Let’s talk about sex baby documentary.

We all know what Documentaries are right?  We might not have a pre-prepared google definition, but we could probably list off a bunch of things that we associate with documentaries. Such as: truthful, real-life, handheld, based on, in camera zoom, science, etc, etc.

The curious thing about documentary though, is that the more you learn about documentary films, the more your realise that what you understand to be it’s defining aspects, aren’t necessarily the case. For example, documentaries aren’t necessarily any more ‘truthful’ than standard films and the pure process of filming something, creates a filtered version of the ‘real world’ (if there is such a thing).

But rather than waste 3000 words BLOWING YOUR MIND, lets just bring it back to grad school (shh, I’m pretending to be American) and talk about types of form in documentary film.


Types of Form in Documentary Films

Categorical Form: These are documentaries that focus on a specific category of things (often loosely based) such as ‘butterflies’, in order to convey information about the world.

Common aspects of categorical form:

  • Begins by identifying it’s subject.
  • Simplistic patterns of development (small > large, local > national).
  • Overall thematic goal.

Due to the simplistic developmental patterns of categorical form, it is vital that filmmakers introduce variations to adjust viewer expectations. Or rather choose a category that is obscure or exciting in order to maintain viewer interest, e.g. Les Blank’s ‘Gap-Toothed Women‘.

Another brill way to engage viewers is to add abstract visual interest through the use of patterned filmic techniques by exploring the colour, shape and form of the thing being presented. Les Blank does this well through his various close-ups of gap teethed mouths, each with their own individualistic shape, colour, complexity, obscurity and feeling.

Categorical films can also explore other types of form, such as narrative form, or rhetorical form, adding in small scale narratives or including an ideological point. In Gap-Toothed Women Les Blank makes a statement about beauty, suggesting that society’s acceptance or disgust regarding aesthetics, merely reflects societal bias. Thus, you can imagine how combining multiple forms of documentary can create a much more engaging and well rounded documentary film.

Les Blank – Gap Toothed Women (1987)

Rhetorical Form: In these documentaries the filmmaker is attempting to present a cohesive argument. Attempts to persuade the audience to adopt an opinion about the subject matter and possibly convince them to act upon that opinion.

Common aspects of rhetorical form:

  • Addresses the viewer openly, trying to persuade them of their opinion.
  • The films subject is not an issue of scientific proof, but rather an opinion.
  • Since the conclusion can often not be proved beyond question, the filmmaker will often appeal to emotion, rather than present scientific evidence.
  • Often attempts to persuade the viewer to make a choice that will change their everyday life.

An example of rhetorical form in documentary is Lorentz’ The River, released in 1938. This documentary sought to convince its audience to support President Roosevelt’s policies regarding the Tennessee Valley Authority through it’s use of the rhetoric form. The TVA was a government owned corporation aiming to provide solutions to the country’s  flooding, electricity and agricultural problems  within Tennessee Valley during the Great Depression.

Pare Lorentz – The River (1938)


Catch you later,

Louise Alice Wilson



D. Bordwell & K. Thompson., (1993). Film Art: An Introduction. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993.