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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.