“In the documentary the basic material has been created by God, whereas in the fiction film the director is a God; he must create life.” - Alfred Hitchcock


The practice of documentary films, or actuality films as they were known until 1926, can be dated back to the early 1900s, where single-shot images of trains, boats or factory workers provided the basic material of the short, typically one minute or less, productions.

Since then, the documentary films have been utilised 1 in a variety of different contexts and to express wildly different intentions ranging 2 from propaganda to education and on to entertainment. Alfred Hitchcock emphasises 3 the fact that most events of a documentary film are, at least to a certain degree, out of the filmmaker's hands, however, the manner in which a filmmaker chooses to interfere 4 or participate, or on the other hand refrains 5 from participating, is often defined by the particular genre of the film. According to Bill Nichols, an American film critic, six different modes 6 or sub-genres exist in relation to the documentary genre.


Documentary Genres


Expository documentaries argue a very specific point of view and usually feature a narrator that speaks directly to the viewer, sometimes called voice of god, due to the fact that the commentary is almost more important than images. These documentaries are heavily researched and often feature a "right" answer. A well-known example of expository documentary film is BBC's Dynasties narrated by David Attenborough.


Poetic documentaries tend to ignore traditional narratives and instead focus primarily on more abstract and artistic notions such as mood, atmosphere and tone. The genre also tends to be more subjective in its portrayal, and rather than presenting facts, it focuses on the individual experience. In 1982 Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth released 66 Scenes from America which featured the American icon, Andy Warhol eating a hamburger.


In participatory documentaries the filmmaker is both behind and in front of the camera. The filmmaker's role may not necessarily produce any great effect on the narrative, but on the other hand, it just might be the filmmaker's role that drives the narrative. The controversial, American filmmaker Michael Moore is one of the most famous producers of participatory documentaries.


The performative documentary revolves around the filmmaker's own involvement in the film. This involvement drives the plot and the filmmaker's engagement with subjects is centered around the filmmaker and his performance so to speak. One of the most well-known performative documentaries is Morgan Spurlock's Supersize Me (2004).


The observational documentary is supposed to be an objective and pure type of documentary where the filmmaker merely acts as a fly-on-the-wall. The subject of the films is typically realistic, everyday life without interference or intrusions. The observational documentary often features long-takes, no voice-over, no re-enactments and often uses handheld camera. The Maysles brothers' Grey Gardens from 1975 is an example of this.


The reflexive documentary is quite meta in the way that it often features the filmmaker in the process of making a documentary, thus showing the process of planning and preparing parts of the actual documentary. The documentary is often uncertain, but honest in its treatment of its topic. Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost's Catfish from 2010 is an example of a reflexive documentary.



Cinematic Techniques

Although it is possible to analyse documentary films without examining cinematic techniques, it is often a good place to start. In theory, the cinematic techniques of documentary films should be used quite subtle, as the genres usually strive to portray real life, however, terms such as framing , editing and sound are, nevertheless, powerful aesthetic components that are often deliberately used and crucial to the reception and understanding of a potential message.

The Rhetorical Pentagram

The rhetorical pentagram was invented by the Roman statesman Cicero, who designed the model to explain the communication between human beings. An important detail of the pentagram is the connection between each point. The points are connected to suggest correlation 7, meaning that if one of the points is changed the other points will also be affected.