Skateboarding in the pool in Dogtown and Z-Boys - 2001

By Jez Owen.


Documentary suggests ‘fullness and completion, knowledge and fact’ (Nichols, 1994:1). A documentary text can provide a representation of life that an audience will read as a truthful expression of an actuality.

The last fifteen years of film production have witnessed an explosion in the number of documentary films being made for cinema exhibition, a direct result of a categorical rise in the number of people actively attending the cinema to watch a documentary film.

Critics have suggested that this unprecedented popularity is solely down to savvy selection of topic, easy to follow narrative structures and visual techniques derived from narrative film as entertainment for the masses. By using such populist techniques the films are said to be attempting to guarantee box office success but in so doing are destroying the integrity of the documentary text by undermining an ideology established over 100 years of evolution.

This research project explores this criticism by gaining an understanding of the form and language of documentary film, as expressed by key theoretical approaches developed by Bill Nichols and Michael Renov. Through an extensive exploration of the history and context that has informed the development of documentary as cinematic form, the paper engages the notion that the unprecedented popularity of the new films maybe a signifier that a new method of documentary has been established, a form that is able to distil the many disparate approaches down into one extremely effective principle for the provision of an exact representation of the reality of a given subject as experienced by those involved. This discussion is applied to close textual analysis of two case study texts: Hoop Dreams (1994) and Dogtown & Z Boys (2001).

In so doing, the research demonstrates that the evolution of documentary has indeed given rise to a technique that has become a byword for authenticity in a filmed context. Rigid, observational filmmaking has become a ubiquitous approach that has informed
documentary since the Second World War, is an applicable surface style used by fictional filmmaking but also may explain the rise of Reality TV. Its apparent incorruptibility has led the critics of new cinematic documentary to believe that any other approach is suspect.

Through a thorough dismissal of this notion, the conclusion of the research acknowledges that the new films are not functioning in a way radically different to earlier forms of documentary, but rather provide a post‐modern rethinking of established modes and
conventions. Far from destroying the genre the new films actually facilitate survival of documentary in a changing cultural landscape.

To read this article in its entirety, please download the PDF: Contemporary Cinematic Documentary and The Rebirth of Content

Jez Owen is a UK-based Creative Director and visual culture academic. A recent graduate of the Critical Practice MA at University of the Arts, London, Jez has recently been invited to join the Visual Communications MPhil/PhD research programme at the Royal College of Art, London.

He welcomes comments and further debate via his blog at or on Twitter @splendoid.

2 thoughts on “Contemporary Cinematic Documentary and The Rebirth of Content”

  1. What are several perfect african cinematic features? Perhaps from Third Film, or contemporary. Perhaps by Mamb�ty, or additional well known directors.

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