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KS5 Film and Media Studies: Documentary

What do we mean by the term 'documentary'?

Main image of KS5 Film and Media Studies: Documentary
Author Poppy Simpson, BFI
Topic Documentary
Key Words Observational, expository, actuality
Show full lesson spec

A series of clips from 'fly on the wall' and drama documentary television programmes to documentary films.

What do we mean by documentary? These clips represent a range of different documentary forms and include examples of authored documentary, 'fly on the wall' TV and film as well as drama documentary and actuality films and encourage students to think about what we expect from documentary film (in the cinema and on television) and the relation between documentary and reality (or actuality).

In this lesson students are encouraged to generate their own definition of documentary, watch and discuss a series of extracts that demonstrate the breadth of the documentary form and learn about the various ways in which documentary has been studied and categorised.

Lesson Objective

  • To achieve a definition of the term documentary that takes into account the various different ways in which the genre is approached and understood.


Before watching any of the extracts, ask students to come up with a basic definition of the term 'documentary' and lead a brief discussion about what they expect from a documentary film or television programme.


Main Attraction

Now, ask them to consider the following list as the four distinct (but sometimes overlapping) purposes of documentary film (as suggested by Michael Renov):

  • to record, reveal, or preserve
  • to persuade or promote
  • to analyze or interrogate
  • to express

Can students think of documentary films or television that fit into these categories? How might these different motives intersect? Are there any other purposes that documentary film might seek to fulfil?

This discussion should inform students thinking as they watch the various extracts. Ask students to note down their thoughts on each example: what seems to be the purpose of the film, what different approaches can they identify - use of narration, direct questioning, observational etc. What do they notice about the editing of the extract? How is narrative constructed?

After watching the extracts encourage students to share their ideas with another member of the class before feeding back into a whole group discussion. What do students think are the benefits and limitations of the different approaches they have identified?

Following this discussion, challenge students to re-visit their definition of documentary, written at the start of the lesson. How might they adapt their definition after watching and discussion the clips? Can they argue for their definition in front of the class?


End Credits

Students need to be aware of the different 'modes of documentary' that have been identified by a range of different academics. Encourage them to research the termsexpository/observational/poetic/reflexive/participatory. This could be carried over into a homework assignment or done as a group activity, with small groups researching one term and feeding back to the class. Some useful website links are listed below but it is well worthwhile looking at the analysis of different genres in the main Screenonline site (listed under See Also on the right).


External Links
Media Know All
Some more ideas about documentary

Video Clips
Hillsborough: No way out (2:11)
Man of Aran: Shark fishing (3:03)
Mitchell and Kenyon 24 (1:34)
Momma Don't Allow: Complete film (21:09)
The Ark: Public Images (3:15)
Downloadable Teaching Resources

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Man of Aran (1934)Man of Aran (1934)

Read more about this film

Thumbnail image of Momma Don't Allow (1956)Momma Don't Allow (1956)

Read more about this film

Thumbnail image of Ark, The (1993)Ark, The (1993)

Read more about this programme

Thumbnail image of Hillsborough (1996)Hillsborough (1996)

Read more about this programme

See also

Thumbnail image of DocumentaryDocumentary

Britain's greatest contribution to cinema?

Thumbnail image of Industrial and Corporate FilmsIndustrial and Corporate Films

The fascinating and surprisingly diverse world of sponsored film and video

Thumbnail image of 'Fly on the Wall' TV'Fly on the Wall' TV

Revealing observational documentary

Thumbnail image of Drama DocumentaryDrama Documentary

Controversial blend of fact and fiction