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What is documentary?


The term 'documentary' has long been a source of argument. An early pioneer of such filmmaking was called John Grierson and although he thought it a 'clumsy' term, he suggested it should stand. Another definition of this genre that Grierson used was 'the creative interpretation of actuality'.

Errol Morris looks through cameraErrol Morris directs The Fog of War Photo © Sony Pictures Classics

What do you think that phrase might mean?

Consider one of the first kinds of documentary – in fact one of the first kinds of film at all – the movies that earlier pioneers made outside factories at the end of a shift when large numbers of workers could be seen leaving for home. What aspects of this kind of simple filmmaking can be considered?

  • Actual (A) – in other words something that would have happened whether or not the camera was there?
  • Creative (C) – in other words affected by practical decisions made by the director/camera operator, and which had the effect of making the sequence more entertaining
  • Interpretive (I) – in other words affected by practical decisions made by the camera operator/director that might affect an audience's understanding of what they were seeing.

The following table (pdf) sets out a series of factors that might have affected the end result of a film such as George Lumiere's factory exit film, outlining  some of the ways in which an early filmmaker such as  Lumière might have shot this sequence in 1895.  Your task is to decide which of A, C or I relates most to each situation. Space is provided to explain your decisions. Sometimes more than one of these elements will apply at the same time.


The earliest film could not capture (document) the sounds of such a scene. The only soundtrack would be live music accompaniment in the cinema provided by a pianist. Even then such sounds could have a profound effect on how an audience received what they were seeing.

Consider the film of the factory workers that was described in the table in exercise 1. What would be the effect of adding one or more of the following sounds to the footage showing people coming out of the factory gates?

  • The sound of a factory whistle, creaking gates and then the hustle and bustle of people leaving their place of work including footfalls and conversation.
  • The sound of donkeys braying or chickens clucking.
  • The sound of machinery – drowning out all other sounds.
  • An energetic piece of piano music.
  • A slow or sombre piece of musicl.
  • A delicate soundtrack featuring the sound of a stream running or bird song.

Bear this exercise in mind when you come to later work looking at the soundtracks associated with sequences from The Fog of War and Capturing the Friedmans.


In an article in 1917 the Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov wrote: "to make a picture the director must compose the separate filmed fragments, disordered and disjointed, into a single whole and juxtapose these separate fragments into a more advantageous, integral and rhythmical sequence, just as a child constructs a whole word or phrase from separate scattered blocks of letters."
From: Richard Taylor & Ian Christie, The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents 1896-1939 (Routledge & Kogan Paul 1988), p.41.

It is a curious phenomena, but if different images are edited together then it can affect how each of them individually are interpreted. The Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov first examined this 'effect'.

In his experiment he filmed Mozhukhin, a famous Russian actor and shots of a bowl of soup, a girl playing with a teddy bear, and woman laid out in a coffin. He then cut the bits of film so that the shot of the actor was seen first being followed by the soup, the girl and lastly the dead body. Each time the same Mozhukhin sequence was used. Viewers were asked what they made of what they had seen and many felt the shots of the actor conveyed different emotions, though each time it was in fact the same shot. They praised him for his changes in mood – from thoughtfulness concerning the soup, joy at seeing the child and sorrow concerning the dead woman.

In this way Kuleshov used the experiment to indicate the usefulness and effectiveness of editing. It became the director’s belief that inter-cutting film, rather than performance, was the prime basis of filmic expression. And it has to be said, emotional impact on an audience.

That is a bit of background to a key product of careful editing, called montage, in which images are woven together to create suggestive combinations in which the meaning is often far greater than the individual elements on their own. Montage plays a key role in the impact of both The Fog of War and Capturing the Friedmans.

  • Collect a series of images from magazines – perhaps news shots and advertisements – and experiment by showing them in different orders to other people, recording any reactions they have. Copy Kuleshov’s experiment by repeating one image in combination with different images. Ask people to describe their feelings about the first, repeated, image in each combination you show; and also if they feel any story connects each combination.

This PDF suggests some similarly focused activities based on Fog of War and Capturing the Friedmans.