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Definition and Origins
 Documentary—a movie that aims to inform viewers about
truths or facts
 -term first used in 1926 by John Grierson to describe a
movie called Moana about the daily life of a Polynesian youth
and his family
 -have to go beyond strategy and organization used with
typical movies such as plot and narration
Questions to ask while viewing
 How are documentary films different from narrative ones?
 What attracts us to them?
 How do they organize their material? What makes them
popular, useful, and uniquely illuminating?
 Origins of documentary can be seen in political speeches,
academic lectures, visual practices, paintings, diaries, letters,
songs, and newspaper reports.
 18th and 19th centuries saw journalism develop into a public
forum for expressing ideas, announcing events and recording
daily happenings
 1895-1905 saw creation of actualities—moving non-fiction
snapshots of real people and events
 Scenics—offered exotic or remarkable images of nature and
foreign lands
 Topicals—captured and sometimes re-created historical or
newsworthy events
 -Robert Flaherty considered the father of documentary
His movies were anthropological and focused on nature—
mostly recorded other civilizations
Soviet Documentaries focused of creating strong ideological
After the intro of optical sound recording in 1927,
documentaries took off in 30s and 40s.
30s and 40s saw a focus on politics and propaganda
 Cinema verite—spontaneity and inventiveness when
capturing reality, filmmakers partake and participate in the
reality that they film (50s-70s)
Shooting ratio—ration of footage shot to footage used;
increased with the advent of video (1980s) which made
filmmaking easier and less expensive
-Genre of personal documentaries emerged (I.e. Supersize Me)
Added funding for documentaries came from video rentals,
cable and satellite TV (I.e. HBO, Discovery Channel)
This is where reality TV comes from
Non-fiction & Non-narrative
 Non-fiction films—present factual descriptions of actual
events, persons, or places rather than their fictional or
invented re-creation
 Non-narrative films—are organized in a variety of ways
that eschew or de-emphasize stories and narratives, while
employing other forms such as lists, repetitions, or contrasts
as the organizational structure
 Documentary organization—show or describe experience
according to a certain arrangement, logic, or order different
from that of narrative organization
 Cumulative organization—present a catalog of images or
sounds throughout the course of a film
 Contrastive organizations—present a series of contrasts or
oppositions meant to indicate different POV on its subject
 Developmental organizations—present places, objects,
individuals, or experiences through a pattern of development
with a specific non-narrative logic or structure
 Rhetorical positions—organizational POV
 Explorative positions—mimic scientific POV that announce or
suggest that the driving perspective of film is a search into
particular social, psychological, or physical phenomena
 Interrogative positions—rhetorically structure a movie in
either terms of an implicit or explicit question-and-answer format
or other techniques that identify a subject as being under
 Persuasive positions—articulate a perspective that expresses
some other personal or social position using emotions or beliefs
and aim to persuade viewers to feel and see in a certain way (I.e.
An Inconvenient Truth)
Roles and Purpose of Documentaries
 Revealing new or ignored realities
 Confronting assumptions
 Altering opinions
 Serving as a social, political, historical, and/or cultural lens
 Social Documentary—representing how people live
 Political Documentary—investigate and celebrate political
 Historical Documentary—concentrates of recovering and
representing events or figures in history