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What is a Documentarian?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A documentarian is someone who makes documentary films. Although this term is generally used for the director of a film, it may also be sometimes applied to producers who are involved in choosing the content for documentaries. Documentarians fill a specific niche in the movie-making business, where entertainment coincides with fact based reporting.

A documentary film is a movie that includes factual histories or current events coverage. Typically, a documentary also has some “entertainment value,” and is made with the purpose of keeping an audience engaged, while educating them about a specific topic. Documentaries often treat specific regions, cultures, ethnic groups, or nations. Other kinds of documentaries are based on characters or events.

A documentarian may make movies with various goals in mind. Some documentarians like to compete in film festivals that are independent of large movie-making centers such as Hollywood. Other documentarians make their films with Hollywood in mind, and some of these movies are shown to general audiences.

A documentarian may also engage in film competitions with cash prizes or other incentives. Film festivals may issue awards to documentary movies that are judged to be at the top of their genre. Getting noticed at film festivals and competitions is a prime objective for many independent documentarians who are making relatively low-budget films without the backing of large production companies.

Where documentary films used to be relatively obscure as a genre, modern documentarians like Michael Moore and have expanded the common role of this type of film. Today, some documentarians can attract the big name producers and make movies that arrive at box offices across the world. Where many careers start with specialized degrees and qualifications, documentarians tend to start out with practical experience.

Apprenticeship is one option for documentarians to learn about the craft of making fact-based movies. Others enroll in small workshops or other educational programs from universities or public learning centers. Many documentarians focus more on generating good cinema than accumulating educational credits, but some kinds of qualifications are good for attracting backing for a film, in addition to a portfolio or proof of experience.

Regardless of how he gets his start, a documentarian is largely judged by the results of his work. A documentarian who makes a splash in the independent film world may end up getting more notoriety in a larger audience. Someone who attracts top production firms or corporate sponsorship to their films may end up getting international attention. Audiences often recognize a documentarian in association with one or more of their specific films.

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