1. What Is Documentary To Me?

Documentaries have been described in many different ways, by many different people. In the most basic terms a documentary is a film or program that provides a factual report on a particular subject.

But what really makes a good documentary?

Promotional Poster for popular documentary ‘Paris Is Burning’ by Jennie Livingston 1990

Like any film its a combination of the filmic elements like technique, aesthetic, editing, cinematography, soundtrack, pace, style, tone and form. Different to some other genres like arthouse, documentaries are mostly heavily reliant on content, coverage and concept. In terms of directing documentaries there are 5 main documentary modes to classify documentary making within, these include; Poetic Documentary, Expository Documentary, Observational Documentary, Participatory Documentary and Reflexive Documentary.

However what I find to be a good documentary is something that is compelling, present and conceptual. A film that doesn’t impose or imply the directors views on the audience, but rather, presents the information and leaves the audience to question it and answer it themselves. It should be a medium available for people to express, expose and celebrate life in general.

I have always believed that documentaries are vital to showing people new perspectives, widening their knowledge of the world using real situations; allowing them to empathise with people and stories they may never experience for themselves. One example of this is ‘Grey Gardens’, a documentary by Albert and David Maysles on the day to day lives of two reclusive, eccentric relatives of Jackie Kennedy Onassis living on a secluded property in 1975.

Edith Beale ‘Little Edie’ from the film Grey Gardens by the Maysles brothers in 1975
Promotional Poster for ‘Only The Dead’ by Bill Guttentag and Michael Ware 2015

When I was 17 I watched an award winning documentary called ‘Only The Dead’ by Bill Guttentag and Michael Ware that will forever changed how I think about the world. It is a compelling film about the experiences of an Australian journalist that is thrown into Iraq during and after the 2003 war. He was able to show both sides to the extent that the audience didn’t know who was wrong or who was to blame. It was the scariest, realist, most shocking thing I have ever watched, and it has never escaped me. The final and most extreme scene was so incredibly confronting it has made me treat everything in my life in a different way. It pushed me dig for both sides of the story, empathise, listen and appreciate what I have.

It is the craft of a truely talented film maker to create a documentary that is true, visceral and unbiased. I cannot think of a better film convey the importance or concept of documentary that I believe to be true.

We realised that the important thing was not the film itself but that which the film provoked.
- Fernando Solanas

Documentary is a vital film genre, that is often under-appreciated my generation. It is also powerful and important and I cant wait to get stuck into studying it this trimester.


Guttentag, B., & Ware, M. (Directors). (2015). Only The Dead[Motion picture]. Australia: Transmission Films.
Solanas, F. (1969). Cinema as Gun. Cineaste, 3, 18–26.
Nichols, B. (2010). Introduction to Documentary, Second Edition(2nd ed.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Nichols, B. (2010). Representing reality: issues and concepts in documentary. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana Univ. Press.
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