The rapid rise of documentary films in cinemas, televisions programs, and all have raised questions in people’s minds. What does documentary film mean? What differentiates a documentary film from other types? What does it promise the viewers? If you are reading this article, you are most likely one of those people. Otto Landesman– a film, music and photography enthusiast, with tons of experience in Documentary, shares his knowledge on the meaning, history and how you can identify one.

What is a documentary?

A documentary tells and plays out real-life stories. They are factual, non- fictional, portraits of real-life events, stories and real people with the aim of convincing, persuading, entertaining, or informing the viewers. Interesting, unusual real-life stories or experiences are captured and portrayed to evoke some feelings and emotions in the viewers. Films or videos are made using motion pictures or images in a real environment, using real people, creating real sounds, using natural lights to portray real-life events.


Documentary films are not just today, it is as old as film making itself. However, the word came into existence in the early 1920s when John Grierson, coined the word from the french word “documentaire”. He wrote Robert Flaherty’s film Moana indicating that it is written in a documentary style. He is also the founder of the British Documentary Movement which he described as “creative treatment of actuality”.

Over the years there have documentary films of wartime, travelogue, nature, social and political issues, biographies, religion, music, depression and its effects, and so much more.


The purpose of documentary varies and it lies solely on the filmmaker and what it wishes to communicate. A documentary film is a genre of film making that can aim to satisfy curiosity, raise awareness, provide information, inspire people or stir up certain emotions. Otto Landesman says documentary films can be:

  • To bring about changes or improvement in government, target industries, or society at large.
  • To amuse or entertain the audience.
  • To let people see the world in another dimension using other people’s stories or events
  • To show the world things that matter that is otherwise overlooked.
  • To inspire. For instance a documentary of famous successful people.
  • To uncover mysteries or things oblivious to humans.
  • Non-profit organizations, libraries, government agencies and the host of others use these films to educate people, provide the understanding and spark off empathy from the audience.
  • Entrepreneurs, public corporations sometimes tell their stories for advertisement and building the brand’s reputation.
  • Others might be to spark off interest and need to take action. Examples include topics on feminism, homosexuality.


Documentary films are factual and there are certain characteristics it contains:

  • Statements or words are true, facts or historical events or real-life situations and circumstances.
  • The purpose can be to learn more, amuse, educate, entertain, inspire, encourage and many more.
  • The themes or can be historical, social, political, nature, interesting places or people.
  • Authors, critics, scholars, distributors, writers, filmmakers, professionals will label it as a documentary.
  • Interviews, voiceover, stock footage, reconstruction, and exposition are some of the styles of documentary films.
  • The target audience can be the public or audience that will portray a specific subject matter to share knowledge.

Documentary films keep evolving for different purposes. However, one thing remains, it has to be authentic, factual and nothing but the truth. This article is to educate you on documentary films which is one of Otto Landesman favs.