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Codes and conventions of documentary

What makes a documentary a documentary?


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What is a documentary?

“Documentary films constitute a broad category of nonfictional motion pictures intended to document some aspect of reality.”


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Voiceover

The voiceover is a critical part of a documentary, it encourages the audience to think that they either have some kind of specialist knowledge or, ‘the right’ opinions that people should pay attention to.


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Representation

Documentary is essentially seen as ‘non-fiction’ although there are debates around this.

However, a convention of documentary is that all events presented to us are to be seen as ‘real’ by the audience.

Documentarians often go to great lengths to convince us that the footage is real and unaltered in anyway, although editing and voiceover can affect the ‘reality’ we, as viewers, see.


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Technicality of realism

The technicality of creating realism consists of the use of ‘natural’ lighting, sound and mise en scene.


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Archive footage

Can be added to aid authenticity and to add further information which the film maker may be unable to obtain themselves.


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Interviews with ‘experts’

Can be used to authenticate the views expressed in the documentary. Sometimes, they will disagree with the message of the documentary, although the film maker will usually disprove them in some way.


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Use of text/titles

The use of words on the screen can be used to convey messages and facts in a cheap and easy way.


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Sound

Sound can be an important element  of a documentary, in particular non diegetic sound can create an atmosphere to the piece that can aid in creating an effective realist product.


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Set - ups

Not just reconstructions of events that happened in the past but also setting up 'typical' scenes.  So if you want to quickly convey 'classroom' you might ask a class to put their hands up like there's a lesson going on and the teacher's just asked a question.  Strictly speaking what you're showing is not 'true' the teacher didn't ask a question, but it is a way of cheaply getting footage a crew might have had to wait fifteen minutes for if they had just waited for it to happen 'naturally'.  There is an issue here however because if crews make a habit of using set ups they will only be using images of 'reality' that audiences already recognize (confirming stereotypes perhaps) and producing fresh images/ ideas about 'reality' will be impossible.  There's a sort of vicious cycle here.  If I show you radically different images from inside a school you may reject them as atypical or 'unreal' but if I can only offer you a 'reality' you already know about how can I change your opinions?


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Mise en Scene

Things like mise en scene and props are also important in making an authentic product. Things that validate a interviewee as an expert in the field like books or their office. This can also be used to devaluate someone by interviewing them in a suspect place like an alley way.


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