In exploring documentary film, we find that films cannot fully match the definition of documentary: “a film or TV program presenting the facts about a person or event.” We examine this group of movies in the attempt to understand the genre.

The Weather Underground: Define Documentary Film?

BUT the human mind is not a film which registers once and for all each impression that comes through its shutters and lenses. The human mind is endlessly and persistently creative. The pictures fade or combine, are sharpened here, condensed there, as we make them more completely our own. They do not lie inert upon the surface of the mind, but are reworked by the poetic faculty into a personal expression of ourselves. We distribute the emphasis and participate in the action.
—Lippman (1921)

The Worst of Times and the Weather Underground

Some of us may remember the times, and maybe even some of the events, recounted in this film, The Weather Underground. It was a time of terrible unrest, yet I venture to guess that most will remember the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination more strongly than other events of the era. We all know about the war in Vietnam, regardless of whether or not we understood anything about it or felt strongly about it one way or another at the time. Yet, how many of us remember the domestic terrorism that went on for years and years in our country? This film, The Weather Underground, is a good example of some of the techniques of documentary filmmaking, but is also especially timely because of the recent terrorist bombings at the Boston Marathon. [Note: Is it odd that this film’s MPAA Rating is “Unrated”?]

Sam Green, director, producer, and editor of this film, received his Masters degree in Journalism from the Univ. of California at Berkeley, where he studied documentary film. Bill Siegel, co-director and producer, Chicago-based educator, and documentary filmmaker says this about the purpose of the film:

The goal of The Weather Underground is not so much to give answers but to raise questions. By exploring this controversial subject with depth and balance, we hope to encourage a broad debate of some of the most important issues of our time. What would real social justice look like not just in America, but throughout the world? What is our responsibility as Americans for the inequalities of globalism? How do we as a society define violence and terrorism? How do “we the people” respond effectively and responsibly if a presidential administration seems unwilling to respond to popular will?

This is what Netflix says about it:

This sobering documentary about the Weather Underground chronicles the global trend of revolution. The Weathermen didn’t just march or sit in: They rioted and bombed—not to change the American political scene but rather to destroy it.

This particular description underscores one of the pursuits of our evening together. We don’t know who wrote the summary for Netflix. However, do we question the statement, “not to change the American political scene but rather to destroy it”? Is this a statement of fact or a statement of opinion?

To Define Documentary:  The Claim of Truth

Contemporary communication via the documentary form of filmmaking provides a narrative that claims to interpret actual events, e.g., as in representing reality, “a documentary film tells a story about real life, with claims to truthfulness” (Aufderheide, 2007, KL 279-280). One might say that a documentary film attempts to represent real life and not manipulate it. However, there is no way to produce a film without manipulating the information. The selection of topic, the camera focus, the frame, the angle, etc. direct the viewer’s attention and create bias. Over the years, documentary films have come to comprise a very broad and diverse category of films. The following are examples (see Dirks, Documentary Films):

  • biographical films about a living or dead person (Madonna, John Lennon, Muhammad Ali – When We Were Kings (1996), Robert Crumb, Stephen Hawking – A Brief History of Time (1992), Theory of Everything (2015);
  • about a well-known event – Waco, Texas incident, the Holocaust, the Shackleton expedition to the Antarctic;
  • about a concert or rock festival – Woodstock or Altamont rock concerts (Woodstock (1970) and Gimme Shelter (1970)), Stop Making Sense (1984), Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991);
  • a comedy show – Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy shows;
  • a live performance – Cuban musicians as in Buena Vista Social Club (1998), or the stage show Cirque du Soleil in Journey of Man (2000);
  • a sociological or ethnographic examination following individuals over a period of time, e.g., Michael Apted’s series of films – 28 Up (1984), 35 Up (1992), or Steve James’ Hoop Dreams (1994); ‚
  • an exposé including interviews, e.g., Michael Moore’s social concerns films;
  • a sports documentary – extreme sports such as in Extreme (1999) or surfing, such as in The Endless Summer (1966);
  • a compilation film of collected footage from government sources;
  • a “making of” film such as the filming of Apocalypse Now (1979) or Fitzcarraldo (1982);
  • a specific subject area examined, e.g., nature or science-related themes;
  • or historical surveys, such as The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, or World War II, etc.

The History of Documentary Film

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The documentary genre begins at the end of the 19th century with the first films ever projected (Aufderheide, 2007, KL 257). The term “documentary” has been described as a “filmmaking practice, a cinematic tradition, and mode of audience reception” that is continually evolving and is without clear boundaries (Nichols, 1997). The documentary genre has a range of purposes, from the simple selection and recording of events (a snapshot or unedited holiday video) to a polemic text that attempts to persuade the audience into a specific set of opinions (Bowling for Columbine). Audiences must identify that purpose early on and will therefore decode documentary texts differently to fictional narratives (Wilson, 2009). Broad interest in actual events is demonstrated by the continuing success of reality television, as well as the positive response to a variety of forms of documentary film. Over the last decade, the documentary has gained stature in the box office through films such as Academy Award winners An Inconvenient Truth (Guggenheim, 2006) and Inside Job (Ferguson, 2010). These films were allegedly created in order to provide information (i.e., facts) for raising awareness of social issues. [W]e might situate many of these recent films in the category of protest art.

When one recalls that the late 1960s and early 1970s also saw  a documentary resurgence, the current foment begins to look less like a coincidence and more like a movement. One might even propose that Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Arlo Guthrie in the 1960s (and perhaps also Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger in the 1940s) could be compared to documentary filmmakers today, and that in our age of “the visual,” the camera has replaced the guitar as a medium of political and social dissent (Higgins, Documentary in the Age of Terror). Are documentary films similar to films in other genres in their incorporation of the arts? As you watch this film, try to notice how these film arts are used to help tell the story: music‚ editing‚color palette / cinematography‚ costumes ‚ dialogue ‚set design / locations.



Documentary film is an evolving concept, but the genre encompasses those media texts that can be generally classified as non-fiction. One online dictionary defines the adjective “documentary” as “presenting facts objectively without editorializing or inserting fictional matter, as in a book or film” (The Free Dictionary).


For many viewers and critics, cinema (movies, films) is storytelling, historically relying on lens-based recordings of reality. During cinema’s history, a whole repertoire of techniques (lighting, art direction, the use of different film stocks and lens, etc.) was developed to modify the basic record obtained by a film apparatus. Cinema’s basic motion is to open the shutter and to start the film rolling, recording whatever happens to be in front of the lens.

A Film

A film is a cultural artifact created by a specific culture, which reflects those cultures, and, in turn, affects them. Film is considered to be an important art form, a source of popular entertainment and a powerful method for educating — or indoctrinating — citizens. The visual elements of cinema give motion pictures a universal power of communication.


Aufderheide, P. (2007). Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction (Vol. 175): Oxford University Press.

Dirks, T. Documentary Films. Retrieved from

Green, S. & Bill Siegel (Directors). (2002). The Weather Underground.

Ferguson, C. (Writer) (2010). Inside Job. [Motion Picture]. A. Marrs & C. Ferguson (Producer). USA: Sony Pictures Classics.

Guggenheim, D. (Writer) (2006). An Inconvenient Truth. [Motion Picture]. Lawrence Bender Productions & Participant Productions (Producer). USA: Paramount Home Entertainment.

Higgins, L. A. Documentary in an Age of Terror. Retrieved from

Lippman, W. (1922). Public Opinion. New York: Harcourt, Brace. Nichols, B. (1997). Foreword. In B. K. Grant & J. Sloniowski (Eds.), Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Moore, M. (Writer) (2002). Bowling for Columbine. Documentary film. Retrieved from

Nichols, B. (2001). Introduction to Documentary: Indiana University Press.

The Free Dictionary: The World’s Most Comprehensive Dictionary. (2003). Huntingdon Valley, PA: Farlex, Inc. Retrieved from

Wilson, K. (2009). Documentary – A Definition for the Digital Age. Retrieved from