Why Study Documentary?

This is a question that some of you might be asking. Why study something that is boring?


For most of you the only exposure to the genre of documentary comes from watching films in school. These films are about subjects like “How a Law becomes a Bill” and “The Life Cycle of a Mollusc.” These films using have an unknown voice telling you the information. Some are good, but most are… I hate to say it, boring… but this is not the extent of documentary.

I’m sure that you have heard of the phrase “stranger than fiction.” This phrase embodies much of what documentary can be.

For me documentary is one of the most fascinating forms of film, but if I was to boil down documentary to a simple phrase I would say that it is “A moment of truth is captured and preserved for time.”

What is “truth?” For ages that philosophical question has been asked. Truth is immediately associated with the word documentary and because of that every film that bears the title “documentary” immediately has power. Truth is at the heart of the documentary process, but there are documentaries that bend the truth, give half truths, and many times even lie.

This semester we will be looking at some of the most important documentary films over the last 120 years. Many of these films you will never have heard of. Many will be in black and white. Some will deal with subject matters that you might not have an interest in. All of them have had an impact of the direction of film history. Many changed the way people watch movies and tv. All of them will present some element of truth.

Leave a comment


  1. A documentary opens the mind to look at the subject matter in a different perspective. Even if the information is a stretched out lie sometimes. With a lot of movies the audience leaves most of the time thinking in the mode of the movie whether fiction or non-fiction.

    I was speechless from ‘Radio Bikini’. I did not know about that study and it also made me think about Agent Orange which has affected some of my family members.

    ‘Radio Bikini’ made me think of how the government can assure you everyhting is okay but all in the same breathe are still plotting some experimental scheme. This film opened my eyes to how we are easily taken in by the government.

    • I’m surprised that several of you were not aware of this experiment – BUT I have to keep in mind that not everyone is a history major (that was my undergraduate degree…). I think that the connection to Agent Orange that you made is interesting.

      Don’t forget to make an entry on your site. Log in, go to the top of the page and click on the name of your blog to open the menu underneath, go the new and post – Then type away!

      See you wednesday.

  2. not sure how to link to this page but here is a link to my blog

    • Your blog has been added to the main page. You don’t have to add the link to your page, but I can show everyone how to if you want on Wednesday.

      Also – remember to respond to this entry AND comment to the question posed on Wednesday about “Radio Bikini.”

  3. I agree with Mr. Dojs on documentaries being associated with thruth. In my opinion, documentaries are made to inform and show a person’s point of view of their own truth. For instance, whatever the person has learned about a subject and the way they depict it is his or her own truth. I think that they want audiences to see something the way they see it to receive a message.

  4. clintwinters

     /  January 17, 2012

    I’m not entirely sure how long you said that they had to be, but my post is on this blog.

    As for truth, It’s relative, and documentaries are prime examples of it. What’s true for the director, and what comes through as truth in the documentary, could be totally wrong to you. We’re all too different for there to be universal truth.

  5. I’d like to think that all film presents ‘truth’, or that ‘truth’ isn’t the thing that defines the genres. i mean, narratives also present truth literally with social/political/cultural commentary. it takes a bit of analyzing to see that all scripting is a form of truth, just as a speech may be ‘documented’ although rehearsed. and even in avant-garde films, truth is presented just in an abstract way. so if there’s ‘truth’ in all film, what distinguishes the genres?

    it seems like “documentary” is just a perspective. one could argue that even in narrative films are literal-documents-of-reality just as documentary films are. consider a film that is scripted, the filmmaker then is documenting a rehearsal of the lines. is the rehearsal not existing? are the words not a sample of reality? and how much can directors manipulate the environment while honestly claiming to present a “documentary film”? if documentaries were just reproductions of reality projected onto a material medium then there would be no music or anything to accompany the visual/audible documents of reality. of course the film genre is classified as nonfiction, but which is a more appropriate defines a documentary: the perspective or the ‘truth’?

    since film is an art then there are no laws to which expression has to be limited. just as beethoven broke traditional ‘rules’, other artists continue to expand the boundaries in film. though there might be specific guidelines that some organizations create, the purest ‘truth’ in filmmaking is that there are no rules. thus, documentary is a perceptual technique, or a perspective of film, that filmmakers consider when producing them.

    • You are right that all film contains truth – but how does actuality fit in to it? There is a difference between the truth presented in fictionalised film and actuality footage.

  6. Really happy about seeing the active conversation on all the blogs! I have a good feeling about this class blog…

  7. R we suppose to just post a comment on this page so that u can link to our page because i wrote my real comment on my own page

  8. After Attending Both Documentary Classes I Also Agree That Documentary Is About Truth, Me Personally Ive Never Been To Into Documentarties But After Being introducted to them I’m interested to Learn More.

  9. First of all: Life Cycle of a Mollusc is the bees knees.
    Second of all: that was a lie and I’ve never seen it and most likely never will unless it is shown in this class (please don’t show it in class).

    Thirdly and probably the most relevant: Truth in documentaries. It exists in many ways, from the people actually being who you see (whether a learned professor or a anonymous Australian that smokes residue from Cane Toads), to the events that are portrayed and the conclusions that are reached through the documentary. The thing is, a documentary is still a film that was created by a person holding a camera controlling what is put in front of us. In this way, they control what conclusions we make based on what they show us (or leave out). I recently saw a documentary film about Cane Toads, and by the end of it one could draw a conclusion that the Cane Toads helped, while someone else could say the exact opposite. This led me to realize that it’s all about how it’s presented. Someone could now go make a separate documentary and the viewer could be completely convinced that the introduction of the Cane Toad to Australia was a great thing, while someone else could make a documentary leading the viewers to the conclusion that all Cane Toads should be run over or hit with a pipe because they were the worst thing to ever happen to Australia.

    Either way you take it, the truth was presented to you in the documentary, but what aspects they focus on can lead to different conclusions.

    • i agree way too much.. who is to make the judgment? most of the time the filmmaker influences our thoughts, when there is always another perspective to interpret. so if we can reserve our judgment after watching a film and research the subject more, we may be able to decide which perspectives are constructive to society and which are destructive. there’s no longer a matter of right or wrong, truth or false.. everything is right, everything is truth, we just have to learn more to see which truth will benefit us and which might abuse us.

  10. What is a documentary? If anybody ask me before this class beginning, I would say a movie that isn’t fun. I thought that i would probably never see a documentary movie by my own desire. In our first class, you said The Big Size Me is also a documentary movie, then I realized that not all documentary movies are boring.
    In fact, Radio Bikini and Nanook of the North are pretty interesting! I was very enjoy watching Nanook of the North, especially those stories behind the movie.
    About Truth, I think although many scenes were set, the basic reason of setting them is give the truth to audience.Sometimes, truth is hard to recorded completely when you want, and sometimes, embodying truth need some “lies”. Audience also has their ability of judgment.

    This is Wen Sun. I am trying to catch rhythm of the blog work!

    • Good comment. I’m glad that you are being open to the different types of documentary you will be seeing this semester. I agree that truth is hard to record completely when you want – in many ways I think Vertov knew this – that is why he said that filmmakers should not try and copy what our eyes do, because it is not the same.


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