There are many different ways of defining the word ‘documentary’. The word was presumably created by John Grierson, a Scottish documentary maker, who stated that documentaries portrayed the ‘real’ world better than scripted movies did, creating a sense of reality.
Grierson defined ‘documentary’ as a “creative treatment of actuality”, while film maker Dziga Vertov opted for “life as it is” and film critic Pare Lorentz defined it as “a factual film which is dramatic”. Personally, I like Grierson’s definition, I think that documentaries show what is going on in the world in a creative and interesting way.
The first documentaries were created some time before 1900 – when this genre did not even exist. They were often very simple and used single shots. At that time, many of the films made were for study purposes, especially about Science.
Moving on to the early 1900-20s, travel documentary (travelogues) gained fame, and were also used to promote the first color motion techniques. Kinemacolor and Prizmacolor used travelogues for advertisement while Technicolor focused on feature films.
In the 1920s documentaries were made using different styles and concepts: Romanticism, The city symphony, Kino-Pravda, Newsreel tradition.
For the next twenty years a common approach to documentaries was propagandist, where only one point of view was presented to the audience, intending to convince them. Some examples are Triumph of the Will, Why We Fight and Song of Ceylon.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, there were significative technical advances in documentary making, such as light, quality cameras and microphones. Handheld cameras became very common in the movement Cinéma vérité, and the editing process became more refined.
http://www.documentary.org/ – This is the website of the International Documentary Association, and it features recent films and video clips, articles and news on documentaries, I found it very interesting! The video clips are definitely an inspiration for media studies students 🙂