2.4 and 3.4 Changes in Expository Documentary

Historical Development

Some historical information on how documentary conventions have changed:

Early films did not clearly delineate between genres and tended to mix styles. These genres, and their conventions of storytelling evolved over time. John Grierson, who experimented with documentary styles, is today seen as the father of 'expository documentary'. His style emphasised rhetoric, narrative and information dissemination. Expository documentary started to be used as propaganda in the 1930s and 1940s to persuade the public's attitude towards the war effort. An example of this is Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia – a documentary commissioned by the Nazi party to celebrate Germany’s successes at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. By the 1970s the observational documentary of the 50s was being replaced by documentaries that rejoiced in the polemic: they voiced strong political views that reflected the turbulence of the times (the growing feminist movement, protests against the Vietnam War and a growing social consciousness about racial inequality). Contemporary news stories and television documentaries still largely employ an expository mode.


John Grierson was a pioneer of new sound technologies in documentary. His use of the expository voice meant that voiceovers and interviews could be used to explain or describe the action that viewers were seeing. This type of documentary caught on and has been a common documentary style ever since. One early example of Grierson’s influence was in the two-part 1969 documentary The Sorrow and the Pity by Marcel Ophüls which examines the collaboration between the Vichy Government and Nazi Germany. Ophüls synthesised the use of documentary footage with contemporary interviews to create a compelling award-winning documentary.


The idea of narrative in documentary was one of the earliest conventions developed and is a distinct innovation of the expositional mode. In 1914, Edward S Curtis made In the Land of the Headhunters – a silent film fictionalising the world of the Kwakwaka'wakw peoples of British Columbia, Canada. The film blurred the line between non-fiction and fiction and was extremely successful. By the 1930s documentary makers like John Grierson saw how creating strong narratives helped them to compete financially with the popularity of Hollywood, whose films focused on clarity and comprehensibility.


Voiceover in expository documentary is used to add clarity and create narrative. It was made popular by John Grierson who used direct address to help tell a story. During the 1950s and 1960s the use of voiceover became unfashionable when observational documentary makers like Dziga Vertov, in their quest for truth, wanted to eliminate narrative devices and point-of-view. Vertov saw narrative as descendant of theatre and therefore artifice. Man with a Movie Camera (1929) by Vertov, presents urban life in the cities Odessa, Kharkiv and Kiev without making any attempt to create a story or have an opinion. By the 1970s voiceover was not considered an acceptable technique as it was too didactic. The 1980s and 1990s saw a revival of voiceover in films like Michael Moore’s Roger & Me (1989) which used it in a newly personal and interpretive way, acknowledging the subjective role of the filmmaker in the filmmaking process. This mode is called 'Performative'.

Actuality Footage

The first filmmakers were photographers. Eadweard Muybridge's groundbreaking The Horse In Motion (1878) was accomplished using multiple cameras and assembling the individual pictures into a motion picture. The first films were actualities: studies of real things. As documentary making developed to tell stories, they began to incorporate archival photographs and footage as evidence of the stories' reality. They also started to use contemporary footage in their storytelling to show the effects of events, or how things have changed over time.

Archival Photographs and Archival Footage

The use of archival materials has changed as technology has developed. After World War Two the use of archival footage became popular in documentary, mainly as evidence of the atrocities committed during the war. Alain Resnais used archival footage to make Night and Fog (1955) – a film that alternated between past and present to describe life in a concentration camp. The Thorndikes' made Operation Teutonic Sword (1958) where they used archival footage to hunt down living Nazi war criminal Hans Speidel and documented the processes as they went. As technology developed the use of older archival footage became accessible. Silent footage had been filmed at 16 frames a second and it was expensive to stretch it to the contemporary 98 frames a second (the standard needed for its conversion to post sound-era films). An influential example of this is Paris 1900 (1947) by Nicole Védrès – a detailed portrait of daily life in Paris in the years before the First World War. Ken Burns pioneered the technique of zooming into and panning across old war photographs to make them more dynamic. This has become known as the "Ken Burns effect". More recent documentaries like Revealing Gallipoli have used computer animation to add three dimensions to old photographs. This helps the viewer place themselves more easily in the historic setting.

Graphics and CGI

Graphic images have always been used in documentary: initially in the form of titles, maps and illustrations used to emphasise a point. Today special effects are increasingly important in documentary film. Winsor McCay used animation in 1918 film The Sinking of the Lusitania to illustrate the torpedoing of the Lusitania by a German U-Boat off the coast of Ireland and The Einstein Theory of Relativity (1923) used animation to explain a difficult scientific equation. Disney Studios helped Frank Capra animate the graphics in Why We Fight (1942 to 1944). To show the invading forces of Germany, black ink oozed across the map destroying Europe. The use of graphics has advanced significantly since the invention of the computer: animation, 2D and 3D images (CGI) and interactive technology have been incorporated into documentary. Today animations are also being used to restore old archival material and fill in gaps in actual footage or to reveal truths that are impossible to film. In Waltz with Bashir (2008) Ari Folman reconstructs missing memories from his time as a soldier in the Lebanon War using animation. Specific online projects are allowing the user to control and interact with the documentary from pre-existing clips. Man With a Movie Camera: A Global Remake (2007) is a website by artist Perry Bard. People are invited to respond to Vertov's original introduction and experiment in the cinematic communication of visible events without the aid of intertitles, scenario or theatre, and to upload their own footage.

Hand-Held Camera

Hand-held camera’s were introduced to documentaries by the cinéma vérité movement and the ideas of Dziga Vertov. The movement coincided with technological developments in recording equipment and meant filmmakers could use light hand-held cameras to follow their subjects and thus gain a more honest representation of their experiences. This and developments in synchronised sound shooting on location meant what became known as "Direct Cinema" spread throughout the world. Portrait of Osa (1965) by Jan Toell – a Swedish school teacher intimately portrays the life of a three-year-old girl using these techniques.


Reconstructions are a relatively recent addition to documentary film. The earliest films did not denote between fiction and non-fiction and "fakery was not seen as deceit but as enterprise". In Nanook of the North (1922) Robert Flaherty reconstructed scenes to add drama and narrative to the storytelling. The conventions Flaherty used were those of fiction; an outsized igloo was built so that camera equipment could fit inside. This proved too dark so half of the igloo was removed to let the light in. The March of Time (1935) was a newsreel series widely criticised for its use of re-enactment using professional actors. One scene showed two well-known figures involved in the Manhattan Project (which developed atomic bombs in World War Two) shaking hands in the desert after the first successful test. But the shot was actually made on the floor of a garage in Boston. They are scenes of an event which has been reconstructed and acted out on film based on information of the event. Some documentaries like Days That Shook the World (2003) by John Reed are entirely re-enacted. This series produced by the BBC shows the days leading up to major world events. These filmmakers have argued that in its ability to fill in or explain facts that are not available on film, reconstruction is legitimised. Ryan (2004) by Chris Landreth is animated documentary based on the retelling of an interview between Landreth and the animator Ryan Larkin who was living on the streets of Montreal at the time of their meeting.


Soundtracks can contribute historical context to a narrative, and can also create an emotional tone reflecting the message conveyed. World War Two saw the introduction of magnetic recording. On entering occupied Europe soldiers were stunned to discover what they had thought were live broadcasts were actually recorded ones. This technological advancement meant improved sound quality and allowed filmmakers to use music to convey thematic content in films. In Bert Haanstra’s Glass (1958) this is most fully realised. The film is so synchronised with the sound that “the viewer can hardly escape the sense that the glass blower is creating the music”.

For further reading, check out our blog on documentary techniques and where they come from. 


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