Documentary Movie Vocabulary

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Whether you're a film enthusiast looking to deepen your understanding or an English learner aiming to expand your vocabulary, this guide will explore key terms related to documentary movies and their meanings, offering you a comprehensive insight into this fascinating genre. 
Documentary Movies

Documentary Subgenres Vocabulary

For language learners, understanding the various subgenres of documentary films can be particularly helpful in providing context to the language used.

  • Biographical Documentaries: Films that focus on the life of a specific individual.
  • Docudramas: Documentaries that recreate events to make them more dramatic and engaging.
  • Historical Documentaries: Films that dive deep into historical events or eras.
  • Nature Documentaries: Documentaries that explore wildlife and natural environments.
  • Investigative Documentaries: These are in-depth investigations of specific topics or events.
  • Political Documentaries: Documentaries that analyze or comment on political events or figures.
  • Travel Documentaries: Films showcasing different locations and their unique cultures.
  • Science Documentaries: Documentaries that delve into scientific topics or discoveries.
  • Music Documentaries: Films that explore music, musicians, or music culture.
  • True Crime Documentaries: These explore criminal cases in depth, often with a focus on justice.

Now you can better navigate the language and topics often featured in these types of films, making your learning journey more engaging.

Vocabulary of Documentary Movies Themes

Themes are crucial in any storytelling medium, including documentaries. As a language-learner, knowing these themes can help you anticipate the type of vocabulary and dialogue you might encounter.

  • Justice: The quest for fairness or revealing injustices.
  • Survival: Depicting struggle and the will to survive.
  • Identity: Exploring the concept of individual or collective identity.
  • Human Rights: Highlighting issues related to basic human rights.
  • War and Conflict: Covering aspects of war, conflict, and their impacts.
  • Power and Corruption: Analyzing the abuse of power and corruption.
  • Environment: Concerning ecological and environmental issues.
  • Innovation: Documenting technological and societal advances.
  • Discovery: Showcasing the process and impact of discoveries.
  • Culture and Society: Exploring aspects of different cultures and societies.

These themes are the backbone of many documentary movies. By understanding them, you will gain deeper insight into the underlying messages that filmmakers aim to convey.

Names of Documentary Filmmaking Styles

The way a documentary is filmed or presented constitutes its style. Knowing this vocabulary will help you identify different stylistic choices in documentary movies.

  • Cinéma Vérité: A method of documentary filming that attempts to capture reality as it unfolds.
  • Expository: A style where the filmmaker's voice or a narrator explains the subject to the audience.
  • Observational: Documentaries where the filmmaker observes the subject without interference.
  • Participatory: The filmmaker actively participates in the events of the documentary.
  • Poetic: A less structured style focusing more on creating mood and feelings.
  • Performative: The filmmaker uses their personal experience to connect with the audience.
  • Reflexive: These films draw attention to their own process of construction.
  • Interactive: A documentary style where the filmmaker interacts with the subject matter.
  • Direct Cinema: Filming takes place as events happen, without pre-planning or rehearsal.
  • Animated: Using animation to convey the documentary's narrative.

With these documentary filmmaking styles, you can enhance your comprehension and enjoyment of documentaries, getting insights into the structure and presentation of English language usage in different styles.


Documentary Filmmaking Techniques Vocabulary

Going further, you will learn some techniques that documentary filmmakers use to tell their stories.

  • Interviews: Conduct conversations with people who are relevant to the film's subject.
  • Archival Footage: Using historical video or audio materials in the film.
  • Voiceover Narration: A voice narrates the story off-screen.
  • Reenactments: Acting out past events for better storytelling.
  • B-roll Footage: Additional footage that supports the main narrative.
  • Montage: Joining different shots together to convey a lot in a short amount of time.
  • Direct Address: The subject or filmmaker speaks directly to the camera.
  • Diegetic Sound: Sound that originates from the film's world.
  • Non-diegetic Sound: Sounds that do not belong to the film's world, like background music.
  • Cutaway Shots: Shots that divert from the main scene to provide context or detail.

By understanding these techniques, you can engage more fully with the language and storytelling aspects of documentary movies, aiding in your English language learning.

Ethical Considerations in Documentary Filmmaking

The ethics of documentary filmmaking concern the responsibilities and duties filmmakers have towards their subjects and audience.

  • Informed Consent: Subjects should be aware of how they will be portrayed.
  • Representation: Subjects should be represented truthfully and fairly.
  • Privacy: Filmmakers should respect their subjects' privacy.
  • Confidentiality: Certain information may need to be kept confidential.
  • Harm Minimization: Filmmakers should avoid causing harm to subjects.
  • Transparency: Filmmakers should be transparent about their intentions.
  • Accuracy: Filmmakers should strive for factual accuracy.
  • Fair Dealing: Use of copyrighted materials should be legal and fair.
  • Independence: Filmmakers should avoid conflicts of interest.
  • Accountability: Filmmakers should be ready to account for their actions.

Grasping these ethical considerations can help you develop a more nuanced understanding of the context and intent behind the English language used in documentaries, making you a more informed viewer.

Notable Documentary Movies and Directors

Finally, the best way to fully grasp what is documentary film is to watch some! Here are some notable documentary movies and their directors.

  • "The Thin Blue Line" (1988) by Errol Morris: An investigative documentary that famously helped overturn a wrongful conviction.
  • "Bowling for Columbine" (2002) by Michael Moore: An exploration of the causes and effects of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School.
  • "An Inconvenient Truth" (2006) by Davis Guggenheim: Al Gore's campaign to educate about global warming.
  • "The Cove" (2009) by Louie Psihoyos: An exposé of dolphin hunting practices in Japan.
  • "Blackfish" (2013) by Gabriela Cowperthwaite: An investigative look into the treatment of orcas in captivity.
  • "Citizenfour" (2014) by Laura Poitras: A real-time documentation of Edward Snowden's NSA leak.
  • "13th" (2016) by Ava DuVernay: A deep dive into the intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the U.S.
  • "Free Solo" (2018) by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin: A breathtaking documentation of Alex Honnold's free solo climb of El Capitan.
  • "For Sama" (2019) by Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts: A mother's view of the Syrian conflict.
  • "My Octopus Teacher" (2020) by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed: A man forms an unusual relationship with an octopus living in a South African kelp forest.

By watching these acclaimed documentary movies, you can immerse yourself in a variety of English language contexts, improving your comprehension skills while appreciating some of the finest works in the genre.


Remember, the best way to master documentary movie vocabulary is by watching a variety of films and seeing these terms in action. This will certainly enrich your viewing experience and help you appreciate the art and craft of making documentary films.

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Christopher LloydMar 19th, 2024
This article makes learning new vocabulary feel like a breeze! It's well-organized and packed with useful information.
Kadence Nov 7th, 2023
not bed 👍