Spectatorship and Documentary

This topic has a specific focus: the spectator’s response to the representation of the ‘real’. One place to start is to begin to think through the different relationship the spectator has to factual material. Another is to consider the significance for the spectator of questions of trust and reliability.

The differences between factual and fictional material has, in turn, to be balanced by consideration of what is similar – for example, in narrative construction and the creation of suspense.

It may also be useful to take two documentaries on the same subject in order to identify differences in style and technique – and then to ask how significant these differences are for the spectator. For example, one documentary may be more overtly propagandist, using a variety of expressive strategies while the other may appear to be studiously objective.

What films are recommended for the Documentary Option?

A key question to consider is whether the short course you construct for this option has an historical dimension, perhaps comparing a poetic/propaganda work of Humphrey Jennings from the 40s with a direct cinema film by Pennebaker or the Maysle Brothers from the 60s with a participatory work of Michael Moore or Nick Broomfield in contemporary cinema. If the preferred approach is to look at a variety of contemporary documentaries, then to identify clear differences in form and rhetoric will be most helpful to your students as they work through questions about spectatorship in relation to these films. For example, very quirky personal documentaries like Varda’s Gleaners or Madin’s My Winnipeg could be used to pose interesting and different questions about spectatorship compared with, say, an observational documentary like Philibert’s Etre et Avoir or James’ Hoop Dreams.

In documentary, you do not shoot with your head only, but also with your stomach muscles.

(John Grierson)

In Sigfried Kracauer. Theory of Film. Oxford: Oxford University Press,1960. p.160.

Documentary is a genre that has a reputation of being serious, personal and individual. It has a unique and identifiable content. It can be made to say something very specific on behalf of the director/maker, with the total significance of realism heightening the feeling of the message.


Documentary can be either a very individual or a collective process from start to finish. It can involve just one person, making the film from beginning to end, or many, perhaps as part of a company unit. Although this is the case in the background, documentary often takes the notion that it is being ‘controlled’ by one person, often visible to us, who drives the narrative along. This person could be the subject(s) of the film, a narrator figure, or both.


If such a term as the cinematic approach can be made, then documentary can either take it, or leave it. The quandary for documentary is create a balance between form (which traditionally lies in more fictional areas of film) and content (the real material). Thus, questions regarding all forms of production must be brought into question. To what extent can the mise-en-scene be staged? Fictional mise-en-scene requires the staging of objects in the frame to be set up according to certain visual criteria. By the definition that documentary is an exact ‘chunk’ of a certain time, space and location, the mise-en-scene cannot be modified at all for any purpose…

Everything in the mise-en-scene can be read as an icon.

You may like to consider the extent of this, perhaps watching a few documentaries for yourself in order to consider any manipulation of the mise-en-scene.

Fiction vs. Fact?

As documentary is limited purely to our existence, it (as discussed above) takes on very different meanings of form, compared to fictional narrative. Thus, how can the mechanics of narrative be applied to documentary? When watching film, due to the likely statistic that we watch far more fictional films than factual ones, we are perhaps looking out for a good narrative. Do our renderings of spectatorship differ when watching documentary – and to how much a difference than conventional fictional dominant cinema?

John Grierson is seen as a pioneer of the British documentary form. Grierson saw documentary not purely in the physical form, but in the possibilities of conveyance and information that such an audiovisual medium could carry: an instrument of mass communication:

… a propitious means of spreading civic education in a period and world in which the strength of democracy more than ever depends upon the spread of information and universal goodwill.

Kracauer, ibid., p.210.

This definition also gives it use for adverse purposes: promotion of politics, the war effort, and so on. If the overall feeling from a documentary ‘overwhelms’ the viewer, they may be prompted to do something about it – even in the case of something that is seen to be wrong.

Documentary Notes

Documentary Definition

Further Definition

Brief description

Drama Documentary

Poetic Documentary

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