Glossary Home Genre


A documentary or documentary film is a genre of non-fictional filmmaking. It is used for the purpose of sharing real-life events as they happened. 

Documentaries were first known as “actuality films.” They originally lasted less than a minute. But today, they are more often closer to feature-film length (1.5-2 hours). These films are informative and can be viewed, usually, in order to learn about specific subjects. Sometimes they’re used in schools or in other forms of education. Usually, the filmmakers are very concerned about presenting the facts as they played out and not influencing the viewer’s opinion of the subject matter in any way. 

Documentary definition and examples

Documentary Definition

A documentary is a genre of film and television that focuses on conveying real events as they happened.

Documentarians seek out interviews with the real people involved in an event and compile information from multiple perspectives. Often, viewers will see real footage from an event, hear accounts read out loud, hear audio of the real people involved, and more. 

Examples of Documentaries 

When We Were Kings 

This 1996 American documentary film tells the story of the “Rumble in the Jungle,” or the heavyweight championship match that was held in October 1974 in Zaire. It featured two renounced boxers, George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. The documentary was directed by Leon Gast and includes footage of celebrities, new footage, interviews, and more of the events leading up to the fight. 

The film took the director an incredible twenty-two years to edit and pay for. It eventually won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature of 1996. 

When We Were Kings comes to its climax with the fight itself. There is an analysis of the technique and an explanation of what the two men were thinking. Today, the film is regarded as one of the best documentaries about boxing ever made. 

The Rescue 

This 2021 documentary film, directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, explores the events around the Tham Luang cave rescue of the Thai boy’s soccer team in 2018. It features numerous interviews from the men who came up with the rescue plan and were in the cave with the boys as they were taken to safety. The story is skillfully told through these interviews, allowing the truth to come forward in the words of those who were actually there. 

The film includes recreated portions of the rescue, such as the scenes of the rescuers taking the boys out of the cave and real footage (such as the first video of the team upon their discovery). The film was released to rave reviews and has so far won prizes including the People’s Choice Award for Documentaries at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Critics’ Choice Award for Best Director, Score, and Cinematography, and the National Board of Review award for Top Documentary. 

What is Docudrama? 

The term “docudrama” (a combination of the words “documentary” and “drama”) is used to describe a genre that combines real events with dramatized re-enactments. It can take the form of a radio program, television show, film, theatrical performance, and more. Usually, these are short films. They will likely include interviews and an exploration of details related to the subject as well as actors playing the real-life men and women the story explores. 

The director may use some dramatic license in the retelling of events in order to make them more interesting, easier to understand, or to create a particular narrative they’re interested in. 

Viewers can expect to hear the real words spoken by the men and women the story focuses on. Often, these films and television shows start with the disclaimer “Based on true events.” This suggests that reality inspired the events of the production but not everything one is about to see really happened. 

What is Docufiction? 

This somewhat experimental film genre is defined as a combination of documentary and fiction (sometimes known as narrative film). The genre captures reality and introduces fictional elements into the story. The unreal elements the filmmakers use should further the story in some way, creating a more impactful artistic message or driving home a theme. 

The first docufiction film ever created was in 1926 in the United States, titled Moana. Some other notable explores include David Holzman’s Diary by Jim McBride, Come Back, Africa by Lionel Rogosin, and Moi, un noir by Jean Rouch. 


Why are documentaries important? 

Unlike films and television shows, documentaries strive to tell the story of events as they happened, without embellished details. Documentarians are also usually held responsible for incorrect information. 

What is the purpose of a documentary?

The purpose is to inform the audience about a subject above all. But, all documentaries have to be entertaining and interesting to an extent to keep the reader interested. 

What is considered a documentary?

A film, radio production, or television show that presents audience members with the details of events as they happened. This may be done through interviews and footage from the event/s. 

Related Literary Terms 

  • Historical Fiction: a genre that fictionalizes real places, people, and events. It takes place in the past with accurate historical details in regard to customs, technologies, people, and events.
  • Climax:  the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
  • Metafiction: refers to stories in which the characters, author, or narrator acknowledge the fact that they’re parts of fiction.
  • Biography: an account or description of a person’s life, literary, fictional, historical, or popular in nature, written by a biographer.
  • Autobiography: an account of one’s life written by the subject.
  • Context: the setting in which a story, poem, novel, play, or other literary work is situated.
  • Drama: a mode of storytelling that uses dialogue and performance. It’s one of several important literary genres that authors engage with.

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