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Cinema and Media Studies Documentary Film
Zoë Druick
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 January 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 January 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0093


Since the 1990s, there has been a veritable explosion of documentary films and digital media productions accompanied by a correspondingly large number of books and articles dedicated to contextualizing and interpreting them. The documentary film form itself is not new, of course. It dates from the 1920s, cinema’s fourth decade, and has long been a realist form associated with state education and political communication. During the experimental phase of cinema’s development after 1895, numerous fictional and nonfictional styles met and intermingled. However, it wasn’t until John Grierson, a British film writer and producer, bestowed the name “documentary” on a certain sort of pedagogical nonfiction film in 1926 that the genre began to acquire epistemological stability and institutional support. Although related, documentary retains some autonomy from instructional films, industrial and sponsored films, TV news, home movies, newsreels, and YouTube videos. Documentary was from the outset a filmic counterdiscourse to Hollywood, as well as a way for nations outside of the United States to make a filmic mark. It was thought that film could show reality as it was, especially by showing the connections between invisible structural causes (such as colonialism, industrial capitalism, geopolitical conflicts) and their effects, an important corrective to the fantasies being propagated by Hollywood’s celebration of consumerism. For many decades after the 1920s, documentary maintained its association with serious topics (e.g., economic depression, the world wars, postwar traumas, the Cold War, and the struggle for civil rights) and oppositional politics (e.g., social movements, anticolonial struggles, peace movements, struggles for environmental justice) handled without the distraction of aesthetic concerns. A number of factors led to changes surrounding documentaries in the 1990s and beyond: including the increase in film production programs in colleges, the proliferation of cable television stations needing inexpensively produced content to fill the hours, new more affordable video and digital technologies, and the rise of media conglomerates restricting the content of cinema and television screens. For years filmmakers had caviled against the authoritative conventions of educational and anthropological documentary. Beginning as early as the 1960s, documentary became increasingly self-reflexive, finding numerous ways to draw attention to itself as a form of knowledge production. Despite perceived challenges to the original documentary project, documentary remains a mainstay of television and a vital connection between cinema and television studies. Critical postcolonial and feminist work has highlighted the modernist (even at times imperial) project traditionally associated with the documentary, while identifying the challenges launched from within this trajectory. At the edges of documentary studies can be found engagements with other popular reality-based forms such as reality television and mockumentary. Documentary texts, which became increasingly interactive and concerned with everyday life and politics, have become a growing presence on digital platforms. Although some moot the future of documentary, the dynamism of this subfield of cinema studies reflects the widespread flowering of documentary and reality-based forms in media culture.

General Overviews

Barnouw 1993 was for many years the standard textbook in documentary film studies, and it is still extremely helpful when considering the varied approaches apparent in the early history of the form. Today, there are a great many studies that will provide the student with a good overview of documentary history. Among other things, Corner 1996 tells the story of the British documentary and the transformations it underwent in its shift to television. Ellis and McLane 2005 is an update of Jack Ellis’s The Documentary Idea (1989) that brings the story into the context of new technologies and the cultural politics of representation. Breaking from the story of documentary’s progression, Winston 2000 approaches documentaries thematically in terms of the genre’s claims to truth. Nichols 2010 tells the story of documentary from the perspective of left-wing politics and avant-garde aesthetics, particularly in the United States. Organized according to formal experiments and including a discussion of factual entertainment, Beattie 2004 integrates numerous Australian examples into his study. Aufderheide 2007 provides a pithy introduction to the topic especially as it pertains to communications and journalism. Ward 2005 takes a different approach, using the “margins” of the field to help define its center. Saunders 2010 provides a film-centered map to the study of documentary.

  • Aufderheide, Patricia. Documentary: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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    A valuable survey that succinctly overviews the historical background of documentary with particular emphasis on communications and journalism. While there are no in-depth studies of particular films or filmmakers, Aufderheide considers the connection of documentary to larger issues, such as public affairs, propaganda, objectivity, advocacy, and bias. Also includes a list of “one hundred great documentaries.”

  • Barnouw, Erik. Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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    Barnouw’s critical historical overview of the documentary has been a central text in the area of documentary film studies since it was published in 1974. Barnouw provides a useful summary of the main developments in nonfiction film from around the world, covering Eadweard Muybridge through Robert Flaherty to Dusan Makavejev and “guerrilla” documentary film production in Vietnam.

  • Beattie, Keith. Documentary Screens: Non-fiction Film and Television. New York: Palgrave, 2004.

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    An Australian perspective on documentary history, this volume uniquely considers television journalism and popular factual entertainment as part of the documentary tradition. Chapters are divided by thematic issues, such as “decolonizing the image” and “the compilation film,” rather than chronology or national context.

  • Corner, John. The Art of Record: A Critical Introduction to Documentary. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1996.

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    A valuable introductory text that situates British documentary in its social and political contexts, as well as in relation to the medium of television, paying particular attention to the competing claims to reality of vérité and drama-documentary. Corner analyzes a number of canonical works in depth, including Housing Problems (1935), The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1980), Cathy Come Home (1966), and Handsworth Songs (1986).

  • Ellis, Jack C., and Betsy A. McLane. New History of Documentary Film. New York and London: Continuum, 2005.

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    An update of Ellis’s The Documentary Idea: A Critical History of English-Language Documentary Film and Video (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1989). A historical survey of documentary film, concentrating on English-language production, with prime importance given to Robert Flaherty and John Grierson. Chronological in design, the concluding chapters deal with developments in technology and the cultural politics of representation.

  • Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. 2d ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.

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    An expanded edition (first edition 2001) reflects the development of discourse on documentary in the first decade of the 20th century. Nichols, one of the foundational figures of documentary studies, emphasizes documentary as a form of social relation in which ethical considerations must be understood to be paramount. The book emphasizes the left-wing political legacy and avant-garde aesthetics of the documentary tradition, especially in the American context.

  • Saunders, Dave. Documentary. Routledge Film Guidebooks. New York: Routledge, 2010.

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    Organized according to forms and functions and thematic groupings of the documentary rather than strict chronology, this volume provides insightful case studies of an array of classic as well as contemporary documentaries, including Night Mail (1936), Sicko (2007), and Waltz With Bashir (2008).

  • Ward, Paul. Documentary: The Margins of Reality. London: Wallflower, 2005.

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    A less orthodox introduction to the documentary than the others listed here, this text nevertheless provides the reader with a solid discussion of key forms, themes, issues, and debates in documentary studies. The book usefully takes up the complex role of documentary strategies and historical reference in fictional drama, as well as the use of animation in documentary film.

  • Winston, Brian. Lies, Damn Lies, and Documentaries. London: British Film Institute, 2000.

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    Prolific film scholar and leading expert in documentary theory, Winston provides an important introduction to the central role of ethics in the documentary. The volume is arranged according to relevant issues, such as “Fakery” (which compares and contrasts documentary with journalism and docudrama, alongside a specific case study) and “Public Service,” as well as “Law,” “Regulation,” “Free Expression,” and “Ethics.”

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