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Documentary Definitions

Richard Gent | Wednesday January 24, 2018

Categories: Codes & Conventions


Realism: The ‘kind’ of reality produced by a media text

Mediation: The process whereby media texts select and construct the world through different techniques

Documentary encodes versions of reality that are mediated into our individual context. Realism is a term that does not always apply to what is actually real, but to degrees of realism and audiences’ expectations of reality.

Documentary Modes of Representation

In “Representing Reality, Issues and Concepts in Documentary?, Bill Nichols 1991 (Indiana University Press) argues there are four documentary modes of representation. These often cross over with each other and it is worth remembering different theorists have different ideas on Documentary:



  • Usually a narrative voice-over. Sometimes called ‘Voice of God’
  • Often uses an authoritative or poetic tone
  • Audience attention ‘directed’ towards a preferred reading by ‘examining’ points of view
  • Ideology encoded, often propaganda
  • Example: Nightmail (Grierson/GPO Film Unit) 1936

Observational (more common in television than film)

  • Original form – ‘Direct Cinema’ – 1960s TV documentary and Cinema Verite
  • Current form – ‘Fly on the Wall’, popular now
  • Codes include hand held camera, tight close-ups often copied
  • Better lightweight technology
  • Less intrusion into events / character’s lives
  • Example: The Cops
  • Production often a result of selection / editing / pre-production to ensure a meaning is ‘constructed’


  • Use of similar mobile equipment
  • More filmmakers perspective and participation
  • Recounting of past events / witness testimony / experts
  • Example – Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and their Johns


  • Challenges conventional representations – process of filmmaking often shown to audiences e.g. a camera crew recording another camera crew
  • Conventions seem apparent – turns camera on itself
  • Purpose – casting doubt on Documentary realism /...

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