The question posed in this article’s title is far too expansive to be anywhere near adequately resolved in this short piece of writing, and my relative lack of knowledge of scholarship on the subject means that many of my assertions have probably been made more rigorously elsewhere, but in the following paragraphs I’ll have a go at sketching out some notions towards a definition of documentary, and give some indication as to the kind of films which – in terms of my contributions, at least – Reeling the Real will be making and exhibiting in the future.
The easy answer to the question is every film ever made, because of course – to paraphrase Godard – there has never been a film which is not the document of its own making. But this is not what we mean when we say “documentary”, we instead mean a film which has some claim to “truth” not only in terms of its brute mimetic facets, but in terms of the information which it contrives to convey. Yet this definition appears to falter if we test it against films which are taken to be paradigmatic of the documentary genre: Flaherty was exposed to have fabricated many elements within Nanook of the North, for instance (by the time of shooting, the Inuks had been killing seals with guns instead of spears for years, and the women who appear onscreen as Nanook’s wives were Flaherty’s common-law concubines offscreen) and Herzog gladly confesses to having constructed scenarios within many of his celebrated documentary works (in Bells from the Deep, for example, the Bavarian auteur couldn’t find any Pilgrims to crawl around on ice in search of a lost underwater city and so roped in two nearby drunks, who promptly fell into inebriated face-down sleep which in the film appears to be deep meditation). We cannot conclude from such revelations that the aforementioned films are not documentaries, because we know that they are, and so instead we must modify our definition of documentary by observing what those films which we know to be documentaries have in common.
What are the elements shared by the investigative documentaries of Nick Broomfield and the cinema verite of Jean Rouch? What unites, say, My Architect and The Up Series, or – indeed – the works of Herzog and Flaherty? I would tentatively argue that what the filmmakers of all the good films denoted as documentaries share is not some slavish dedication to depicting the world “as it really is” (as if the very presence of the camera doesn’t profoundly affect the film in question’s subject matter), but instead an openness to capturing unguarded moments; a willingness to shoot or trawl through hours and hours of footage in the hope of recording one minute of unrehearsed, revealing beauty, irrespective of whether this minute is framed by scenarios which don’t stringently adhere to – as Herzog would have it – “accountant’s truth.”