DOCUMENTARY FILMS: REPRESENTING THE REAL
Recognize that documentary films are best distinguished as cultural practices.
Describe how documentary films employ nonfictional and non-narrative images and forms.
Identify how documentary movies make and draw on specific historical heritages.
Explain the common formal strategies and organizations used in documentary films.
Summarize how documentary films have become associated with cultural values and traditions from which
we develop filmic meaning.
Chapter 8 is the second chapter in the section dealing with movie genres and narrative, documentary, and
experimental films. This chapter is devoted to documentary film, a term that was first coined in 1926 to describe the
visual and auditory representation of real events and actual experiences. The chapter begins with a short historical
overview of documentaries, from the traveling exhibitions of the 1890s to the digital documentaries of today. It then
examines the interplay of nonfiction and non-narrative in documentary. Finally, it looks at the organizational
patterns and rhetorical positions employed to convey the social, political, historical, cultural, and educational value
of documentary as a movie form.
In this chapter, students investigate the similarities and differences between narrative and documentary
cinemas. They learn how documentary cinema creates a film experience that expands how we see, listen, and think about
a person, an event, an idea, or the larger world.
TEACHING THE OPENING VIGNETTE
Zero Days offers students an opportunity to consider the ways in which documentary filmmakers have engaged
creatively and imaginatively in their practice. While students may not associate these terms—“creative” and
“imaginative”—with documentary films, Gibney’s film demonstrates how vital creativity and imagination are to the
practice of documentary filmmaking. Errol Morris uses dramatic reenactments in provocative and illuminating ways
in his acclaimed documentary The Thin Blue Line (1988); and while computer generated imaging is a late twentieth
and early twenty-first century development, the use of optical effects was an essential component of Dziga Vertov’s
The Man with the Movie Camera (1929). Some traditions in documentary filmmaking stress an objective non-
engagement with events (cinema verité and direct cinema), but it might be instructive to remind students of the
section in Chapter 2 on Soviet Silent Films (pp. 62). While Vertov was committed to non-fiction filmmaking, he
understood that “cinema elicits different ideas and responses according to how images are structured and edited.”
Compare the opening moments from The Man with the Movie Camera with some of the fast-paced montage
sequences of cityscapes in Zero Days. Consider, too, the self-reflexive moments of the latter, particularly Gibney’s
voiceover in which he expresses frustration in his efforts to solicit answers from military personnel.
TEACHING THE CHAPTER
Documentary cinema has generated numerous and complex traditions, from the many types of social
documentaries to the many kinds of ethnographic films. As a form, it sometimes overlaps and exchanges tactics with
narrative cinema, but documentary films emphasize the educational pleasure of obtaining new information or insight
about events, people, and even ideas. The strategies and formal features that these films use include expositional
organizations that contrast, accumulate, or develop facts and figures. In addition, documentaries can occu py any
number of rhetorical positions to explore, analyze, persuade, or even “perform” the world. Documentaries provoke
us to see the world with fresh eyes.
To teach this chapter, draw parallels between documentary’s educational and intellectual objectives with the
way in which this course also aims to lead students’ intellectual activities down new paths. Members of the class are more
knowledgeable about documentary cinema than they may realize. Emphasize that many of the broadcasts on PBS,
Discovery Channel, and History can be considered documentary movies. With that in mind, ask students to name the
documentaries they have seen, and refer back to specific titles on that list where appropriate as you work through the
contents of this chapter. Instructors new to teaching documentary are encouraged to consult Patricia Aufderheide’s
Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2007) to familiarize
themselves with the central issues of documentary filmmaking.