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Documentaries have become very popular in recent years. It started in the 1990s when cable television actively sought documentary film proposals for their programming.

Since then, documentaries have continued to find a growing audience on network and cable television. They are made in various forms, from half hour seasonal shows like Dog Whisperer to epic mini-series like The Civil War.

A decade after cable TV discovered documentaries, feature length documentaries hit theatrical screens in a big way. Fahrenheit 911, Super Size Me, and An Inconvenient Truth, have established documentaries as a viable genre for the aspiring filmmaker.

There are two reasons for this. First, documentaries are vastly cheaper to make than narrative films. Second, there is a better chance that a distributor or festival will recognize a good documentary over the typical genre film. In the next few lessons, we will demystify documentary filmmaking and provide you with the keys to making a great one.

There are three schools of thought in documentary filmmaking. It is important that you to understand the differences because it will determine your approach to the project, particularly in what you shoot and how you edit it. The schools of thought are distinguished by the filmmaker’s level of objectivity:

Direct Cinema

Direct Cinema is the most unbiased approach. The filmmaker does not intrude on the subject and does not instill his opinion in the choice of shots and editing. The documentary is presented in such a way that the audience can draw their own conclusions.

If an issue is being debated, the various points of view are presented as objectively as possible.

Direct Cinema is sometimes referred to as the “fly on the wall” approach because the filmmaker is an objective observer, like a fly on the wall. Some Direct Cinema purists believe that even interviewing the subject is too much of an intrusion.

Cinema Vérité

Cinema Vérité is similar to Direct Cinema and is often confused with it.  The difference is that the filmmaker takes a more active role. He may provoke a reaction from the subject or may voice an opinion through his choice of shots and editing. The filmmaker may even impact the outcome the events being documented.

Harlan County USA is a classic Cinema Vérité documentary. The film is about striking coal miners in Kentucky during the mid 1970s. At first it looks like Direct Cinema, but on closer inspection you can see that the filmmakers are actively involved in what is unfolding on screen.

For example, in one scene the crew approaches the company foreman who is toting a gun and is clearly dangerous; later on, the filmmakers are physically attacked by the foreman's men. Despite this, the presence of the camera kept the overall level of violence down. Many believe that if the documentary had not been made, the coal miners would not have negotiated a contract. Ultimately, the filmmakers had an impact on the subject matter.

Harlan County USA is a landmark film and won an Academy Award for best feature documentary. Not only is it a riveting work, but it also demonstrates the central difference between Direct Cinema and Cinema Vérité.

Essay Film

The polar opposite of Direct Cinema  and Cinema Vérité is what is known as the essay film. Like a written essay, the essay film is about the filmmaker’s opinion on a given issue. Specifically, the filmmaker states a thesis early on, and then goes on to provide supporting evidence throughout the film.

All sides of an issue are not necessarily shown. If they are, it is usually designed to expose or trip up the opposing party.

The biggest criticism of this approach is that it is not balanced. Proponents say that there is no need for "balance" because these films are, in essence, essays—the filmmaker's opinion based on the way he interprets the evidence.

Michael Moore uses this approach in his movies.  In fact, most of the successful documentary films of recent years are essay type films.

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If you are interested in learning more about the movies used  in this
 lesson, click on the title or picture (courtesy 20th Century Fox,
MCA/Universal, Paramount, TCM, and Warner Brothers).

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