Riho Västrik – How do Pictures Turn into a Documentary?

What makes a set of moving pictures a documentary? This question is not as easy as it initially seems. Any moving picture that shows the real world and actual people tends to be named a documentary, says Associate Professor of the Baltic Film, Media, Arts and Communication School Riho Västrik.

The answer to ‘what is a documentary’ has changed in the past, in accordance with the developments in film arts and the world around us. There is a constant discussion on what and how to show in films. There has also been an argument on what is honesty toward the audience, what role and position should the author hold, and whether the author should have any standpoint at all.

Documentary film was first defined by Johhn Grierson in 1926 – a documentary is a creative interpretation of reality. There is no doubt that this definition sees the author as an interpreter of the characters and events. Throughout the decades there have been numerous staged documentaries, as well as documentaries that follow real events – the two methods have been in a fierce fight ever since.

Nowadays documentarists have almost reached a consensus that every method created ever since the brothers Lumiere, is allowed as long as the story is told in an interesting way and makes the audience want to watch it. A director of a documentary will use cinematographic tools to tell his or her own story, one that they have done a thorough research on.

There are no boring stories. There are only boring storytellers and directors who are not familiar with all the possibilities of film. A good documentary can never be briefly summarised. We can say it talks about life, or love, or hate, but the methods it does so are something every viewer must experience first-hand. If it is possible to tell someone every detail, we are probably talking about a TV-show.

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