What is Documentary Film?

What is Documentary Film?

A documentary is a film that is based on real life events. Often they are filmed on location and use non-actors.


There are many different styles of documentary films. These include observational, expository, poetic, and symbolic. There are also many editing techniques that can help you to tell a story in your documentary.



Documentary film has been used in all sorts of situations to bring about change. Whether it is a campaign for a cause or simply a way to inform the public about something that they might not have known, documentary films often have a call to action at the end of them. This call to action can be to donate to a certain charity, volunteer time or change their habits.


One of the most common types of documentary is observational. This style of filming is more naturalistic and allows the audience to see the subject in its pure state without any bias or exaggeration. It also uses long takes and few cuts to ensure that the subject is in the moment, rather than having them reenacted or portrayed as a fictional character.


This style of documentary is usually found in nature and animal films. It was introduced to the world in the 50s and 60s when smaller, handheld cameras were more readily available.


Observational documentary film is an experimental form of anthropological inquiry that reproduces contents that cannot be reduced to messages and explanations through the language of scholarly prose. These contents are a fine grain account of particular socio-cultural systems and can be difficult to control through discursive choices.


Observational documentary film also serves as an exploration of what MacDougall calls “social aesthetics” or culturally patterned sensory experience. This kind of filmmaking echoes recent anthropological interest in the visual contexts in which “culture” is embodied. Moreover, it is a mode of ethnographic film that eschews the industrial model of documentary production by adopting a spontaneous, immediate approach to filmmaking.



Documentary film is a form of storytelling that is both informative and persuasive. It can be a way to educate people about an issue, create social impact, or market your business. Expository documentary films present a specific point of view, often through voiceover narration.


This mode is commonly used in nature and TV documentaries, but it can also be found in historical docs like Ken Burns’ sweeping history of the Dust Bowl. The archival footage and photographs supplemented by statistics and captions help viewers understand one of the worst droughts in North American history during the Great Depression.


These documentary films are heavily researched focusing on facts rather than opinion or emotion. They will usually use a “Voice of God” style of narration and may include reenactments or interviews.


The primary aim of this type of documentary is to inform and persuade the audience by presenting an authoritative commentary that supports their arguments, even if it is not always easy to hear or understand. The narrator often sounds “omniscient” with a rich, sonorous voice.


Observational Documentary is another documentary mode that involves the filmmaker within the film, allowing them to be transparent about their work and the process of making it. This mode is referred to as cinema verite, direct cinema, or fly-on-the-wall documentary.


This mode is a critical and reflexive approach to documentary that considers the processes and implications of documenting stories. This approach encourages a deeper understanding of the film and the subjects, allowing for greater range of expression than other modes do. It can involve staging reenactments or interviewing a subject to show the emotions and journey of a person’s life or struggle.



Poetic documentary film is a sub-genre of documentaries that relies on avant-garde techniques to evoke a specific mood or feeling instead of trying to prove a point through a traditional linear narrative structure. These filmmakers use rhythm, composition, and shot design to evoke a new feeling or angle to their story.


One of the most notable examples of a poetic documentary is Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938), which focuses on the Aryan athletes representing Nazi Germany in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games through emphasised low camera angles, slow motion editing and a haunting score. The footage is arranged in order to encourage the audience to grasp an “inner truth” that cannot be explained through a traditional narrative structure.


Another example of a poetic documentary is Gustav Deutsch’s Samsara, which uses manipulated found footage to show the lives of people in the silent era as it explores how each person was influenced by their environment. This cinematic style breaks from standard editing rules and emphasizes visual rhythm over continuity, which creates a new way to observe the world.


Because a poem is often about creating a mood, poetic documentaries don’t need to follow traditional storytelling arcs or move characters to resolutions. In fact, since they’re focused on evoking a certain mood or feeling, it doesn’t make sense to have a linear narrative. This is why it’s important to think about how you can use your own feelings when making a poem-like documentaries.



Symbolism is an essential tool that allows filmmakers to communicate a complex message without having to use complicated words. It’s a powerful tool that helps to activate the audience’s imagination and add depth to their cinematic experience.


Throughout history, symbolism has been used in literature, art and film. But arguably, film is one of the best forms to incorporate this tool because it can express complex hidden meanings and remain with an audience long after the film has ended.


In documentary film, symbols can be an important part of the story. They can be a way to help an audience understand what is being said or done, whilst also creating an emotional connection between the characters.


For example, the color green is often used to symbolize jealousy. This is an effective method to help the audience understand what is being said by the screenwriter and can be used to help the audience connect with the characters in the story.


Another great way to incorporate symbols into your film is by using parallelism. This is when you cut between scenes and can create a symbolic connection for your audience.


A good example of this is in the movie Signs. The director uses this technique to make an important point about the signs that God sends in your life. This can help you to protect your loved ones and see that everything happens for a reason.


Symbolism can be used in a wide variety of different ways, from setting to character to object. The key to incorporating this tool into your screenplay is to ensure that the symbolism is subtle but also noticeable enough that your audience picks up on it and can then piece together the message you’re trying to get across.




What is a scripted documentary film?

Unlike other types of documentary, which usually consist of interviews with people or events, a script for a documentary film is an essential part of the process. It is a critical tool for a director or producer to use, as it allows them to tell a story in a unique and engaging way that will appeal to their audience.


Documentary scripts are usually very long-form and contain a lot of information about the subject matter. They often include interviews and can even be accompanied by music or voice over narration to help audiences get a better understanding of the story.


In some cases, the script is written before any of the footage is shot or recorded. This is called storyboarding, and it can be very helpful in planning the overall sequence of a documentary.


The most important thing to remember about scripting a documentary film is that it should be a work in progress. The best documentaries are those that are shaped and refined as the filmmaker re-understands their story.


A great tip for documentary scriptwriters is to keep track of all of their research findings throughout the pre-production process, and to catalogue them in a way that is easy to reference. This will allow them to bring in more information and points of view as they go through the documentary-making process, which will ultimately result in a more rigorously-researched and compelling final product.


Typically, the first step in writing a documentary script is to create a treatment or logline. This is a sort of film proposal that outlines the synopsis of the documentary and helps attract collaborators, funders and interviewees.