Some of the most cognitively and practically important questions we can ask of a motion picture concern whether it is a work of fiction or non-fiction, and why it is one rather than the other. These questions pertain to the kinds of effects that filmmakers seek to have on us, and to the sorts of assumptions they wish us to make about the relation between their movies and parts of extra-cinematic reality, including their own states of mind. Yet in place of cogent insights into the documentary's difference, scholarship for the most part has sown conceptual confusion. Although it could never banish all ambiguity and error from our thinking about this topic, a pragmatic account of what it is that causes a movie to be non-fiction is the best available theoretical option for anyone committed to reducing the confusion.
A wholly non-fictional motion picture need not be wholly factual. It need not contain a single, purely objective, unmanipulated representation or statement. It need not be on any particular kind of subject matter; nor need that which it depicts really exist, more or less as depicted, "out there" in off-screen reality. Nor is documentary, in my account, defined by the particular conventions or norms -- pertaining to form, style, content, truth, or objectivity -- according to which it is produced, classified, and/or interpreted. All of these paths to understanding the nature of non-fiction film, crisscrossing their way through the literature, lead to dead ends. A cinematic work is non-fiction if and only if its maker so makes it. A documentary motion picture, then, is simply one that results from the filmmaker having been directly guided by a particular purpose, namely, an intention to produce non-fiction.
I begin by lifting what I take to be one of the biggest barriers to a sensible, sound definition of the standard work of non-fiction cinema. This ob