What is a documentary film?
A documentary film records true events. Any subject matter can lend itself to a good documentary as long as it sparks your interest. “Documentaries have always been a way for me to live vicariously through a subject,” says filmmaker Truen Pence. “When I started making them, it was through things I was just interested in.”
Whether your end goal is a premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, streaming for an audience on Netflix, or to air on your own YouTube channel, documentaries typically fall into the following six categories. Before you begin to think about storyboards or shot lists, first determine which type, or combination of types, you’d like to make.
Poetic documentaries are like audio-visual poems. They focus more on mood and tone than on narrative. Werner Herzog’s 1971 film Fata Morgana falls into this category, with an off-screen narrator telling a Mayan creation myth over footage of African deserts.
Expository documentaries tell true stories. These films often include archival footage or photographs paired with voice-over narration called “Voice of God” for its authoritative style. The Ken Burns films that PBS broadcasts about the Civil War, jazz, and the Great Depression are all great examples of the genre.
In these films, the documentarian interacts with the subject. To make a point or capture a deeper truth, the filmmaker appears on screen or adds their voice to the film. In Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston explores the ball culture of New York City and conveys the struggles of Black and Latinx gay and transgender New Yorkers.
More subtle than expository or participatory documentaries, the observational film attempts to show life in a particular place and time as it might occur if neither filmmaker nor camera were present. One great documentary of this type is the 1994 film Hoop Dreams, which follows two Black high-school basketball players from impoverished Chicago neighborhoods over eight years.
These films are as much about the documentary filmmaker and the process of making the film as they are about anything else. The 1929 Soviet film Man with a Movie Camera remains the most well known of these documentaries. In it, director Dziga Vertov used several new shooting and editing techniques, including the match cut and jump cut.
This last type aims to inspire emotion in the viewer. The filmmaker may start with a personal experience and then widen the lens to discuss a bigger issue. Michael Moore is famous for this style, beginning with his 1989 hit Roger & Me, about how the closure of GM auto plants in his hometown affected the lives of his friends and neighbors.
Once you have an idea of the type of film you want to make, you can think about the filmmaking process.