Documentary Film Abstract

Hansen Cohen, Laura Garber, Clayton Nelson, Jack Martinez


A documentary is usually a nonfiction film that demonstrates the truth about a specific time, place, event, person, subject or idea. Although documentaries are typically non fiction, they often have scripted, staged scenes with hired actors to reenact an event that was not/could not be filmed.

Just like most fictional narrative film genres, documentaries have subgenres. The compilation

documentary heavily uses archived footage or photographs to illustrate a story from the past. An

interview documentary records a story directly from a source who experienced an event first

hand, studied a topic or is passing on second hand information. Direct cinema is the first hand

account of the filmmaker at the scene, shooting in real time. Nature documentaries usually focus

on wildlife with the absence of man, or man’s relationship with nature whether it is positive or

negative impact. Portrait documentaries focuses on the life of an interesting person. The synthetic documentary can be a mix of all or several other documentary filmmaking styles and is

commonly used in broadcast journalism. In addition to documentary genres, form is an equally important stylistic aspect. Categorical form attempts to group and categorize the world we live in and rhetorical documentaries make a persuasive argument.

Documentary filmmaking is a growing source of informative cinema that offers a wide variety of films and messages. To help break down the types of documentaries, starting with the difference between categorical and rhetorical form will determine what type of documentary one will view. Categorical filmmakers will present information in a categorized fashion. The endless outcomes of how the film can be presented gives leeway for creative intention and an array of different paths to follow. For example, film art, specifies that when making a documentary on butterflies, a filmmaker can categorize it by small to large species, location to location, etc. Its simple facade can be just that or organizational editing and frame by frame work can lead to an underlying message without pushing an agenda. In rhetorical filmmaking the director will push an argument onto the viewer, convincing them of a new way of thinking. Typically these have a call to action and can be persuasive in any subject matter, politically, socially, etc. Mixing these agendas is not uncommon and some have hints of each form throughout. Once we’ve divided between the two forms, you can fit a documentary based on the different genres Film Art has categorized.

Compilation film is defined as; film edited from previously released or archival footage, but compiled in a new order or appearance. Most of these films are popularized through propaganda cinema. The Atomic Cafe, a 1950’s effort to inform the public of what to do during an atomic bomb attack, Triumph of the Will, a German propaganda film used to unite the nation, and Frank Capra’s Why We Fight, another American propaganda set of films to bring the public together, are great examples in the use of archival footage. Focusing on Capra’s rhetoric film we can see the use of the film industry and it’s importance among the people. The government took notice and funded their own films through Frank Capra. During WWII many people sought entertainment at the theatre making it a perfect place for agendas to be pushed. During this time, viewers were unlikely to question and critique what was seen at the movies, another poignant truth to manipulation. Capra, known for his direction amongst many popular films, including, It’s a Wonderful Life, left his auteur brand on each of the seven films. Using Hollywood at his fingertips, he called out to use Walter Huston as narrator, the favorite old wise man (Silver). Modern Museum of Art depicts the importance of the film as an effective way “to bring diverse people together” despite its function in making Stallin appear as a hero. Capra’s efforts in documentary filmmaking lead to the first chapter of his series, Prelude to War, won an Academy Award for best documentary in 1942.

The direct-cinema documentary genre is generally a form of documentary film that follows an ongoing event or movement as it is happening in real time with minimal interference from the filmmakers; more so specifically, the goal of the filmmaker is to capture the moment exactly as it is, sort of photojournalist style gone cinema. This film movement occurred in North America and direct cinema came to be between the 1950s and 1960s, this was largely due to the beginning production of portable cameras and sound recording equipment which allowed for filmmakers and journalists to record and document real time events and activities occurring around them. Around the same time, in France, a similar film movement in which filmmakers dropped scripts and sets and used the real world with real people began, this was called “Cinema-Verite,” which in turn, is French for “Cinema-Truth.”

A natural film or wildlife film is a documentary film about animals, plants, or other non-human living creatures. Some subject examples would be wild animals, plants, ecosystems, sciences, and natural history. Nature films usually are taken in the animal’s natural habitat. Nature films are usually not based off a storyboard or planned out. This is because the unpredictability of filming in nature.  Nature films are usually structured to keep the viewer interested and bring insight to a certain animal or environment.  

Mixed or Synthetic documentary film is exactly as it sounds. It possesses all forms, archival footage, interviews, and material shot on the fly. Fahrenheit 9/11, The Fog of War, and An Unreasonable Man, are all depicted under this definition. Taking a closer look at Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, it is based on the uncovering of the Bush administration and their efforts in the Iraq and Afghanistan war. Questioning the media’s participation with the exploitation of 9/11 and the effects it has had on the public and victims since. Michael Moore’s extensive research found many controversial elements that come with making a documentary film. He is clear in finding his own voice and adding humor to the devastating content. His rhetoric format brings a call to action to question and stop the government from leading unfair policies. It is the top grossing documentary to date proving that in today’s media, questioning and critiquing are encouraged.

In conclusion, a documentary is a broad term to describe a non-fiction movie. The documentary genre has radically evolved since it creation keeping up with new technology and filming techniques. Digitization and the internet has transformed the way documentaries are captured and shared with people. New documentaries will continue to encourage further work on standards, ethics and preservation efforts around the world.  Regardless of the genre or form, documentaries are designed to educate, inform, persuade and/or inspire us to think about the past, present and future world we live in. As humans we long for a cause that is beyond our daily lives. Documentaries give us a way to look at the world that, for some of us, is simply not possible, or perhaps inspire us to seek incredible or dangerous situations that we previously had not known about. Despite the reasons for watching, there is a documentary out there that could change your life.

The Museum of Modern Art

Posted by Charles Silver, Curator, Department of Film – Posted by GaryRowe – Posted byr – Posted by GeraldWashington – Posted by Wm DClarke


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