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DEFINITION – ‘A FILM OR TELEVISION OR RADIO
PROGRAMME THAT PROVIDES A FACTUAL REPORT
ON A PARTICULAR SUBJECT.’
WHAT IS A DOCUMENTARY AND WHAT
ARE THE AIMS OF A DOCUMENTARY?
A documentary is a film, television or radio programme that
provides a factual report on a particular subject or event.
Due to this, the aim of a documentary is to report something
with real evidence. Documentaries can contain actuality
footage or reconstructions of events/situations. This is
commonly done to contrast with what the interviewee is
saying. A convention of documentary is to feature a unseen
voice or narrator. This is done to anchor meaning to what is
Documentaries can be based on any social, cultural, political,
historical or historical issues. Documentaries must be based
up real facts and events. However as real evidence is often
unavailable to filmmakers, they often use reconstructions of
events to demonstrate to audiences what happened.
‘What distinguishes a documentary is portrayal of sound and
images of actuality.’ – John Corner (1995)
HISTORY OF DOCUMENTARY
– JOHN GRIERSON
• The genre ‘documentary’ was defined in the 1930’s
by Scottish filmmaker, John Grierson and his team,
who created some of the first documentaries, such
as ‘Coal Face’ and ‘Housing Problems’.
• In 1926, Grierson invented the term ‘documentary’,
defining it as ‘the creativity of actuality’. Grierson’s
idea was to capture real people, in real situations
and in real environments, allowing people a glimpse
into the lives of others. This contrasts with our
modern day society; it had not been a concept
available to the 1930’s audience – real life had not
been exposed before and this was an entirely new
• Old style documentaries would contain a sense of
persuasion in them, which was usually bias to one
party or side, in comparison to Grierson’s
documentaries which were more about the facts.
Current affairs – ‘events of political or social interest and
importance happening in the world at the present time.’
Current affairs in documentaries are mid-way between
documentaries and the news. Some great examples of this
include BBC’s ‘Panorama’, ‘BBC Scotland Investigates’ and
Current affairs are offer more in depth information about what
is currently happening on the news. Current affairs are
important for exploring important, consequential issues and
social development. Nevertheless, there is constantly a
growing concern that they are edging towards being ‘rating
THE 5 ELEMENTS OF
John Corner, a professor at the University of Liverpool, believed
that there are 5 central elements to documentaries:
FEATURES OF DOCUMENTARY
ACCORDING TO JOHN CORNER
• ‘Observation: Most documentaries have a sense of observation
which can be used as evidence, and can turn participants as
objects instead of subjects.’ Most documentaries include this
as an ‘unseen’ camera to make the audience feel like they are
an eye witness of the events which are unfolding.
• Interview: Documentaries rely on interviews to create a
balanced argument and give a wider view on the subject being
discussed. They can be used to support of contrast with what
is being observed. The interviewer may be seen or unseen.
Pictures can be placed over the top of the interview to help
• Mise-en-scene: Important for constructing reality. It is vital that
it is relevant to the topic of the documentary.
• Exposition: What is the point of the documentary? This is the
section of the documentary which reveals what argument is
being explored. This can be done direct or indirect and is
usually achieved through commentary/a voice over.
TRUTH & REALITY
‘It is critical that film makers be rid of the fantasy that the documentary
can be unproblematic representation of reality and that the ‘truth’ can
be conveniently dispensed and revealed like valium.’ – Dennis
• Documentary filmmakers have often struggled with the portrayal of
truth and reality, leading to the result of many counterfeit claims.
This reinforces John Corner’s argument of how documentaries
need to show evidence.
• Documentary's are based upon real events, however they do
contain elements of fiction, such as scripted voice overs.
• Many documentaries cover stories of people who can’t help
themselves and are society’s victims. They can shine light on
subjects that audiences may not be aware of. A good example of
this is the documentary, ‘Cathy Come Home’, by Ken Loach; this
documentary opened many people’s eyes to homeless people,
causing the law to be changed.
• Some of the most popular documentaries are those which focus on
controversial issues, such as sex, violence, drugs, gangs, law and
MAKING PEOPLE AWARE
Before creating a documentary, film makers must consider the
type of the documentary they are going to produce, who, where,
what and why and how. Documentary filmmakers would also
have to carefully consider their genre – Would it be suitable to
air on television? Is the subject too controversial? They would
also have to plan their scheduling carefully to ensure that it fit in
with their target audience.
When editing the documentary, it is extremely important that
footage, music, interviews etc. they are going to use to create
the documentary are carefully selected; the producers must
The producer must have a good knowledge of their chosen
subject. They must also be realistic, by considering the time
they have to produce the documentary, the costs and if they are
going to be able to obtain/film suitable footage.