Michael Moore in his hit film Bowling For Columbine.
Documentary films have been around for decades as a form of movie, but it has only been in the last ten or so years where they have found their way into the mainstream. This article will take a look at the definition and evolution of documentary films.
Documentaries can be described as films that, in some way, attempt to document real life or reality. The word documentary was first applied to films of this style in a review of Robert Flaherty's film Moana. This 1926 movie depicted the life of Pacific islanders in the Samoan region. Documentaries can also be defined as films that observe life in it's original form, i.e. without actors or fictionalization.
These two ideas are slightly simplistic however. One could take a camera, set it in one spot, and film a sporting event, or a concert, and call it a documentary and in the strictest sense of the word that would be correct. However, to set documentaries apart from other films of a non-fiction nature, it needs to have another part added to the definition and that is opinion. Either visually or through dialogue, a documentary film most often presents an opinion, as well as a specific message, that is designed to pass on to the viewer.
Before the 1920s there were many films made that could be put into the documentary category, in the most basic definition, because they were reality-based non-fiction films. These included films of an instructional or educational nature, as well as short films called travelogues or scenics, which were basically a "visual diary" of a traveler or film-maker. Then beginning in the early 1920s two new styles arose within the documentary framework. The first could be considered romanticism with it's documentation of exploration, exotic locales or little known peoples. The other style was propagandism giving political bent to the films, particularly in the late 1930s and the 1940s with government influenced and commissioned films being created during and around World War II. Indeed, in 1942 the category Documentary was added to the Academy Awards and had 4 winners that first year, all 4 of which were war related: The Battle of Midway, Kokoda Front Line, Moscow Strikes Back, and Prelude to War.
The next few decades brought slow but steady development of the documentary film towards what we see it as today. The biggest stylistic change during this time was actually brought about by changing camera technology. Now cameras were small and light enough to be handheld and therefore realtime events could be filmed up close and as they occurred. This created the opportunity to clearly capture the reactions and responses of participants and therefore be much more real to life.
By the mid 1980s the documentary form started to become much closer to the style of today's documentaries. Especially in the sense that the directors began to have much more creative control and greater say in what and how things in the film were portrayed (think Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock).
As noted in the introduction, it is only the last ten years or so that have found documentaries become more successful at the box office. Prime examples of this could be Roger & Me, March of the Penguins, Super Size Me, and An Inconvenient Truth. Because of this it has been easier for documentarians to find funding for their productions and there has been an explosion in the number of documentaries filmed in recent years. In this day and age of small, relatively inexpensive, high quality camcorders (you can get a high-definition 60GB HDD camcorder for around $600) anyone can create a decent documentary. Maybe you will be the next big documentarian. We certainly hope so! If you do don't forget us in your Oscar acceptance speech.