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Documentary Films Concept and Definition Essay


The text discusses the concept and definition of documentary films. It focuses specifically on its definition, as this type of art cannot be described as fictional movies, although both of them share a lot of similarities. While it is easy to assume that documentaries are just narrating a story behind a realistically framed set of images, they are still subject to terms that are way more complicated than this basic framework. The definition of documentary films addresses such features as the level of control, the institutional base, the structure of texts, and the attitude towards viewers. All of these elements create a three-dimensional perspective, including filmmakers, text, and viewers.


There is a common public opinion that documentary filmmakers have less control over their product than their colleagues who create fictional movies. It is grounded by the point of view that it is enough to film a set of events and put it together, while actions develop themselves. The natural sequence of events is often opposed to the creation of fiction, where actors, plot, light, and other elements must be considered and artificially put to work with each other to achieve the planned outcome. However, some cases require documentary filmmakers to control the situation even more than it is done in fictional movies. Even the most realistic images call for controlling the process.

For instance, there is sometimes a need to present things just like there was no person behind a camera. This takes a lot of planning and research on how to move, work with light, etc. All of it is planned and done to present people or other creatures acting naturally. Another factor that requires a lot of control to be used is the process of post-production. Documentaries require a logically structured sequence of events, which cannot be achieved if the collected material is not put so that it addresses a topic in a structured way. This way, documentary films are defined by their makers through the high importance of control on each stage of production.

The documentary filmmaker community has its fields of interest supported by distributors. Companies and associations are focusing on specific issues that use these films to promote their values and beliefs. Each of these associations “definite guidelines and criteria”, with which filmmakers must comply to distribute their product. Various festivals and award sessions also have guidelines that are used to measure the success of a particular film.


Like any industry, documentary filmmaking is subject to particular terms and regulations that are drafted and enforced by various institutions. Such terms usually regulate the content and messages of films. Since every country has different policies, it is evident that some documentaries can be subject to changes or even prohibition based on local legislation and culture. Moreover, festivals and conferences mentioned above, as well as different schools, sponsoring agencies, and movie networks strictly control the compliance with their rules. They mostly regulate the legal and economic matters of the industry. Documentary filmmaking is a matter of constraints and regulations put together to form a model of a product that is acceptable to create. For instance, some of the rules mention that it is “more important to talk about something than to talk about how we talk about something.”. It should rather focus on some historical events unless it is a retrospective of some films that were created to cover a certain topic.


A text is one of the matters that can define documentaries better than other concepts. Most of the films can be described through this essential element. Besides, each film has its norms for the textual framework, thus it is possible to distinguish between genres. As has been mentioned above, documentaries are based on the logical representation of the sequence of events. The general structure for documentaries include the presentation of the issue, the background featuring the history of the topic studies, and the examination of the current state of the situation. Documentaries often contain several points of view, which is a required measure to achieve accuracy and a critical approach.

In documentary films, text and images work together to uncover the topic and to encourage viewers to conclude on their own. Besides, these images are not always congruent with the narrative, which is different from the fictional approach where texts describe each scene. For instance, an image of a person jumping into a swimming pool can be followed by a monolog discussing water pollution. This makes the audience conclude that the water in that pool is not safe. Moreover, documentary films do not follow a pattern of creating a single flowing timeline as it is usually done in fiction. It aims to create a logical argument instead, and gaps in the sequence of events are tolerable if particular information is not necessary for this purpose. This is also a form of control, as two pieces of space are joined to provide the evidence required for the proof of original theory. Another important feature of documentaries is that images and words are not used to create a plot and are rather treated as pieces of evidence. All information given through pictures does not imply any additional message rather than a direct and clear message evident to everyone. If there is any abstract meaning, words are used to express it.


Viewers make up the third category that defines documentary films. While it is not easy to distinguish between a documentary and a fictional movie, there is a difference in the approach which is taken by creators of the former towards the target audience. Documentaries focus primarily on the previous experience of viewers. While fiction can tell a story that would be understandable for everyone, the genre of documentary calls for some knowledge that would act as a base for material presented by it.

The most important feature of documentaries as compared to fiction is that images and text could easily be transferred to the historical world, that is, make viewers believe that these things took place at some point in history. Besides, even if a documentary is purely descriptive, featuring certain events that occurred in the past, it is still an argument. Filmmakers encourage the audience to participate in a rhetoric dialogue, making conclusions on their own based on their personal experience. The argumentative narration aiming at justifying particular events requires images to support its point of view. Intertextual motivation also plays a great role. These two elements are handy when describing, for instance, the scenes of battle. The feeling of presence makes viewers relate themselves to this experience and draw their conclusions regarding an event. Finally, a fundamental motivation also plays a key role in documentaries. It is a condition that supports the literalism, or the direct meaning, of things presented in these films:

Situations and events, where a temporal dimension comes into play, usually retain the chronological arrangement of their actual occurrence (though they may be abbreviated or extended, and arguments regarding causation or motivation may be applied). Individuals will retain their everyday appearance; what’s more, they will represent themselves over time, that is, perform, in a manner commensurate with their everyday presentation of self.

Limitations and Summary

It may seem like it is easy to define documentaries through these terms and guidelines. However, documentaries may question the described rules and set their perspective on the form and context. Nevertheless, viewers often recognize documentaries through this formal set of characteristics. Unlike fiction, documentaries rely on arguments, and the ability to draw lessons and conclusions, and the purpose of broadening the worldview. The art of filmmaking lies in shooting in a way that viewers would believe the scene took place in the past. Using a camera to capture the best shot while the sequence of events is interrupted by this act is not acceptable. Otherwise, the level of credibility would decrease, and there would be a reason to call this film a fictional one. Objectivity is defining documentaries, while the audience expects to find answers throughout the movie. Finally, knowledge is a key product of a documentary that is offered by one party and received by another.

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IvyPanda. (2020, September 12). Documentary Films Concept and Definition. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/documentary-films-concept-and-definition/

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"Documentary Films Concept and Definition." IvyPanda, 12 Sept. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/documentary-films-concept-and-definition/.

1. IvyPanda. "Documentary Films Concept and Definition." September 12, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/documentary-films-concept-and-definition/.


IvyPanda. "Documentary Films Concept and Definition." September 12, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/documentary-films-concept-and-definition/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "Documentary Films Concept and Definition." September 12, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/documentary-films-concept-and-definition/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Documentary Films Concept and Definition'. 12 September.

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