Differences Between Documentary and Fiction Film

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Originally published Nov 09, 2018, updated Feb 20, 2021
Differences Between Documentary and Fiction Film

Generally speaking there's a clear difference between documentaries and fiction motion pictures and a audience can notify whether what he is observing is fiction or documentary. The clearest variation between the two is their relationship with the truth; "a fiction film presents a story that's not based on reality, or at least not in the proper execution it is displayed; a documentary, however, instructs something about the truth of the world - shows us the real world" (Bakker, 2002). But what simple fact are we talking about?

There are several conditions where it is difficult to bring distinction between reality and fiction. Even the experts fail to make this variation sometimes as is seen by the case of 'The Sea that Thinks' which "won the Joris Ivens prize at the International Documentary Film happening Amsterdam, and was within a year in your competition for fiction movies of the Dutch Film Happening" (Bakker, 2002).

Conceptually there is a significant difference between documentaries and fiction films. Traditionally, documentaries are usually short films and derive from facts while fiction motion pictures aren't (or are in least not stated to be) based on facts. This traditionalist view of documentaries has improved slightly lately with directors such as Michael Moore providing documentaries which are heavily edited and therefore not entirely predicated on facts.

This paper reviews the main element differences between documentaries and fiction movies. These distinctions are then used to go over the key variations in documentary making and fiction filmmaking. Beginning with defining the main element terms, this paper explores the key differences between your documentary and fiction filmmaking form a traditional/conceptual point of view. Third, , it uses proof from true to life situations of documentary and fiction filmmakers to determine the efficient difference between the two. It investigates difference between the two by comparing structural capabilities and viewer's interpretations and concludes that it is the second option which can determine whether a film is fiction or documentary.

Documentaries VS. Fiction Filmmaking:

There a wide range of definitions of the term 'documentary', and in my opinion, no one that may certainly define the term 'documentary' all together. We can say that it would be up to the documentary manufacturer and how he'd establish 'his or her' particular design of documentary.

John Grierson one of the founding of documentary solutions validated that documentary was distinguished from other figures of videos with truth "wish to bring the citizen's eyesight in from the ends of the planet earth to the storyplot, his own story, of what was occurring under his nasal area"

From Nichols's perspectives is "a representation we already occupy and stands for a particular view of the world, one we may never have experienced before even if the aspects that is displayed are familiar to us"(Nichols, 2001)

All these definitions may provide another type of definition of the term but each one of these definitions indicate that documentaries are based on facts. Thus, "documentaries by definition must be non-fiction. Commentary and thoughts are allowed, but misrepresentation is not" (Layton, 2010). But in last handful of generations, with the success of filmmakers such as Michael Moore, there were certain changes in the documentary making. "Firstly, some documentary filmmakers now shoot for commercial success when they build a film; and second, in a development related to the first concern, some documentary films are actually fictionalized to some extent through misrepresentation and omission" (Layton, 2010). Again Moore could possibly be the best exemplory case of this change in documentary making. His films such as 'Bowling for columbine' and 'Fahrenheit 9/11' have several clips which were manipulated/edited in a way to provide a meaning different form the genuine so this means of the speaker. Moore's work will still be categorized as documentary because his videos are still from facts however the representation is manipulated to give a different meaning- sometimes completely out of framework. Thus, Moore's work is a variety of an undeniable fact and fiction but still categorized as documentary.

A new issue a surfaced in the same framework in recent years. While the puritans have defined the making of docudramas as corruption of the documentary genre, there are other experts who claim that "the action of recording the "truth" on film is fictionalizing in and of itself" (Layton, 2010). Based on the latter, when a documentary maker captures anything from a certain perspective, he/she is actually using his/her own bias. With regards to piecing together the filmed content, the filmmaker encounters a critical selection of what to keep and what things to leave out. In such situations the filmmaker will probably come up with content in order to make something meaningful out of it. But the critics dispute that because part of filmed content is left out meaning the documentary cannot be a complete representation of the truth and hence is fictions itself. But regarding to my view, this cannot termed a fiction. We must note the differentiation between your filmmakers who filter the content due to constraints but nonetheless try to provide as correct as it can be view of the case and then there are filmmakers who intentionally edit this content in order to mislead the audience. While the ex - is a documentary in every respect, there may be a argument over whether the second option can be classified 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 sound and aesthetic information. Second one side of the relationship between your information and truth. Third spectator play vital role by impose the pictures by them.

From a structural perspectives the documentary is dawdling rapidity editing while, the fiction movies are depend strongly on editing and enhancing with fast rate editing and enhancing. The shot in the documentary is a close up and extremely close up photos whereas; fiction motion pictures rely on wide shots. The many moving camera, sound shaped in the studio and theatrical music in the fiction films but the contrary in documentary videos like location tones 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, field sound taking and the utter dependence on interpersonal actors(Kochberg, 2002) which is support the documentary immensely in the documentary filmmaking process, one of the characteristics of this kind of filmmaking. However, Renov argues that narration and musical go with could be contained in the documentary motion pictures (Renov, 1993a). By another words a film is constructed of several traits including reasonable, images, dialogues and written text messages. Documentary and fiction film, both are audio tracks visual advertising and contain each one of these features. The difference, however; is based on the manner in which they are communicated to the audience. This is a distinctive terminology which can present endless number signifying to the viewer. This terms was referred to as "passe-partout" by Hjelmslev (1968). The grammar of this language relates to viewers' understanding and it is not formalised. This means that a movie can be made in virtually any manner possible without conflicting the set up 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 attribute in the difference is the celebrities for the fiction videos the stars do what they asked to do. The process of the filmmaking is defined by their performance in the acting by transmigrate the mandatory role. The stars do their obligations on foot of the contracted relationship, as a result the filmmaker has the validity to object on the performance of the stars and the celebrities will be praised on the nice performance and his performance will determine the actor's value. On the other hand, the documentary appears to the folks as social stars, standard people they respond and carrying on the social daily life without the affectedness or artificiality they don't have a agreement to respond in a certain manner, the individuals or the actors present their daily handling and their pure personality. Baddeley backed Nichols's words that people should be prompted to perform normally and do not integrate the artificiality in their behavior and they take action autonomously, However he brought up that in many situations the professional celebrities must be engaged to arrange the by natural means appearance of the folks (Baddeley, 1981).

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


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


This style of documentary is also called 'theatre veritЁ or 'fly on the wall membrane'. Its target is to film occasions, on camera, as they happen. To film people and places and also to represent the everyday routine of folks, as if the camera wasn't there whatsoever. The audiences are usually still left to bring their own conclusions about what is going on. The filmmakers do not intervene in any way which is meant to signify the facts and record people and incidents in 'real time'.


The interactive design of documentary covers the reality and information but allows the presenter to interact with the individuals within the documentary. This particular style could contain a group of interviews or presentations and may also run into to be quite bias, for the reason that certain parts of the documentary can be edited to influence the viewers reaction or thoughts on the matter involved.

Reflective or Reflexive

This design of documentary fundamentally shows the viewer everything. The filmmakers themselves are usually seen on camera wanting to raise the consciousness of the audience themselves. It gives the impression that the people making the documentary have the ability to construct fact 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. In the same way, C'est arrivee prЁs de chez vous (1992) by Remy Belvaux can be an exemplory case of interactive fiction film. At the same time Bakker (2002) agrees that interactive function is least commonly found in fiction motion pictures while observational function is the most commonly used function. However; the variation becomes less evident in the reflexive mode. Relating to Nichols (1991), "in its most paradigmatic form the reflexive documentary prompts the viewer to an elevated consciousness of his / her relation to the text and of the text's difficult relationship compared to that which it symbolizes". Similarly Metz (1991) says that "the film talks to us about itself or around cinema in general, or about the position of the spectator. Which is how this type of doubling manifests itself in the written 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) area of fictional videos and Nichols's (1991) site of documentaries overlap.

Another facet of the discourse on difference between documentaries and fiction videos is the deal between the viewer and the director. Bakker (2002) argues that since structural factors does not clearly differentiate between documentaries and fiction videos, there needs to be various other form of variation. This, relating to him is the viewer's interpretation which is often afflicted by the viewer's pact with the filmmaker. The filmmaker thus affects the interpretation of the film as the documentary or fiction film and the best view of interpretation rests with the viewer.

Bakker (2002) refers to what Eco (1979) termed as the "inferential walks". According to this, the audience compares the film along with his real life experience and tries to prepare his storyline. This engineering process is active as the viewer continues to support the trends in the story to reconstruct his own report as the film progresses. Thus, the audience is a part of the film. The difference between documentaries and fiction videos is the fact in the previous, the viewer's contribution is explicit (through narration) while in fiction motion pictures it isn't explicit.

The filmmaker's make an effort is to make the viewer think that what's shown in the film is a likelihood (in case there is fiction film) or possible (in case of documentary). To do so he adopts several persuasive techniques/strategies. However the viewers has his own memory space and interpretations on basis of which he/she allows or rejects the opportunity/reality of what's shown in the film. For creating "specific effects of truth, the filmmaker uses cinematographic techniques and narrative strategies. Cinematographic techniques include techniques like camera activities, the utilization of color, the photographic grain of the film, the utilization of commentary, the gaze in to the zoom lens of the camera by the character types" (Bakker, 2002). The competence of the director rests in whether he/she can make the viewers have confidence in what he/she is displaying. You can find, however; no guarantee that a viewer encourage his film as a probability/reality.


To sum up, the idea of documentary real truth might be best realized as that real truth which is situated in the way that we mentally organize our perceptions. Significantly the theoretical understanding of documentary film is leaving the notion of an inherent simple fact found within a film content material and more towards a knowledge of how texts are read. However, I think that the thought of determining documentary as a receptive strategy shouldn't negate a consideration of the filmic text as primary concentrate of consideration. In the centre of the matter lies the concept of real truth. Throughout our debate the paper emphasized that the documentary films more related to the truth including the sociable facts in the population and the political issues to be able to provide the public or audiences with good understanding with these issues, however the fiction motion pictures present unreality eye-sight to some issues. From your execution view the celebrities are different from the both attributes, the documentary movies will depend on the communal people not really contacted celebrities. These differences demonstrate the value for both kinds and what they provides the viewers using what they need from credibility to show the situations or misleading views. Also, the interpretation of the viewer ultimately decides whether the film will be looked at as a documentary or fiction. This is exactly what distinguishes a documentary from fiction.

Angelina Grin
Creative Writer and Blog Editor

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