What Makes a Good Documentary Film? – 5 Elements and Examples You Should See

Have you watched any documentary films lately?

Unlike other films, documentary films are made to capture reality. Most of them aim to educate, inform, or maintain a historical record in some cases. Because of its nature, documentary films appeal differently to some viewers. The process of creating one is also different and requires a lot of research. 

But what makes a good documentary film?

In this article, we’ll discuss the nature of documentary films and what makes them good.

What is a documentary film?

As mentioned earlier, a documentary film is a kind of film that presents reality. It was previously known as “actuality films” and runs for only one minute or less. Today, documentary films have evolved to be longer in run time and have more categories.

What Makes a Good Documentary Film - subject

The purpose of documentaries is to be informative works. They are also often used in schools as a resource to teach different principles.

What makes a good documentary film?

Here are the elements, rules, and some examples you’d want to see. These will help you learn and understand the basics of a documentary film and hopefully help you make one.

Here the five elements of a documentary:

Elements of a Documentary Film

1. Subjects

The subject is what your documentary is about. Documentaries focus on something other than the general human condition. It involves individual human actions and relationships. These elements are considered a region of narrative fiction, and drama. 

Generally, documentaries focus on something more specific and factual. You’ll often see subjects involving public matters. It covers topics like social issues, politics, crime, etc. They go for these rather than personal and private matters. Also, a good documentary film includes people, places, and events that are actual and usually contemporary.

2. Purpose

The purpose is what the filmmaker is trying to say about the subjects of their film. They film topics they consider significant. The topics inform the audience about the people, places, events, institutions, and problems.

The purpose of most documentary films is to record and interpret the actual problems in front of the camera. It also informs and convinces the viewers to get a clearer view or take action about their subjects.

3. Form

The form is the formative process of the film. It includes the filmmakers’ original conception, the sights and sounds used, and the structures into which they are fitted.

Documentary forms tend to be more functional, varied, and looser than short stories, novels, or plays. These are also more like non-narrative literary forms, like advertisements, essays, editorials, or poems.

4. Production method and technique

The production method and technique refers to the ways the films are put together. It’s how the images are shot, the sounds are recorded, and how the two are edited together.

One basic requirement of a documentary is to cast actual people and not actors representing them. Another is to film the movie on the actual location and not on stages or human-made sets.

5. Audience experience

The aim of many documentary films is generally twofold: an aesthetic experience of some sort, and to affect the attitudes, possibly leading to action.

Rules of a Documentary

A documentary film, when executed correctly, can give an exceptional insight into the various human conditions and a lot more. So just like any other piece of media, making a documentary has many rules to observe to become successful.

Listed below are some special rules of a documentary that filmmakers follow:

1. Get a newsworthy content

A documentary film is excellent for uncovering a subject matter which has previously been unreported. These could be subjects that were previously seen on the news but not given serious attention.

Many controversial topics are quickly forgotten and often not investigated further to present the entire story behind it. These topics can be the perfect subjects for a documentary film.

Old news dies fast as it seems nowadays. This reason is why a thoroughly researched, well-directed, and expertly made documentary could hold the power of bringing a subject matter back into the light of the mainstream media, making it relevant, and thus serving a power.

Creating a great documentary that builds both media and audience buzz could require extensive research. It can be a hefty project to work on, but it could also create a big impact that could make history.

2. Presenting easily digestible information

One of the most memorable and unexpected documentaries I’ve watched is “Shark Bait,” a documentary about sharks and the shark fin soup industry. It was investigated and narrated by 7 Michelin star chef Gordon Ramsay.

The critical facts in this documentary are presented in the first 10 minutes of the film.

  • Thousands of sharks are killed for their fins yearly.
  • Sharks are caught and inhumanely killed for one dish – Sharkfin soup.
  • Shark fins and shark fin soup are expensive.
  • Ramsay investigates and confronts people behind the global trade of shark fins.

Presenting critical information in the early part of the film is a good investment. The rule here is to ensure that you’re giving the audience vital details as early as possible, so they can identify the issue that will draw them in.

Let the audience know the where, why, and what of the story. You can then follow it up with the historical context to create motive and move into presenting the odds: what’s at play, and who is in danger.

3. Let your characters tell the story

An excellent interviewing technique can make a significant difference when it comes to storytelling. As a filmmaker, the story is not about “you,” it’s about your subject. What the audience cares about is what happened, who was affected, and who are the characters involved.

If you research your interviewees correctly, they will be unique, engaging, and vital to the story. A good documentary film doesn’t need its filmmaker to tell the story. Its subject should do that for them. You can decide which character type you would like your subject to portray. But unlike other kinds of films, the characterization of your subject should be close to, if not the actual reality itself.

When the characters tell the story, they will drive the narrative forward. They should be on the center stage because they were the ones who were there. They were affected, and more importantly, they are the ones who the audience will trust.

4. Show empathy

Many fictitious films tend to set aside morals for the sake of professional investment and money. If a filmmaker is solely invested in making money, then there would be a tendency to lack in the earnest exploration into the real struggles of humanity.

As a documentary filmmaker, it is vital to see the human struggle and understand what makes them open and reflective. When you’re commenting with the camera or asking a question to an interviewee, try to empathize as best as you can. Try to put yourself on that person’s shoes and understand how they feel.

If you possess the understanding, you’ll have the courage to dive deeper with your work. Throughout the process, you must reflect on why your film is essential and what your message is.

How to choose a subject for a documentary?

A documentary subject can be almost anything. With so many ideas around, it can be a bit confusing to pick the right topic.

Here are some pointers you can keep in mind to help find the right subject for a documentary.

Go for what’s doable than what is desirable.

You may want to do a documentary about an astronaut’s life in space. But can you go to space with them? If you’re a big shot filmmaker, then maybe yes. But if you don’t have the means to do so, then it’s impossible.

Go for something that you’re deeply passionate about social issues, injustice, or anything. Consider your time, your resources, and your finances and push through if you have the means to do it.

Try to be unique

If you want your documentary to deliver an impactful message, then try to tackle something that hasn’t been talked about before.

Many people have a lot of beautiful stories to tell. With so much potential on many subjects, recycling an issue that was discussed many times is not a great option.

However, if you’re passionate about a particular subject that did have similar presentations, try putting the story in a different light, a different angle, maybe from the eyes of an 80-year-old or an 8-year-old. Take advantage of the wide options and almost non-existent restrictions a documentary can offer.

Travel and explore

If you want to get ideas on what to make a documentary about, try to go out to travel and explore.

Talk to friends or other people, try to find interesting things about them and know more about them. Making a documentary is also a learning process. As you put all the elements together, you also learn a lot of things from experience.

Don’t just waste time in front of your desk and thinking about what to film. Go out, explore, and the ideas could just come rushing into you.

Documentaries to watch

There are tons of documentary films available today. With the rise of social media and the internet, it’s even easier to access them and share them with others.

If you’re in for some interesting classic, most-watched documentaries, here is a list of documentaries you can watch.

1. The Central Park Five

The Central Park Five is a documentary about five young black men who were accused of killing 28-year-old Trisha Meili way back in 1989. They were convicted with multiple charges, which was, later on, slammed when a man confessed to having committed the murder. This film shows racial injustice, prejudice, and a broken justice system.

2. Honeyland

This film takes you to the Balkan Mountains with Hatidže Muratova, one of the last Macedonians to practice ancient beekeeping. This documentary was shot in a span of three years. You’ll be amazed at its gorgeous cinematography and landscapes, making it a pleasure to watch.

3. O. J.: Made in America

Winner for Best Documentary Feature of the 2017 Oscars, O. J.: This film presents the life and legacy of football star, O.J. Simpson, examining the rise and fall of his career. Instead of focusing on the famous trial of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, this film has shown the Simpson saga into a larger context.

4. How to Survive a Plague

How to Survive a Plague is a documentary about the early days of the AIDS crisis. It shows how those who lived on society’s margins were left to die. They were ignored by medical establishments and by an insanely apathetic government. This film has changed the course of history by putting pressure on the government to fund medical research. It led to the discovery of treatments that turned an HIV-positive diagnosis from a death sentence to a manageable illness.

5. Three Identical Strangers

Three Identical Strangers is a documentary film about the reunion of triplets separated at birth. You’ll witness the disheartening twist when the three sought out the conditions of their separation as infants. This film will leave you impressed by the power of documentary films and how it captures shocking circumstances that only life can bring.

Go binge on some documentary films

There are tons of documentary films to be explored. Some can be more than an hour-long, while some can only last for 10 minutes. One important note to this is that many documentary films are worth watching, and people should explore more of them.

What makes a good documentary?

There is no secret recipe for crafting the best documentary film. After all, everything depends upon the reception of the audience.

But we can say that a good documentary film is the one that managed to fulfill its purpose – to inform, and to push people to take action.

Product designer, writer, UX guy, and founder of Nicely Said. Past experience includes Disney, Inside Out Leadership, Tiny Mix Tapes, and Two Hat. With a Master's Degree from the School of Hard Knocks, Chris has been publishing content on the web since the pre-blog days of Diaryland and LiveJournal. He's been playing Romance of the Three Kingdoms II on Super Nintendo since 1992.

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