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July 5, 2022

What Is a Documentary Film?

If you're a budding journalist or filmmaker, you've probably considered writing a documentary. But what goes into making one? How is it different from fiction? And, how do you make your documentary film as successful as possible for it to get picked up by a big company like Netflix?

Let's dive in.

What is a documentary film?

A documentary is essentially a film that tells a story about real-life events and is based on reality rather than being made up.

It usually tells events from a particular point of view.

Some examples of powerful documentaries include The Tinder Swindler, which gave us insight into the jet-setting life of a scammer and his tinder date victims.

Another great example is the Up series which took a group of children aged seven years old from different economic and racial backgrounds in 1964 and returned to them every seven years as they went through different periods of their life. The most recent instalment was titled 63 Up, broadcast in 2019.

A black and white photograph of the cast of the documentary 1964 Up in their late teens and early 20s.
The Up documentary series was and remains revolutionary as it charts the subjects from childhood to old age.

What is the purpose of a documentary film?

The purpose of a documentary film is to offer an insight into an aspect of life or event that viewers watching wouldn't usually have access to in their everyday lives. They can offer a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes of organizations that we all wonder about: the police force, the FBI, and the White House, for example.

Films about public institutions often have a public service remit. They are designed to educate and reassure us, shining a light on the public bodies that run our lives. Skeptics would say they serve as propaganda.

Documentaries also create narratives from significant events and allow the protagonists to give their point of view about what really happened. The best documentaries leave a certain amount of ambiguity, such as The Staircase, which followed author Michael Peterson during his trial and appeal for the murder of his wife.

Five elements of a documentary film

The five key elements of a documentary film are very similar to those we'd consider as making good feature films.

1. Clear point of view

Who are we positioned within the film? And why? This will determine whose story we are telling.

A documentary, like a feature film, can have multiple points of view, but switching between too many points of view will confuse the audience, particularly if you are limited to just one hour. As a result, viewers are less likely to feel empathy if they have more characters they need to follow.

2. Straight forward narrative (structure)

Complex narrative structures with flashbacks and flashforwards don't tend to go down well in documentaries unless you have the space and time to tell a bigger story.

Instead, even if it's complex subject matter and you start with a hook, it's best to tell the story from start to finish in chronological order and to stick to a simple three or five-act structure.

3. Interesting characters

Even the most seemingly mundane interviewees can be brought to life by an expert filmmaker.

When selecting the segments of the interviews you will use, look for the pithiest talking points, moments of conflict during the interview, and what parts of the interview best highlight their personality.

4. Mystery and intrigue

Mystery and intrigue are what keep us hooked. An excellent documentary catches our attention by posing specific questions at the start, which should be satisfactorily resolved by the end.

Sometimes this mystery is created by the case itself: if it's a true-crime drama about a bank robbery, then we will want to know critical details such as why the robbery happened, why the robbers did it and if they got caught.

However, it's hard to create this kind of drama and intrigue if the case is well known. For instance, mystery about the fate of the Titanic would not be appropriate since it's a well-known fact that the Titanic sank.  

However, we can create intrigue about specific less well-known aspects of the Titanic's sinking. For example, a British documentary on Channel 4, The Sinking of the Titanic, raises questions about the Titanic's construction that make us wonder if other factors contributed to its sinking.

5. Expert research

We can create this intrigue through extensive research on the topic. This allows us to shed new light on aspects of a previously unknown subject to a broader audience.

Larger documentary productions often have a team of researchers that delve into the background of a topic.

The six types of documentaries

Let's examine the six main types of documentaries.

Exposition led documentaries

These lean heavily on a specific point-of-view and often involve a narrator offering exposition on the subject of a document, guiding us through it.

Poetic License

These documentaries are rare and hard to pull off because they rely heavily on artistic images and scenes to tell a story, with the meaning implicit. Voice-overs and any explicit narratives are usually kept to a bare minimum. The most famous example is Olympia - Festival of Nations, a German propaganda film about the 1936 Olympic Games.

A male athlete in the 1936 Olympic Games throws a shotput in as scene taken from the 1936 film Olympia.
Olympia: Festival of Nations is an example of a poetic documentary which is more artistic and includes less narration than standard documentaries.

Interactive Documentaries

This is where the interviewer becomes part of the documentary itself, offering their version of the truth. The person asking the questions becomes a character in their own right, often creating drama. Some great examples include the documentaries of Louis Theroux, Michael Moore, and Stacey Dooley.  

Fly-on-the Wall

No interviewer acts as a character or a voice-over in a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Instead, the purpose is to simply film events without interruption to observe what's happening and let the audience decide.

Although they seek to portray an honest and neutral account of a particular event, it's worth remembering that all films have a point-of-view and an agenda that they are pursuing to some extent. With fly-on-the-wall, this agenda is constructed in the editing room.

Performative Mode

These are documentaries where the presenter has some personal link with the subject matter and discusses both the experience of making the film and the topic itself. Supersize Me is a great example.

Another example is the documentaries of Frankie Boyle. His documentary about Russia explores not just Boyle's trip to Russia but the difficulties in making the film because Boyle is scared of flying.

Films like these have the added bonus of making us feel like we have been invited behind the scenes in the production process.

Reflexive mode

This focuses on behind-the-scenes and the relationship between the audience and the presenter. They can be a form of meta-narrative in which, as an audience, we see the construction of the narrative and partake in it.  

What is the difference between a documentary film and a feature film?

The obvious primary difference between a documentary film and a feature film is that one is fiction and the other is a piece of journalism.

However, a documentary feature film, although rare nowadays, can often be more spectacular and may have a higher budget and get more screen time than a documentary TV show or series.

Louis Theroux's documentary film about Scientology had a cinema release and was grander in tone and special effects. It was also broader in scope.

How to write your own documentary

To write your own documentary, you need to have an idea of the scope and what is realistic. Unlike fiction, you cannot just write what your imagination dreams up; you have to write within the confines of what you have access to and what budget you are likely to be afforded as a first-time documentary filmmaker.

To read more on this topic, you can check out our complete blog on how to write your own documentary.

Examples of great documentaries

To finish, here's our pick of the best recent documentaries worth watching for inspiration.

My Scientology Movie

My Scientology Movie by Louis Theroux is about the inner workings of the Church of Scientology. It was written by Louis Theroux, and it's directed by John Dower. The film stars Louis Theroux as himself, and it also stars Marty Rathbun, an ex-Scientologist who has since turned against the church.

The film follows Theroux as he attempts to understand why people would join a religion founded by L. Ron Hubbard. He interviews Rathbun, who explains that he joined the church because it was "the only place that was willing to listen." He also interviews several other former members of the church, including Sara Northrup and Hana Eltringham Whitfield.

The movie premiered at London Film Festival on 14 October 2015.

Supersize Me

Supersize Me is a documentary film that follows the journey of filmmaker and activist Morgan Spurlock as he embarks on a 30-day mission to eat only at McDonald’s. The movie was released in 2004 and won Best Documentary Feature at the 78th Academy Awards. The film was made by Spurlock himself, and it was based on his book titled "Super Size Me: A Film of Epic Portions".

The movie started out with a very simple premise: Spurlock wanted to see what would happen to his body if he ate nothing but McDonald’s food for 30 days straight. He also wanted to see how this experiment would affect his health, as well as the health of others who were also eating most of their meals at McDonald’s restaurants.

Bowling for Columbine

Bowling for Columbine is a 2002 documentary by Michael Moore about the events that led to the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. It also looks at other school shootings, and the policies and politics that helped lead to them.

Moore focuses on two main issues: gun control and mental health care. He argues that the United States has a high rate of violent crime because it has a high rate of guns, which are easily obtained by criminals and mentally ill people alike.

He also points out that this problem is not unique to America: other countries with high rates of gun ownership have similarly high rates of violent crime. Therefore, Moore contends, it's not enough just to reduce or restrict access to guns—we need to address the root causes of gun violence in order to reduce it altogether.

J.K Rowling, a Year in the Life

J.K Rowling, a Year in the Life is a fly-on-the-wall documentary following the Harry Potter author as she finishes the final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Narrated and directed by fellow author James Runice, the documentary examines how Jo coped with the huge expectation surrounding the launch of book 7, which had one of the largest print runs in history.

Runcie also asks Rowling how she has coped with fame and her new found wealth as well as the impact this has had on her family and friends. Runcie takes Rowling back to the small Edinburgh flat where she wrote the first book and her childhood home.

The Tinder Swindler

The Tinder Swindler tells the stories of the victims of Simon Leviev, who used the dating app Tinder to scam money from his victims and fund his lavish lifestyle.

The film is told from the past tense. We hear the stories of several victims and understand how they were duped into giving Leviev their life savings. We also learn how Leviev was caught and how the women fought back to expose him. This documentary was released on streaming platform Netflix to critical acclaim.

The Staircase

The Staircase (series) charts the controversial case of author Michael Peterson who stood accused of pushing his wife down the stairs.  

The series documents the investigation into Kathleen's death and the trial that ensued. The series was originally released in 2004 and was filmed over the course of eight years. It's been called "the most controversial true-crime miniseries ever" by The New York Times, and it has become one of Netflix's most popular documentaries.

The series is a fascinating look at the American justice system and how it operates—and how it doesn't always operate—when it comes to determining guilt or innocence.

There are so many things to love about this series: from its compelling narrative to its incredible cinematography, which makes every scene feel like a painting; from its expertly crafted characters (including Michael Peterson himself) to its thought-provoking questions about what constitutes justice in our society.

Watching The Staircase is like watching a great film or reading an incredible book—but you get to do it over and over again, because there are so many layers to this story.

We hope this blog has helped you answer the question of what a documentary film is and how to start writing your own!

Happy writing from the Arc Studio team.

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What Is a Documentary Film?
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. In addition, he was a senior ghostwriter at Story Terrace from 2015- 2021, the private memoir firm.

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