A documentary film is non-fiction and may re-tell the stories of actual individuals or detail other general stories and phenomena. In terms of maintaining historical records, for example the lives of important political figures or the details of world events, documentaries are efficient tools.¹
Documentary films are representative of a method for recording real life, real people (or even animals) and real events.¹ Although documentaries are based solely on true facts, these films in many cases also try to convey a particular opinion or overall lesson/message. In fact, within the educational system documentaries are often used as learning tools.
The predecessor to the modern documentary
Even though the term documentary is thought to be coined from the 1920s, documentaries began to surface before that time period, since before the 1900s.¹ However, pre-1900 documentaries were much simpler than those existing today, being composed of single-shot moments. For instance, shots captured of men leaving a factory after a long day’s work or of a boat about to take sail, are examples of early documentaries from this time period.¹
Throughout the 20th century, documentaries became more diverse and gained popularity. Now in the 21st century, documentaries often make it to the box office and in many instances have been rather successful in terms of revenue accumulation.¹ In comparison to other types of films, documentaries are cheaper to produce and this makes them highly profitable.
Essentially, documentary films allow individuals to not only enjoy their cinematic experience, but also gain real and valuable knowledge. A way to think of documentaries is as films which symbolize the visual expression of reality.¹
1. Ward, Larry. Introduction. Lecture Notes for the BA in Radio-TV-Film. Documentary Film & Television. California State University, Fullerton (College of communications). p. 4, slide 12.