What makes a documentary?

Documentaries are a realistic portrayal of life events based on facts, are regarded as ‘historical records, and often utilised for educating viewers on certain critical areas. The documentary ‘An Inconvenient’ Truth deserves a special mention for portraying the deadly effects of global warming to caution people.

The entire world is fascinated with films, and the advent of social media has made it easy for anyone with a smartphone to create videos and upload them to the Internet, so much so that reels and short videos have become a rage today. Our teacher deliberately took a detour to talk about films in order to drive home to us the distinction between feature films and documentary films; we were under the impression that ‘film’ referred only to the feature film.

Adding to our confusion was the expression ‘cinema’ which referred to three things-film, filmmaking, and the building wherein films are screened. She pointed out, “All these are used interchangeably now, and people understand it depending upon the context. Films, more than anything else, truly globalised the world even before the concept of globalisation was known widely.”

At the initial stages, she mentioned, the term ‘film’ referred only to a motion picture which has taken various forms now, such as short films, indie films, art films, experimental or avant-garde films, commercial films, animated films, and documentary films. One feature that is common to all, except the last category, is that they have a storyline and are mostly enacted by professionals. But documentaries are made by anyone with an imaginative bent of mind, with or without a budget. Documentaries are always a realistic portrayal of life events based on facts, are regarded as ‘historical records, and often utilised for educating viewers on certain critical areas.

Although documentaries are based on factual details, they share certain similarities with feature films: writing a script (based on serious research into a subject), developing an interesting narrative around it, involving real people, shooting, and editing. Documentaries also, like feature films, should offer an interesting experience to audiences, otherwise they would fall flat.

Documentaries deal with a wide-ranging aspect of people’s lives – cultural, social, psychological, economic, racial, gender, poverty, illiteracy, homelessness, other concerns, such as technology, plastics, pollution, education, addiction, parenting, sports, and anything else that would capture people’s attention. They also lay emphasis on instructing people and persuading them to take some kind of action; not merely entertaining people as feature films often do. Some of the top-grossing documentaries made so far have dealt with themes such as gun violence, the healthcare industry, and events such as behind-the-scenes preparation for Michael Jackson’s 50th concert and the aftermath of the 9/11 attack-exemplifying their vast canvas.

An Inconvenient Truth, among all, deserves a special mention – Al Gore, former Vice-President of the U.S., portrayed the deadly effects of global warming to caution people. He emerged as a global crusader and conscientised people across the globe; till then activists were merely talking about it in a muffled voice. The full text of this documentary has been archived on the Internet and those interested in making documentaries can get a feel of it.

Finally she said, sometimes documentaries are confused with reportage but there is a distinction: reportage is described as reporting of news by journalists for television, radio, or newspaper. In reportage, text is important, which is supported by images, but for documentaries both are of equal significance to narrate a story.

We imagined that only feature films have theatrical releases, but in recent times, she pointed out, documentaries also have such releases but not many get released. Besides, several awards have been instituted for the category of documentaries as a way of recognition, like feature films, in different countries, including Academy Awards in the U.S. popularly known as the Oscars, European Film Awards, and Hot Docs Audience Awards in Canada.

Happy making documentaries/ videos / reels! she wished us as she wrapped up her speech.

Picture Credit : Google 

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