The word “documentary” poses many challenges in providing an quick definition. Here are some definitions from various reference guides and textbooks:
“Documentary concerns itself with representing the observable world, and to this end works with what [John] Grierson called the raw material of reality. The documentarian draws on past and present actuality — the world of social and historical experience — to construct an account of lives and events. Embedded within the account of physical reality is a claim or assertion at the centre of all non-fictional representation, namely, that a documentary depiction of the socio-historical world is factual and truthful.”
–Keith Beattie, Documentary Screens: Nonfiction Film and Television, p. 10.
“Documentary is the creative treatment of actuality.”
– John Grierson, Cinema Quarterly 2.1, p. 8.
“Documentary defines not subject or style, but approach. … Documentary approach to cinema differs from that of story-film not in its disregard for craftsmanship, but in the purpose to which that craftsmanship is put.”
–Paul Rotha, Cinema Quarterly, 2.2, p. 78.
“A non-fiction text using ‘actuality’ footage, which may include the live recording of events and relevant research materials (i.e. interviews, statistics, etc.). This kind of text is uually informed by a particular point of view, and seeks to address a particular social issue which is related to and potentially affects the audience.”
–Paul Wells, “The Documentary Form: Personal and Social ‘Realities,’” An Introduction to Film Studies, 2nd ed., ed. Jill Nelmes, p. 212.
“[A]ny film practice that has as its subject persons, events, or situations that exist outside the film in the real world.”
–Steve Blandford, Barry Keith Grant, and Jim Hillier, The Film Studies Dictionary, p. 73.
“A nonfiction film. Documentaries are usually shot on location, use actual persons rather than actors, and focus thematically on historical, scientific, social, or environmental subjects. Their principle purpose is to enlighten, inform, educate, persuade, and provide insight into the world in which we live.”
–Frank Beaver, Dictionary of Film Terms, p. 119.
“A nonfiction film about real events and people, often avoiding traditional narrative structures.”
–Timothy Corrigan, A Short Guide to Writing About Film, 4th ed., p. 206.
“Film of actual events; the events are documented with the real people involved, not with actors.”
–Ralph S. Singleton and James A. Conrad, Filmmaker’s Dictionary, 2nd ed., p. 94.
“A documentary film purports to present factual information about the world outside the film.”
–David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, 5th ed., p. 42.
“A film or video presentation of actual events using the real people involved and not actors.”
–John W. Cones, Film Finance and Distribution, p. 154.
“A type of film marked by its interpretative handling of realistic subjects and backgrounds. Sometimes the term is applied widely to include films that appear more realistic than conventional commercial pictures; at other times, so narrowly that only films with a narration track and a background of real life are so categorized.”
–Edmund F. Penney, Facts on File Film and Broadcast Terms, p. 73.
“A term with a wide latitude of meaning, basically used to refer to any film or program not wholly fictional in nature.”
–James Monaco, The Dictionary of New Media, p. 94.