Defining Documentary

A definition of documentary is not easy and can be the start of many arguments.

The Scottish documentarian John Grierson who first coined the term, 'documentary, in his review of Robert Flaherty's film Moana (1926), also described 'Documentary' as "The creative interpretation of actuality". The Soviet film-maker Dziga Vertov, set out to film "life as it is" (that is, life filmed surreptitiously) and "life caught unawares" (life provoked or surprised by the camera).

Grierson: "The creative interpretation of actuality"

Vertov: "life as it is", "life caught unawares"

Bill Nichol's identified these 6 modes of Documentary Representation.


The poetic mode of documentary moves away from the "objective" reality of a given situation or people to grasp at an inner "truth" that can only be grasped by poetical manipulation Codes emphasizes visual associations, tonal or rhythmic qualities, descriptive passages, and formal organization favours mood, tone and texture.

Examples include:

Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran (1934) - dramatic framing of material presents mythic image of man in harmony with nature

Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia (1938) presents a glorified view of (Aryan) athletes during the 1936 Olympic Games - celebrating power and beauty of the (Aryan) human form + Triumph of the Will (1935) + Baraka (1981) also Powaqqatsi (2003)


This mode is what we most identify with the documentary – it “emphasizes verbal commentary and argumentative logic” often using a narrator. Assumes a logical argument and a “right” and “proper” answer using direct address + offering preferred meaning.

Examples include: Work of John Grierson, many nature Documentaries


Unlike the observational mode, the participatory mode welcomes direct engagement between filmmaker and subject(s) - the filmmaker becomes part of the events being recorded The filmmakers impact on the events being recorded is acknowledged, indeed, it is often celebrated.

Examples include:
The films of Michael Moore - here the filmmaker directly engages with the material being address, he becomes a character in the documentary - an essential part of the subject Nick Broomfield's work, such as Kurt and Courtney (1998)
Living with Michael Jackson (2004) Bashir


Observational (objective) mode is best exemplified by the Cinema Verite or Direct Cinema movement which emerged in the late 1950s/early 1960s - it attempted to capture (as accurately as possibly) objective reality with filmmaker as neutral observer. See Fly on the Wall.

Codes/conventions: The filmmaker remains hidden behind the camera, ignored by the surrounding environment he/she neither changes nor influences the actions/events being captured. Since nothing is staged for the camera, the camera rushes about to keep up with the action resulting in rough, shaky, often amateur-looking footage.

Examples of the Cinema Verite/Direct cinema Movement:

Hoop Dreams
Frederick Wiseman, Hospital (1970) – fly on the wall, American hospital
Richard Pennebacker's Don't Look Back (1967) - records Bob Dylan's 1965 tour of Britain Also Soho Stories (1996), Geri (1999)


The Reflexive Mode acknowledges the constructed nature of documentary and flaunts it - conveying to people that this is not necessarily "truth" but a reconstruction of it - "a" truth, not "the" truth

Codes/conventions: The artifice of the documentary is exposed - the audience are made aware of the editing, sound recording, etc.

Examples include:
Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929) - documents the mechanization of Soviet life in late twenties - the mechanical camera and cameraman become part of the subject. The art of making pictures is part of this "new" mechanical work and it to is part of the film - we literally at points in the film see the film being constructed


This mode of documentary emphasizes the subjective nature of the documentarian as well as acknowledging the subjective reading of the audience - notions of objectivity are replaced by "evocation and affect"

Codes /conventions: This mode emphasizes the emotional and social impact on the audience. The performance of the documentary maker is central to the way the documentary is constructed.

The performative documentary emphasizes truth as relative, favoring a personal take over the objective lens. You can see the subjective poetics of autobiographical experience in the trailer for Marlon Riggs' Tongues Untied.

Other examples include: Supersize me Morgan Spurlock 2004. Arguably, films by Michael Moore

The following books and links are worth looking at for studying types of non-fiction documentary film and have been used in compiling these notes.

Nichols, B (2001). Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Nichols, B (1991). Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documen- tary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Barnouw, E. (1993). A history of the non-fiction film, Oxford University Press

Bruzzi, S. (2000). New Documentary: A Critical Introduction. London, England: Routledge.

Bordwell, D. and Thompson, K. (2013). Film Art: An Introduction. New York, McGraw-Hill.

Glynne, A. (2008). Documentaries: And How To Make Them. Harpenden, Creative Essentials.

Also see:  

The Documentary Filmmakers Group website -