What is "Documentary" Film?

Documentary film is a broad category of visual expression that is based on the attempt, in one fashion or another, to "document" reality.

Although "documentary film" originally referred to movies shot on film stock, it has subsequently expanded to include video and digital productions that can be either direct-to-video or made for a television series. Documentary, as it applies here, works to identify a "filmmaking practice, a cinematic tradition, and mode of audience reception" that is continually evolving and is without clear boundaries.

The word "documentary" was first applied to films of this nature in a review of Robert Flaherty's film Moana (1926), published in the New York Sun on 8 February 1926 and written by "The Moviegoer", a pen name for documentarian John Grierson.

In the 1930s, Grierson further argued in his essay First Principles of Documentary that Moana had "documentary value". Grierson's principles of documentary were that cinema's potential for observing life could be exploited in a new art form; that the "original" actor and "original" scene are better guides than their fiction counterparts to interpreting the modern world; and that materials "thus taken from the raw" can be more real than the acted article. In this regard, Grierson's views align with Vertov's contempt for dramatic fiction as "bourgeois excess," though with considerably more subtlety. Grierson's definition of documentary as "creative treatment of actuality" has gained some acceptance, though it presents philosophical questions about documentaries containing stagings and reenactments.

In his essays, Dziga Vertov argued for presenting "life as it is" (that is, life filmed surreptitiously) and "life caught unaware" (life surprised by the camera).