s main competition in 46 years, and was the unanimous winner of the festival’s 55th Anniversary Prize. It was also the first documentary film to be nominated and then win in 2003 the Writers Guild of America (WGA) Award for Best Original Screenplay. It was also the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award-winner. It was also the highest-grossing documentary of all time, soon to be surpassed by Moore’s own Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004).

Another critical expose, Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) provided a scathing indictment of President George W. Bush’s handling of the terrorist crisis and his alleged connections to Al-Qaeda leader Bin Laden’s family. It was a controversial tirade against the Bush administration, its ‘war on terror’, and government corruption. The documentary film was included among the Cannes Film Festival’s main competition (only the second time in 48 years for a documentary) – and won the top prize Palme D’Or – the first for a documentary in nearly 50 years. The controversial film had earlier gained further publicity and notoriety when Disney opted not to distribute the film through its Miramax subsidiary unit, and Moore accused the company of censorship. [Supposedly, Disney feared the film might endanger tax breaks Disney received in Florida where its theme parks were located, and where the president’s brother, Jeb Bush, was governor at the time.]

Moore’s film set box-office records as the highest-grossing non-concert, non-IMAX documentary film of all time – and at the time was the only documentary ever to win a box-office weekend during its debut showing. It established a significant precedent for a political documentary by being the first ever documentary to cross the $100 million mark in the US (eventually earning $119 million). However, the film’s diatribe against President George W. Bush wasn’t able to prevent his re-election in 2004. His next film was the searing look at the American health care system, Sicko (2007).

Stacy Peralta –

Life and culture in Southern California were the subject matter of documentary films produced by youth-oriented TV producer and skateboarding icon Stacy Peralta: Dogtown and Z-Boys (2002) surveyed the growth of skateboarding since the late 1960s by following a group of skaters off Venice Beach and their subculture, and Riding Giants (2004) was an engaging and exciting film about the evolution of the big-wave surf culture as seen through the experiences of legendary, thrill-seeking surfers. It credited blonde pre-teen star Sandra Dee and her Gidget (1959) film with the explosion of surf culture in the early 1960s.

On Wikipedia I’ve came across with some details about modern documentaries:

Box office analysts have noted that this film genre has become increasingly successful in theatrical release with films such as Fahrenheit 9/11, Super Size Me, Earth, March of the Penguins, and An Inconvenient Truth among the most prominent examples. Compared to dramatic narrative films, documentaries typically have far lower budgets which makes them attractive to film companies because even a limited theatrical release can be highly profitable.

The nature of documentary films has expanded in the past 20 years from the cinema verité style introduced in the 1960s in which the use of portable camera and sound equipment allowed an intimate relationship between filmmaker and subject. The line blurs between documentary and narrative and some works are very personal, such as the late Marlon Riggs‘s Tongues Untied (1989) and Black Is…Black Ain’t (1995), which mix expressive, poetic, and rhetorical elements and stresses subjectivities rather than historical materials.[15]
Historical documentaries, such as the landmark 14-hour Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1986 – Part 1 and 1989 – Part 2) by Henry Hampton, Four Little Girls (1997) by Spike Lee, and The Civil War by Ken Burns, UNESCO awarded independent film on slavery 500 Years Later, expressed not only a distinctive voice but also a perspective and point of views. Some films such as The Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris incorporated stylized re-enactments, and Michael Moore‘s Roger & Me placed far more interpretive control with the director. The commercial success of these documentaries may derive from this narrative shift in the documentary form, leading some critics to question whether such films can truly be called documentaries; critics sometimes refer to these works as “mondo films” or “docu-ganda.” However, directorial manipulation of documentary subjects has been noted since the work of Flaherty, and may be endemic to the form.

Although the increasing popularity of the documentary genre, and the advent of DVDs, has made documentaries financially more viable, funding for documentary film production remains elusive. Within the past decade the largest exhibition opportunities have emerged from within the broadcast market, making filmmakers beholden to the tastes and influences of the broadcasters who have become their largest funding source.

Modern documentaries have some overlap with television forms, with the development of “reality television” that occasionally verges on the documentary but more often veers to the fictional or staged. The making-of documentary shows how a movie or a computer game was produced. Usually made for promotional purposes, it is closer to an advertisement than a classic documentary.

Triple Knot Productions in Tampa, Florida has done wonders for the documentary genre. They embark on a journey to capture stories of true inspiration. The subjects of their films are faced with adversity, pain, self-doubt and incomprehensible physical and mental struggles that are driven with fierce ambition and persevarance to accomplish unbelievable results. Triple Knot Productions is more than just a video production company, they are an Inspirational Experience.

Modern lightweight digital video cameras and computer-based editing have greatly aided documentary makers, as has the dramatic drop in equipment prices. The first film to take full advantage of this change was Martin Kunert and Eric ManesVoices of Iraq, where 150 DV cameras were sent to Iraq during the war and passed out to Iraqis to record themselves.

Documentaries without words

Films in the documentary form without words have been made. From 1982, the Qatsi trilogy and the similar Baraka could be described as visual tone poems, with music related to the images, but no spoken content. Koyaanisqatsi (part of the Qatsi trilogy) consists primarily of slow motion and time-lapse photography of cities and many natural landscapes across the United States. Baraka tries to capture the great pulse of humanity as it flocks and swarms in daily activity and religious ceremonies.

Bodysong was made in 2003 and won a British Independent Film Award for “Best British Documentary”.

The 2004 film Genesis shows animal and plant life in states of expansion, decay, lovemaking, and death, with some, but little, narration.

All this information are very helpful, because it gives us a better sense of what a documentary really is. Before starting your own work, you should research and you should watch some documentaries in order to see different perspectives, different approaches and so on. By doing this you could also get inspired and you could develop some new themes.

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Posted on January 30, 2011, in Developing Meaning. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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