Skip to content
Support Provided By: Learn more
  • Lesson plan
  • Grades 11-12,
  • Grades 9-10

Honest Truths: Ethics in Documentary Film

Icebreaker: What Makes A Film A Documentary?

Give participants two minutes to make a list of as many documentary films as they can (preferably documentary films that they have seen). Ask for volunteers to share film titles from their lists and record at least five examples on the board. Discuss: What are some similarities and differences between these films?

Have participants imagine that they are talking to a person who has never before seen or even heard of a documentary film. How would they describe it? What are some essential elements of a documentary film? What distinguishes a documentary film from a narrative (Hollywood) film or a broadcast news story?

Give the participants two minutes to free-write descriptions of what documentary is, then have the participants organize into small groups to discuss their responses. Groups should collaborate on a working definition for documentary film that they will share with the other participants. (Groups can write and display their definitions on chart paper or on a whiteboard/blackboard.)

Reconvene the participants and discuss their definitions:

  • What are the similarities and differences?
  • What are some common objectives of documentaries?
  • What filmmaking techniques are used in the documentaries you have seen?
  1. Footage: live action (vérité or contemporaneous), re-enactments, informal (smartphone, home movies), archival, animation, something else?
  2. Dialogue: interviews, monologue, conversational, scripted, voice-over, narrator, singing, no dialogue, something else?
  3. Shots/Angles/Transitions: close-up, medium, long, wide, point of view (POV), two shot, low angle, high angle, montage, something else?
  • How do these creative choices serve the topics and objectives of the films?
  • Are documentaries reproductions of reality or representations of reality? Why is this significant?
  • Why is it so difficult to specify exactly what a documentary is?

Share the following definitions and descriptions of documentary film and continue to revise and refine the participants’ working definitions as their understanding of documentary film evolves.

Definitions of Documentary Film
A documentary film purports to present factual information about the world outside the film.
— David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction

A nonfiction film about real events and people, often avoiding traditional narrative structures.
— Timothy Corrigan, A Short Guide to Writing About Film

Documentary [is] the creative treatment of actuality.
— John Grierson, Cinema Quarterly 2.1

A practice of filmmaking that deals with actual and factual (and usually contemporary) issues, institutions and people; whose purpose is to educate, inform, communicate, persuade, raise consciousness or satisfy curiosity; in which the viewer is commonly addressed as a citizen of a public sphere; whose materials are selected and arranged from what already exists (rather than being made up); and whose methods involve filming “real people” as themselves in actual locations, using natural light and ambient sound. Although filmmaking of this type dates to the earliest years of cinema (see actualities; travel film), the term documentary was not coined until the 1920s, when the founder of the British Documentary Movement, John Grierson, defined it as “the creative treatment of actuality.”
— Annette Kuhn and Guy Westwell, "Documentary," A Dictionary of Film Studies

Film Genres: Documentary films

A Dictionary of Film Studies

Documentary film speaks about situations and events involving real people (social actors) who present themselves to us as themselves in stories that convey a plausible proposal about, or perspective on, the lives, situations, and events portrayed. The distinct point of view of the filmmaker shapes this story into a way of seeing the historical world directly rather than into a fictional allegory.
— Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary

Documentary defines not subject or style, but approach. … Documentary approach to cinema differs from that of story-film not in its disregard for craftsmanship, but in the purpose to which that craftsmanship is put.
— Paul Rotha, Cinema Quarterly 2.2

A non-fiction text using “actuality” footage, which may include the live recording of events and relevant research materials (i.e., interviews, statistics, etc.). This kind of text is usually informed by a particular point of view, and seeks to address a particular social issue which is related to and potentially affects the audience."
— Paul Wells, “The Documentary Form: Personal and Social ‘Realities,’” An Introduction to Film Studies

Rogow, Faith. “Lesson Plan: Introducing Documentaries to Your Students.” POV,

Rogow, Faith. “What Makes a Documentary a Documentary?: What Filmmakers Have to Say.” POV, 2010,

Juel, Henrik. “Defining Documentary Film.” POV: A Danish Journal of Film Studies, no. 22, 2006,

Kalow, Nancy. Visual Storytelling: The Digital Video Documentary. The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, 2011,

About the authors

Allison Milewski

Allison Milewski has developed media education resources for a range of award-winning filmmakers and national media organizations, including PBS LearningMedia, Independent Television Services (ITVS), Latino Public Broadcasting, HBO Documentaries, and Tribeca Film Institute. She is also the founder of the international media education program,