Documentary Expression

  1. John Grierson coined the word "documentary" in his New York Sun review of the 1926 Robert Flaherty film Moana, defining it as "a creative treatment of reality."
  2. One kind of documentary is impersonal, that "presents facts objectively and without editorializing and inserting fictional matter, as in a book, newspaper account or film."
  3. Another kind of documentary is human, that "is not objective but thouroughly personal. . . carries and communicates feeling, the raw material of drama."
  4. The first kind "gives information to the intellect. The second informs the emotions."
  5. "Documentary is the presentation or representation of actual fact in a way that makes it credible and vivid to people at the time."
  6. Direct documentary "puts the facts before the audience as irrefutably as possible and solicits a commitment to change them." The camera is a favorite tool because it is an impersonal tool to "communicate facts passively, transparently, with an almost pure impersonality."
  7. Vicarious documentary "gives the facts indirectly, through an intermediary." Radio is a tool that is able to transmit experience per se, and the feeling of "being there."


  1. John Grierson. Grierson on Documentary, edited by Forsyth Hardy. London: Faber and Faber, 1966, p. 13.
  2. William Stott. Documentary Expression and Thirties America. New York: Oxford, 1973, p. 5
  3. Stott, p. 7
  4. Stott, p. 12
  5. Stott, p. 14
  6. Stott, p. 26, 31
  7. Stott, p. 33


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revised 11/4/05 by Steven Schoenherr at the University of San Diego | Filmnotes