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Documentary style

There is no one way of telling a story using documentary, but there are different ways of addressing the subject matter and the audience. As has already been addressed, documentaries have often attempted to obscure the fact that they are highly constructed products, resulting from the rendering down of hours of film and the employment of careful film and sound editing. This is very true of both the documentaries The Fog of War and Capturing the Friedmans.Errol Morris talks to Robert McNamara

Robert S. McNamara and Errol Morris Photo © Sony Pictures Classics

The task in this section is designed to underline the different kinds of documentary style that can be found in both films. A table is provided on which you can record the ingredients and attempt to classify them. Modes of address:


A very traditional form of documentary in which an unseen speaker performs a voiceover commentary that literally explains the images that we are seeing. It is the form often associated with wild life or historic documentaries, in which the viewer might feel in need of information about what they are seeing. The audience is not particularly ‘empowered’ by this kind of approach, finding itself in a subordinate role listening to the version of events that the filmmakers choose to prioritise.


This is the mode associated with ‘fly-on-the-wall’ type documentaries. They appear to have been filmed in ‘real time’, as if the camera has happened upon events while those involved are seemingly unaware of the filming going on. The filmmakers correspondingly attempt not to interfere in what is underway. We do not hear their questions and we do not see them. There is no voiceover telling us what to think or what conclusions we should draw.


Many documentaries feature a certain amount of interactive mode filmmaking. Such sequences will involve those being filmed responding to questions asked of them. In such interviews, the questions of the filmmaker may be left in or edited out. This may be a way that individuals in a film can make their own case, but it is also a mode that can act to undermine the interviewees, making them look foolish or deluded. Their interpretation of events or personal account may be rendered to seem trustworthy or untrustworthy depending on the context of surrounding shots or the nature of the statements being made in their own right.


This is a style that is usually associated with more experimental documentaries, ones in which the filmmakers are interested as much in the process of making a film, of how reality can be constructed, as the actual content. At the simplest level the film may make no attempt to hide aspects of its construction - showing us the camera people for example.