Introduction to Documentary

Introduction to Documentary

Introduction to Documentary

Introduction to Documentary


The third edition of Bill Nichols's best-selling text provides an up-to-date introduction to the most important issues in documentary history and criticism. A new chapter, "I Want to Make a Documentary: Where Do I Start?" guides readers through the steps of planning and preproduction and includes an example of a project proposal for a film that went on to win awards at major festivals. Designed for students in any field that makes use of visual evidence and persuasive strategies, Introduction to Documentary identifies the genre's distinguishing qualities and teaches the viewer how to read documentary film. Each chapter takes up a discrete question, from "How did documentary filmmaking get started?" to "Why are ethical issues central to documentary filmmaking?" Here Nichols has fully rewritten each chapter for greater clarity and ease of use, including revised discussions of earlier films and new commentary on dozens of recent films from The Cove to The Act of Killing and from Gasland to Restrepo.


The third edition of Introduction to Documentary examines this fascinating type of filmmaking through a series of questions that involve issues of definition, ethics, content, form, modes, and politics. It adds a new chapter on how to make a documentary that focuses on preproduction, the first step to making a documentary. All other chapters have been revised and updated.

Because documentaries address the world in which we live rather than a world imagined by the filmmaker, they differ from the various genres of fiction (science fiction, horror, adventure, melodrama, and so on) in significant ways. They are made with different assumptions, they involve a different relationship between filmmaker and subject, and they prompt different sorts of expectations from audiences

These differences, as we shall see, guarantee no absolute separation between fiction and documentary. Some documentaries make strong use of practices such as scripting, staging, reenactment, rehearsal, and performance that we associate with fiction. Some adopt familiar conventions such as the individual hero who undergoes a challenge or embarks on a quest, building suspense, emotional crescendos, and climactic resolutions. Some fiction makes strong use of conventions that we typically associate with nonfiction or documentary such as location shooting, nonactors, handheld cameras, improvisation, found footage (footage not shot by the filmmaker), voice-over commentary, and natural lighting. the boundary between the two realms is highly fluid but, in most cases, still perceptible. Documentaries are, as I have argued elsewhere, a fiction (un)like any other.

Because notions about what is distinct to documentary, and what is not, change over time, specific films may well spark debate about the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction. At one point Eric von Stroheim’s Greed (1925) and Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1925) were praised for the high degree of realism or verisimilitude they brought to their stories. They possessed a documentary appeal. At another point Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) and John Cassavetes’s Shadows (1960) seemed to bring lived reality to the screen in ways not previously experienced. Although all these works have been normally treated as fiction, a case could be made for the power of their documentary dimensions and their ability to stimulate both documentary and fiction filmmakers to rethink their assumptions. Reality tv shows like American Idol, the multiple versions of The Real Housewives, Swamp People, and Survivor heighten the degree to which television can exploit a sense of documentary authenticity and . . .

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