Last updated: 16/10/2022

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Documentary film is one of the most important genres of audiovisual production. It is about those films that give an account of reality from different perspectives and that serve as a testimony of the great stories of humanity, planet Earth and beyond.

We know that, commercially, it is not the most popular option or the one that receives the most public recognition, nor is it the most expensive film. Still, documentaries can be unparalleled experiences that broaden audiences’ horizons and bring previously unanswered questions to the table.




Summary

  • Documentary is a type of audiovisual content that focuses on exposing true facts through different resources and sources of information. It is an extremely important tool to make visible and disseminate facts of general interest in a creative and attractive way for the audience.
  • Being a huge category that encompasses non-fiction audiovisual content, it is important to distinguish between documentaries that focus on a certain subject and those that revolve around their author. Similarly, they should not be confused with biopics, the subgenre in vogue for films and series.
  • The spectrum of documentary film is extremely broad. There are a huge number of original and mixed sub-genres, as well as different factors that might influence the experience. In order to choose the right title, take into consideration elements related to format, screening location, thematic focus and objective.

The best documentary: Our picks

Buying guide: What you need to know about documentaries

An afternoon of films is always a good weekend entertainment option, so how about a documentary marathon? If this is your plan or you’re interested in dabbling in this wonderful film genre, here’s all you need to know.

The experience of watching a documentary goes beyond the film: they will always leave you with ideas in your mind. (Photo: Antonio Guillem / 123rf)

What is a documentary and what are its advantages?

Documentaries are an audiovisual genre characterised by the production of non-fiction content. Its main function is to tell real stories based on research, documentation and interpretation of information. These films give an account of different perspectives of reality.

Documentaries are great complements to research thanks to the variety and reliability of information sources. Moreover, they have long ceased to be tedious content and have adopted attractive audiovisual languages and diverse formats. They are a great option for providing information to “visual” audiences.

However, not all documentaries are made for all audiences. In some cases, they can be monotonous if the person is not interested in the theoretical content. In addition, there may be diffuse ideological biases that provide misleading or unethical information.

Advantages
  • They are reliable sources of information
  • They are presented in different formats
  • There is a wide range of subject matter
  • They use different visual and sound resources
  • They are an educational form of entertainment
Disadvantages
  • Not all documentaries are for all audiences
  • There may be ideological bias
  • They are less widely distributed than commercial cinema
  • They are rarely shown in commercial cinemas

Thematic or auteur documentaries – what should you look out for?

Similar to fiction films, documentaries can be categorised according to the focus of the story and its distribution. Sometimes the narrative and marketing weight falls on the director rather than the subject matter. Here are some differences:

Thematic documentary. The most commonly used variant. These are films that focus their efforts on a specific event, moment, phenomenon or character that is not part of the production team. It is narrated in the third person and aims to offer objective and diverse views of what is being narrated.

Auteur documentary. The central axis lies with the director. This implies that the narrative line follows one person’s vision of a subject. The protagonist in question may appear in the frame or remain as an off-screen narrator, using his or her experiences and reflections as the basis of the argument.

Thematic documentary Author documentary
Narrative axis Theme, issue, character Director
Perspective Objective Subjective
Market value Medium High
Variety Extensive Reduced

Biographical documentary, biopic or mockumentary?

We can distinguish three categories related to the practice of audiovisual documentation. In their own way, all three are forms of quality audiovisual entertainment. Even so, it is important that you know their differences so that you can choose the content that is most to your liking and meets your expectations.

Biographical documentary. Biographical cinema has consolidated itself as the new trend in audiovisual productions. Also encompassing the series market, it could be thought that this type of content qualifies within the parameters of a documentary. The right choice if you are looking for truthful information from different sources.

Biopic. Biopics adopt elements of fiction in narrative and visual terms, which means that the stories are based on essential facts, but break with reality in terms of details and chronology. Keep in mind, therefore, that not everything you see in these films corresponds to true facts.

Mockumentary. This is a fictional film genre whose premise is based on satire and parody of genuine documentaries. It is characterised by its mocking of the technical principles of documentaries: camera operation, voice-over narration and editing. They are a good option for a good laugh or two.

Biographical documentary Biopic Mockumentary
Substantiation of the script Spontaneous research and filming Research and editing of engaging stories Editing of entertaining stories
Language and tone Informative Dramatic Burlesque, satirical
Informative value High Medium Nil
Entertainment value Can be tedious Keeps you engaged with the story Keeps you engaged with the story

Buying criteria

As we have seen, documentaries are very varied and explore a wide range of subjects using multiple visual and sound resources. So far, we have established some axes that can help you distinguish between different types of documentaries. Here are more specific factors to help you choose the right film.

Format

One of the first steps in audiovisual filmmaking is to establish the format of the content. This is related to the length and distribution channels, which imminently alters the way the facts are told. Very similar to commercial formats, these are some of the ways in which you will find documentary filmmaking.Short films

shortfilm. A short film is considered to be an audiovisual product that does not exceed 30 minutes in length (although this may vary depending on the criteria). This is a format adopted by low-budget production companies with specific messages. If you don’t have much time or prefer short stories, this format is for you.

Feature film. The standard length of a feature-length documentary is between 60 and 90 minutes. They use a variety of visual and audio resources to keep the audience’s attention and interest. The ideal choice if you want to spend an evening at home with a good drink and a bowl of popcorn – you can also make a marathon!

Documentary series. Following the trend in television consumption, documentary series comprise several short to medium-length instalments that revolve around a common theme. The promise is to keep you hooked and to give you different stories on a common theme. If series are your thing, you’ll love this format.

Documentary film is the product of the hard work and effort of hundreds of women and men. (Photo: Roman Samborskyi/ 123rf)

Screening

As a film genre that does not appeal to large corporate audiences, documentaries can vary depending on the venue offering them. The same goes for the post-screening experience: in some cases, debate and argumentation can transcend primary consumption.

Commercial cinemas. If we think of the two big cinema companies in Mexico, we can be sure that their billboards rarely include documentaries. When they do, they are usually advertised as special screenings in selected cinemas. For this reason, documentaries in commercial cinemas go through stricter quality filters.

Specialised cinemas. Unlike commercial venues, these venues serve as a platform for independent and low-budget productions. For example, the Cineteca Nacional has venues in many cities around the country, which support less commercial documentaries. The same is true for festivals and independent cinemas.

Streaming. The consumption of audiovisual content through the internet has facilitated access to material that would be almost impossible to locate physically. Hundreds of platforms are dedicated exclusively to the distribution of documentaries, in addition to the catalogue of the most popular streaming services such as HBO and Netflix.

Thematic axis

Every story has a protagonist. Documentaries usually find their genesis in the identification of a need, building a narrative around a central axis. The structure of films is often determined by the main actors, so you must take into consideration what or who determines the actions.

Character. The thematic axis can focus on one or several people. When the documentary deals with the life or work of someone, the plot is nourished by those testimonies of their passage through the world, or by their own narration of the facts. We recommend this axis if you are interested in the biography or points of view of an illustrious person.

Place. There are places that are the scene of such important events in history. With this type of documentary you will learn about the relevance of a place, as well as the events that took place there and their impact on society. They are ideal materials to promote tourism and culture.

Fact. Space is joined with time and the result is a fact of general interest. This is perhaps the most common approach in documentaries, as they are based on situations that occurred in the past and give an account of their importance in the present and even in the future. Ideal as didactic material for learning history.

Objective

It is always important to ask ourselves why we do things. Finding the reason for our actions helps us to draw lines of action and thought. The same is true for documentaries: purpose dictates language, discourse, sources of information and style. These are some common objectives in audiovisual works.

Thesis statement. Let us remember that a documentary is the result of an exhaustive investigation that follows a methodology, which can be based on an assumption or thesis. Popular science documentaries are a clear example of this category, being ideal for academic or educational use.

Historicalrecovery. These are all documentaries that focus on events of the past for the purpose of information or vindication. They can be about important events, mythical places or characters whose life and work had an impact on some social sector. You can use these films to learn about relevant events of the past.

Denouncement. These are films that seek to bring to public discussion some problem or need that concerns society. They are transgressive, as they go against the status quo. You can find the best content of this type at independent festivals and distributors that support free expression.

(Featured image source: Guruxox/ 123rf.com)

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