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Basics of Documentary

Updated on December 18, 2017

The word Documentary in the context of media and communication simply means a nonfictional motion picture or a television or radio program which presents a factual account on a particular subject. It is a very useful genre of cinema which is used for documentation or to spread awareness and educational purpose.

A Historical Perspective

The term was first coined in 1926 when a young Scottish academician and filmmaker, John Grierson wrote a review of American Filmmaker, Robert Flaherty's film Moona for The New York Sun. He used the term Documentary in his review . However the discipline was very much in practice even before the word was coined, in this period, the genre was known as Actuality Cinema.

History of Documentary can be traced back to 1877 when Edward Muybridge developed sequential photographs of some horses in motion.He then developed a projection device in 1979 called Zoopraxiscope to project his images in motion. A technique that can be called forefather of modern day Animation.

The next and the most important development in this respect took place in 1890s when Auguste and Luis Lumiere developed the first motion picture technique. All the silent movies produced by them were representation of real-life events. Their first exhibition was held on 28th December, 1895 at the basement of Grand Cafe on the Boulevard des Cappuccinos in Paris.

The first step towards production of a hardcore documentary is believed to be taken by a young Russian poet Dziga Vertov. He along with his friends created a series of educational newsreels called Kino Eye which translates as cinema truth in English in early 1920s. In 1922 an American filmmaker Robert Flatherty made a film on the lives of Eskimos, Nanook of the North. This film is considered to be the first typical documentary. During 1930s and 40s documentary became a major tool for Nazi propaganda. After arrival of broadcast media it took the form of a reliable weapon for educational purposes and awareness campaigns.

Major sub genres

There are six major modes of documentaries as stated by Bill Nichols in his book Introduction to Documentary. The details of these modes are as follows:

  • Poetic - It tends to present a subjective account of the film maker. As Nichols stated, the poetic mode “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”. In other words, the audience are shown an abstract, subjective, representation of reality achieved through techniques such as emphasized visuals and a narrative organised to fit the mood of the documentation/documentary rather than the linear, logical organisation films followed prior to this. This mode was popular in 1920s but still it is followed by some filmmakers.
  • Expository - It is the most popular genres of documentary. This is exactly the style any lay man identifies the word documentary with. much like a news capsule it addresses the viewers directly. A voice of god narration dominates the overall narrative and the narrative in most of the cases is linear. This mode gained popularity in mid 1930s.
  • Observational - In this style the subject is shown to the audience through the eyes of camera. The technological advancements in 1960s gave filmmakers a great degree of freedom to be experimental with their subject lines and angle of view. They could now record many things in a hidden way and expose many unknown facts of society. Editing also allowed them to be playful with their production. These together gave birth to this mode.Here the director is not present in the movie.
  • Participatory - It involves an interaction between the filmmaker and the subject and allows the filmmaker to address the people who appear on the screen unlike the style of using a background voice-over narration. This gives the audience the feeling that the filmmaker is a part of the film and he has experienced himself whatever he is showing on screen. it generates a good impact.
  • Reflexive - Here the focus of the movie is more on the encounter of the director with the audience than his involvement with the subject.In this style the filmmaker appears on the screen and then takes the audience to the inner dimensions of the subject. It is very effective because it tends to show the things exactly in the way they happen without any editing technique or special effects.
  • Performative - Exactly opposite to the observational mode, it emphasizes filmmakers' involvement with the subject. Here the film maker presents his own account before the spectators. In other words he he shows every details about the subject from his own pint of view. The audience here gets the subjective view of the filmmaker other than a detailed and unbiased overview of the subject.

Secrets of good result

The first and foremost condition to produce a good documentary is to become yourself. You can make a masterpiece only on a topic close to your heart. So the best way is to take a deep dive into the topic. Even if you are working on an assignment given by others and you are not very familiar with the subject line, the only way to over come the challenge is to be in love with it. Yes, you have to live the topic. You can turn a simple topic into an unusual one by your creativity. It depends completely on your angle of view, from where you see the things. It's your viewpoint that decides every thing. You have to develop a habit of looking at the usual things from an unusual angle. Ideas will automatically start coming to your mind from your observation and everyday experiences.

Once the topic is finalized, it is the time to set your angle meaning what exactly do you wish to show and that will shape the entire how aspect. How much information would seem complete is the biggest challenge. You should be able to feel the pulse of the public , unless you fit yourself into their shoes it is difficult to understand what do they wish to see exactly. Ability to read the mind of the target audience is the primary quality of a film maker. As far as the script is concerned, in any case, content shapes the form. Each type of subject demands a special type of treatment and it thoroughly depends on the understanding of the filmmaker. However, in the case of a documentary, a fully scripted production is hardly possible. Many a times you have to go to the location merely with a sketch of outline and the final story line gets finalized only on the editing table depending on the raw footage. There is no formula for duration what is important is you have to give a complete information.

The second challenge is dramatization. The thin line between documentary and docu-feature is getting blurred day by day. Documentary allows more playfulness as there is no story telling narrative to restrict your creativity. But how much dramatization is allowed and to which point is justified is a million dollar question. Usually dramatization is used when capturing something directly through camera is not possible and there is not enough visual footage. Other than this dramatic elements can add an emotional touch to the movie as well. It can make the film more appealing and interesting. It totally depends on the subject where and how to use dramatization but in any case one has to keep in mind that dramatic elements should not overcast the factual details.

Other than dramatization there are many other ways which allows the filmmaker to be playful with the script. These are generally innovative visuals, unusual camera angles, experimental transition and selective music and sound effects. Audio visual synchronization is another area to be playful. Not necessarily both have to complement each other, in many cases contradiction between the two brings a new charm to the movie. However it is the richness of the information that defines the success documentary and not the way it is presented. Presentation is a secondary aspect the primary thing is the completeness of the Information.

Some must watch movies

  • The man with a movie camera - An amazing non narrative non fiction by Dziga Vertov. Not a single moment you will feel bored while watching the images which are not interlinked anyways.
  • Nanook of the North- An unique work by Robert J. Flathery on the lives of Eskimos. Though the movie contains some elements of drama but we have to keep in mind it was made in an era when documentary and docudrama were not considered two different genres.
  • Rabindra nath Tagore- An internationally acclaimed movie by satyajit Ray on Rabindra nath Tagore. Ray himself believed this was his best work.
  • The inner eye - A brilliant movie by Satyajit Ray on blind painter Binod Bihari Mukherjee. It talks about the journey of the painter and his fight with blindness.
  • Satyajit Ray - An outstanding film by Shyam Benegal on Satyajit Ray. This is his tribute to Ray.
  • Muktir gaan - An internationally acclaimed film by Tareque Masud and Catherine Masud on Bangladesh liberation war. The movie explores its social and cultural impact.
  • In the name of God - An unique and critically acclaimed film by Anand Pattwardhan. The movie talks about religious orthodoxies of our society.
  • The world before her - A critically acclaimed movie by Nisha Pahuja on the lives of women. It features clashes between traditional and modern value.
  • Jeevan Smriti - A very emotional and appealing docu- feature by Rituparno Ghosh on Rabindra nath Tagore. this is his tribute to Gurudev..
  • Mango Girls - An excellent movie by Kunal Sharma on an unique tradition of Dharhara Village of Bihar where Mango tree is planted if a girl child is born.
  • Smile Pinki - A very touchy movie by Megan Mylan on the story of a poor girl whose life gets transformed after a free surgery to cure her cleft lips.
  • Forest Man - An award winning documentary by William Douglas McMaster on Jadav Payeng, the forest man of India who singlehandedly planted nearly 1400 acres of forest to savr his island, Majuli.
  • Purple Sky - A much talked about movie by Sridhar Rangayan on the Lives and struggles og LGBTQ in India.
  • Born into brothels - Am Academy Award winning documentary by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman on the childern born into brothels in the Socagachi area of Kolkata..Zana Briski befriended the children and taught them some basic lessons of photography. The photographs taken by the children which shows their struggle through their own eyes are used in the film.
  • Chai - An amazing documentary directed by Gitanjali Rao and produced by Anurag Kashyap on the lives of the hawkers of Mumbai who sell tea. It stuns the audience with its visual appeals.
  • Saving face - An Academy Award winning documentary by Pakistani director Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy on the victims of acid attacks.
  • New borns - An amazing surreal documentary by Megha Ramaswamy on the victims of acid attacks. It challenges all the grammars and notions of documentaries.
  • Cities of sleep - An excellent heart touching movie by Shaunak Sen on the people who sleep on road sides in Delhi. The movie is said to talk about the economy of night in the capital.
  • A girl in the river : Price of forgiveness - An outstanding movie by Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy on the story of a survivor of honour killing. This got the director her second Academy Award.
  • Lady of the lake - An internationally acclaimed and award winning movie by Manipuri director Hadbam Paban Kumar on the struggle of survival of the fishing communities residing near the Loktak Lake.


© 2017 doyeldutta

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      Shri prakash 5 months ago

      Very good...!

    working