These four are generally considered the characteristics of the documentary voice1 – that which makes documentary film distinct from fictional cinematic art and the documentarian’s voice and product different from the fiction filmmaker’s voice and product. The four characteristics come from Bill Nichols, but the glosses are mine.
Indexical documentation: This is the characteristic of the photographic image made by pointing a camera at “reality” with no more purpose than to record what is in front of the lens “accurately.” The quote marks indicate these concepts are not objective. A photo does not equal the reality it portrays. But, just as a biomedical photographer produces an image useful to medical professionals, the documentary filmmaker produces an image corresponding to reality in useful ways for the audience. Example.
Poetic experimentation: A documentary filmmaker is trying to say something (see “rhetorical address” below) about the reality in front of their lens. At its most basic level, this experimentation may be seen in the angles and camera movements the filmmaker chooses. This is the space documentary film shares with cinematic art. Example.
Storytelling: Full disclosure: I would not separate storytelling from rhetorical address because, from my particular theoretical perspective, storytelling is a powerful form of rhetorical address. Here’s something to keep in mind: Humans tend to apply a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events. Another way to put this: Storytelling is the superpower of our species because it’s a useful way to explain our relationship to reality. Documentary film, then, can be said to be the application of narrative order to a particular situation by way of the filmmaker’s art.
Rhetorical address: No one makes a documentary film unless they have something to say and something they want an audience to do or think in regard to it. Rhetoric in documentary film is (borrowing a bit from Aristotle) the discovery and application of the available means of persuasion of cinematic expression.
I’ll be drilling down soon. The rhetoric of documentary film is my topic of discussion this week in MED412 Documentary Storytelling.
1Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. 2017