In his treatment “Documentarism of Cinema”, the author Manuel Penfria presents a theory of documentary film that questions the nature of cinema from a universalist point of view going back to the common roots of both documentary and fiction filmmaking.
The hypothesis is that there is no difference of essence between documentary and cinema; just the difference of degree of how cinematic a documentary can become. Historically, both were born when filmmakers started to capture images of people’s daily lives.
By that token, he argues, recording people in location is the essence of documentary. Moreover, as this is the beginning of documentary film, as well that of cinema at its earliest, it is for both their most natural stage.
Later in the 20th century, the Grierson School (Grierson was considered the father of British documentary film) legitimized the use of reconstruction in documentaries, bringing a new degree of cinematic form into documentary filmmaking.
Newer filmmakers such as Errol Morris have taken the idea to extremes. Morris is the best example because with his documentary The Thin Blue Line, he proved that a documentary can created exclusively of constructed images. It is the search for truth that makes it a documentary; in Morris’s film the truth is based on the personal accounts of the people who went through the experience of a murder.
The camera’s part is to say – I was there, this is the truth. This is why portable equipment is of such great importance to documentary filmmakers. The use of portable sound gave birth to Direct Cinema. And indeed, according to the author, technical innovations were also seminal for the French Cinema Verite movement, inciting the interest of French anthropologists such as Jean Rouch who saw it as a way to have a deeper understanding of humanity.
Today the distinction between cinema and documentary film is partly created by the phenomenon of indexation. That is to say, because of market realities, films are put into distinct categories such as comedy, action, adventure, and documentary. The viewer always has to have some previous knowledge of the film so as to be able to make a selection in the abundance of choice.
This leaves little space for all the shades of gray that exists between such strict denominations.
In general, while there may be differences of approach to what is a documentary between various schools of thought in the world of documentary theory as well as practice, the author argues, the most renowned documentary makers such as John Grierson would agree that documentaries are primarily about investigating the world. They are about curiosity and about finding out new things. In practical terms this means talking to people, checking facts and finding information.