Is The Dichotomy Between Documentaries and Fiction Films a False Difference?

Dainéal MacLean
4 min readNov 13, 2021


Dziga Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera” (1929)

Reflecting on the suggestion that the dichotomy between documentaries and fiction films is a false difference, as presented in the question I am addressing, would have led me to think quite differently in response to this idea in the past. I have to admit, that I didn’t quite know anywhere near what I know today, largely thanks to the documentaries I have watched about the many subgenres and nuances within the documentary genre. For instance, I had never quite seen such innovative documentary films like The Act of Killing or Nanook of the North before. These two documentaries blur the lines between reality and fiction, and present the genre as an artform, no different than a feature film in their creative treatments. I would say from my perspective today that this dichotomy, mentioned above, is a false difference.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” (2012).
Robert J. Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North” (1922)

Upon watching Man With the Movie Camera in particular, I have realized that so many types of films, music videos and other mediums of multimedia productions that I once considered to simply fall into the category of “film” or “cinema”, may actually have more elements of “documentary” than I ever really considered or noticed. The reverse is true now as well, with a new realization of how documentaries consist of elements of film and cinema, making the two forms of filmmaking increasingly harder to differentiate for myself. In Lumiere’s first picture shows and The Man with a Movie Camera, real life is presented in a creatively manipulated form, despite it being largely unstaged, with no clear narratives, yet they tell stories and present emotion no differently than a feature film. In these two films, no dialogue or main characters are present, but they still tell a story, or multiple stories, whether the audience must construct meaning themselves, or derive meaning from the documentaries through further analysis or research of the film, filmmaker and historical context surrounding the documentary.

“Man with the Movie Camera”

The amount of editing within the film Man With the Movie Camera alone is impressive, to say the least, especially for 1929, and it is one of the first “documentaries” I have seen that is essentially an experimental art film, Lumiere’s first pictures shows is also one of the first of this kind I have seen, but features far less editing. Lumiere’s first picture shows instead experiments with colour manipulation, more than anything else, but also blurs the lines between documentary and fiction film because of occasional staging of scenes and non-scripted, improvisational acting from some of the subjects on screen. The closest comparison I could make between Man with the Movie Camera and anything else I’ve experienced or seen, might be the 1982 experimental film Koyaanisqatsi. In Koyaanisqatsi, the film consists of time-lapse footage of nature, including aerial shots as well as footage of busy streets of urban centres from the perspective of being on the ground.

The Lumière Brother’s “First Picture Shows”

Like The Man with the Movie Camera, the film is poetic and features no dialogue or narrative, and the entire film is moved along by a variety of different images criss-crossing, set to a complimenting score to enhance these sequences on screen. The only difference is that although Koyaanisqatsi is largely based on documentary footage, it seems as though it is slightly nudged to the side of “feature film” by classification, while Man with the Movie Camera has been bumped more to the side of “documentary”. However, I don’t think there is much of a difference between these two films as far as defining the genre they belong to, which is an example that helps reinforce my opinion that dividing documentary from fiction is a misleading thing to do, due to the constant overlap between the genres, whether always recognized or not. Perhaps it would help audiences understand the complexities of film and documentary more, if the strict categorizations of films on both sides were lessened and allowed for more fluidity in classification between the two forms of motion pictures. It could also help to remind audiences that very realistic looking documentaries are not always the absolute universal truth, rather a filmmaker’s perspective and idea of the world that they wish to express, in the same way that this is true and generally understood of feature films and the creators behind them.

Godfrey Reggio’s “Koyaanisqatsi” (1982)