Documentary Film

Zoë Druick

in Cinema and Media Studies

ISBN: 9780199791286
Published online January 2013 | | DOI:
Documentary Film

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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.

Article.  13722 words. 

Subjects: Media Studies ; Film ; Radio ; Television

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