Unlike narrative cinema, which tells stories that are usually pure fabrications of someone’s imagination, documentary filmmaking is more concerned with exposing and interpreting real facts and historical events. Subjects of documentaries can be the illegal hunting of endangered species, the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, and the downfall of the Nazi regime.
Even though documentary cinema explores real events, not all documentaries present the absolute truth. Filmmakers, like any other artists, are both privileged and burdened by the power of manipulation. As such, they are blessed and cursed by the possibility to bend the truth.
While some directors choose to simply broadcast occurrences, like Jacques Perrin in Winged Migration, others prefer to judge them, like Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine. Still others work to alienate an audience, like Leni Riefenstahl with her Triumph of the Will, a famous propaganda movie about the Nazi regime.
Despite their different purposes, the three movies above are considered documentaries because they debate and analyze real events.
The Structure of Documentaries
At its core, documentary filmmaking is an opinion former and a trendsetter. Its structure is built as to allow the filmmaker freedom to manipulate and persuade their spectators. Even the purest directors fall prey on their position and the liberty of the medium, and they end up being biased enough to impose their own perspectives onto the world.
Documentary filmmakers have the following weapons in their arsenal:
Voice of God Narration: This is the voice-over heard in a documentary film. The pretentious reference to the almighty is due to the influential force the voice-over has in documentaries. In narrative cinema, voice-over offers exposition and personal comments. On documentaries, however, voice-overs are used to state some “truths”. If you hear the sentence, “There are only 80 pandas left in the entire world” spoken by a deep voice, you will believe the statement. That’s the reason why most narrators are men and many from Britain – apparently the British accent is more persuasive than American English.
Documentation: To make a point convincingly, the filmmaker must present evidence from legitimate sources. The evidence is the documentation. A letter from your Uncle Bob carries less legitimacy than an article from the New York Times, hence selecting sources is paramount for documentaries. Newspaper articles, bank statements, government records, surveillance footage are all fair game for the filmmaker because they carry the weight of truth. For the most part, at least. Occasionally, directors may intentionally misuse documents and take it out of context to mislead the audience.
Interviews: Much like documentation, interviews are common on documentaries and equally valid as sources. In the documentary Super Size Me, for instance, because the movie director, Morgan Spurlock, has no knowledge over heart health, he has to consult with cardiologist Stephen Siegel, MD, who becomes his expert witness.
Expert Witness: An expert witness is anyone that has great knowledge on the subject that they are testifying on. It requires no degree but vast experience. An illiterate farmer from Texas could be considered an expert witness on a documentary about cattle manure. As a general rule, the audience is much more likely to listen to an expert witness than a random John Doe from the streets. Expert witnesses don’t always have to be interviewed on camera. Their statements or archival footage also carry great weight.