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Differences Between Documentary and Fiction Films

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2554 words Published: 20th Sep 2021

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Generally speaking there is a clear distinction between documentaries and fiction films and a viewer should be able to tell whether what he is watching is fiction or documentary. The clearest distinction between the two is their relationship with the reality; “a fiction film presents a story that is not based on reality, or at least not in the form it is represented; a documentary, however, tells something about the reality of our world – shows us the real world” (Bakker, 2002). But what reality are we talking about?

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There are several cases where it is difficult to draw distinction between fact and fiction. Even the experts fail to make this distinction sometimes as can be seen by the case of ‘The Sea that Thinks’ which “won the Joris Ivens award at the International Documentary Film festival Amsterdam, and was within a year in the competition for fiction films of the Dutch Film Festival” (Bakker, 2002).

Conceptually there is a significant difference between documentaries and fiction films. Traditionally, documentaries are generally short films and are based on facts while fiction films are not (or are at least not claimed to be) based on facts. This traditionalist view of documentaries has changed slightly in recent years with directors such as Michael Moore providing documentaries which are heavily edited and hence not entirely based on facts.

This paper reviews the key differences between documentaries and fiction films. These differences are then used to discuss the key differences in documentary making and fiction filmmaking. Beginning with defining the key terms, this paper explores the key differences between the documentary and fiction filmmaking form a traditional/conceptual point of view. Following this, it uses evidence from real life cases of documentary and fiction filmmakers to assess the functional difference between the two. It investigates distinction between the two by comparing structural attributes and viewer’s interpretations and concludes that it is the latter which determines whether a film is fiction or documentary.

Documentaries vs. fiction filmmaking

There are many definitions of the term ‘documentary’, and in my opinion, no one that could certainly define the term ‘documentary’ as a whole. We can say that it would be up to the documentary maker and how he would define ‘his or her’ particular style of documentary.

John Grierson one of the founding of documentary approaches confirmed that documentary was distinguished from other shapes of films with reality “desire to bring the citizen’s eye in from the ends of the earth to the story, his own story, of what was happening under his nose”

From Nichols’s perspectives is “a representation we already occupy and stands for a particular view of the world, one we may never have encountered before even if the aspects that is represented are familiar to us”(Nichols, 2001)

All these definitions may provide a different definition of the term but all these definitions indicate that documentaries are based on facts. Thus, “documentaries by definition must be non-fiction. Commentary and opinions are allowed, but misrepresentation is not” (Layton, 2010). But in last couple of decades, with the success of filmmakers such as Michael Moore, there have been certain changes in the documentary making. “Firstly, some documentary filmmakers now aim for commercial success when they create a film; and second, in a development related to the first issue, some documentary films are in fact fictionalized to some extent through misrepresentation and omission” (Layton, 2010). Again Moore can be the best example of this change in documentary making. His movies such as ‘Bowling for columbine’ and ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ have several clips which have been manipulated/edited in a manner to provide a meaning different form the actual meaning of the speaker. Moore’s work will still be categorized as documentary because his clips are still from facts but the representation is manipulated to give a different meaning- sometimes completely out of context. Thus, Moore’s work is a mix of a fact and fiction but still categorized as documentary.

A new debate a surfaced in the same context in recent years. While the puritans have described the making of docudramas as corruption of the documentary genre, there are several other experts who suggest that “the act of recording the “truth” on film is fictionalizing in and of itself” (Layton, 2010). According to the latter, when a documentary maker captures anything from a certain angle, he/she is actually using his/her own bias. When it comes to putting together the filmed content, the filmmaker faces a critical choice of what to keep and what to leave out. In such situations the filmmaker is likely to put together content so as to make something meaningful out of it. But the critics argue that because part of filmed content is left out which means that the documentary cannot be a complete representation of the truth and hence is fictions itself. But according to my view, this cannot termed a fiction. We must note the distinction between the filmmakers who filter out the content due to constraints but still try to provide as accurate as possible view of the case and then there are filmmakers who deliberately edit the content so as to mislead the audience. While the former is a documentary in all respects, there can be a debate over whether the latter can be categorized as a documentary.

Bakker (2002) provides an interesting analysis of the distinction between documentary and fiction filmmaking. He suggests three key points: First the clearness of the audio and visual information. Second one side of the relation between the information and reality. Third spectator play vital role by impose the pictures by them.

From a structural perspectives the documentary is dawdling rapidity editing while, the fiction films are depend strongly on editing with fast rate editing. The shot in the documentary is a close up and extremely close up shots whereas; fiction films rely on wide shots. The numerous moving camera, sound formed in the studio and theatrical music in the fiction films but the contrary in documentary films like location sounds and infrequently roving cameras (Etizen, 1995; Huston and Wright, 1983) also, Nichols and Kochberg said that the documentary could distinguished by the voice-of-god commentary, interviews, scene sound recording and the absolute dependence on social actors(Kochberg, 2002) which is support the documentary tremendously in the documentary filmmaking process, one of the characteristics of this type of filmmaking. However, Renov argues that narration and musical complement could be included in the documentary films (Renov ,1993a). By another words a film is constructed of several attributes including sound, images, dialogues and written texts. Documentary and fiction film, both are audio visual media and contain all these attributes. The difference, however; lies in the manner in which these are communicated to the viewer. This is a unique language which can convey endless number meaning to the viewer. This language was termed as “passe-partout” by Hjelmslev (1968). The grammar of this language is related to viewers’ understanding and is not formalised. This means that a movie can be made in any manner possible without conflicting the established practices. However; the more distant a film is from the mainstream, the less it will correspond to the industry’s dogmas and conventions of filmmaking.

Another characteristic in the difference is the actors for the fiction films the actors do what they asked to do. The process of the filmmaking is defined by their performance in the acting by transmigrate the required role. The actors do their responsibilities on base of the contracted relationship, as a result the filmmaker has the validity to object on the performance of the actors and the actors will be praised on the good performance and his performance will determine the actor’s value. On the other hand, the documentary looks to the people as social actors, ordinary people they behave and carrying on their social daily life without any affectedness or artificiality they don’t have a contract to behave in a certain manner, the people or the actors present their daily handling and their pure personality. Baddeley supported Nichols’s words that people should be encouraged to perform naturally and do not integrate the artificiality in their behavior and they act autonomously, However he mentioned that in many occasions the professional actors must be involved to organize the naturally appearance of the people (Baddeley, 1981).

Nichols (1991) has categorised the documentaries itself in four different categories with each one containing its own sub genre:


This style of documentary is basically a series of visual images complete with narration. It is a very traditional form of documentary with the narrator giving the viewer a series of facts and figures that accompany the visuals and is usually associated with wildlife or historical programmes for example.


This style of documentary is also known as ‘cinema veritè or ‘fly on the wall’. Its aim is to film events, on camera, as they happen. To film people and places and to represent the everyday life of the people, as if the camera wasn’t there at all. The viewers are usually left to draw their own conclusions about what is happening. The filmmakers do not intervene in any way and it is meant to represent the facts and record people and events in ‘real time’.


The interactive style of documentary covers the facts and figures but allows the presenter to interact with the people within the documentary. This particular style could contain a series of interviews or demonstrations and could also come across as being quite bias, in that certain parts of the documentary can be edited to influence the viewers reaction or thoughts on the matter in question.

Reflective or Reflexive

This style of documentary basically shows the viewer everything. The filmmakers themselves are usually seen on camera attempting to raise the consciousness of the audience themselves. It gives the impression that the people making the documentary are able to construct reality itself.

Citizen Kane (1941), by Orson Welles is a commentary form of fiction film, while the Salesman, by the Maysles brothers is a form of Observational fiction film. Similarly, C’est arrivée près de chez vous (1992) by Remy Belvaux is an example of interactive fiction film. At the same time Bakker (2002) agrees that interactive mode is least commonly used in fiction films while observational mode is the most commonly used mode. However; the distinction becomes less apparent in the reflexive mode. According to Nichols (1991), “in its most paradigmatic form the reflexive documentary prompts the viewer to a heightened consciousness of his or her relation to the text and of the text’s problematic relationship to that which it represents”. Similarly Metz (1991) states that “the film speaks to us about itself or about cinema in general, or about the position of the spectator. And this is how this kind of doubling manifests itself in the text, which, in all theories, constitutes that without which we cannot imagine the process of narrating”. It is thus, in the reflexive mode that Metz (1991) domain of fictional films and Nichols’s (1991) domain of documentaries overlap.

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Another aspect of the discourse on distinction between documentaries and fiction films is the contract between the viewer and the director. Bakker (2002) argues that since structural factors fails to clearly distinguish between documentaries and fiction films, there has to be some other form of distinction. This, according to him is the viewer’s interpretation which is often affected by the viewer’s pact with the filmmaker. The filmmaker thus influences the interpretation of the film as the documentary or fiction film and the ultimate judgment of interpretation rests with the viewer.

Bakker (2002) refers to what Eco (1979) termed as the “inferential walks”. According to this, the viewer compares the film with his real life experiences and tries to prepare his story. This construction process is dynamic as the viewer continues to accommodate the developments in the story to reconstruct his own story as the film progresses. Thus, the viewer is a part of the film. The difference between documentaries and fiction films is that in the former, the viewer’s participation is explicit (through narration) while in fiction films it is not explicit.

The filmmaker’s attempt is to make the viewer believe that what is shown in the film is a possibility (in case of fiction film) or a reality (in case of documentary). To do so he adopts several persuasive techniques/strategies. But the viewer has his own memory and interpretations on basis of which he/she accepts or rejects the possibility/reality of what is shown in the film. For creating “specific effects of reality, the filmmaker uses cinematographic techniques and narrative strategies. Cinematographic techniques include techniques like camera movements, the use of color, the photographic grain of the film, the use of commentary, the gaze into the lens of the camera by the characters” (Bakker, 2002). The competence of the director rests in whether he/she can make the viewer believe in what he/she is showing. There is, however; no guarantee that a viewer will accept his film as a possibility/reality.


To sum up, the notion of documentary truth might be best understood as that truth which is found in the way that we mentally organize our perceptions. Increasingly the theoretical understanding of documentary film is moving away from the notion of an inherent reality found within a film text and more towards an understanding of how texts are read. However, I believe that the idea of defining documentary as a receptive strategy should not negate a consideration of the filmic text as primary focus of consideration. At the heart of the matter lies the concept of truth. Throughout our discussion the paper emphasized that the documentary films more related to the reality for example the social facts in the society and the political issues in order to provide the public or viewers with good understanding with these issues, but the fiction films present unreality vision to some issues. From the implementation view the actors are different from the both sides, the documentary films depends on the social people not really contacted actors. These differences illustrate the importance for both kinds and what they can provide the viewers with what they need from credibility to demonstrate the events or misleading views. Also, the interpretation of the viewer ultimately decides whether the film will be considered as a documentary or fiction. This is what distinguishes a documentary from fiction.


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