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Today, we are going to look at the Observation documentary.
We will go through the definition and all the characteristics. Then, you can choose from the list of the 13 best observation documentaries.
Want to learn more about documentaries? Learn more about documentary filmmaking and everything it entails.
What is an observational documentary
Observation documentary is a type of documentary focused on non-interrupted observation of real-life people and events. The filmmaker follows real-life events and people around without disturbing them.
It is sometimes called Cinéma vérité, meaning "truthful cinema" or a fly-on-the-wall cinema.
Observation mode follows everyday situations without intrusion as if the filmmaker was not even there. The cameraman tries to be as unobtrusive as possible.
It is often regarded as the middle ground between the poetic mode (which is very abstract and focused on the feeling) and the expository mode (which is focused on the narrators' specific point of view).
History of observational documentary
Observation documentaries are considered to have originated in the 1960s when technological advances allowed for smaller, more mobile camera gear.
At first, observational films tended to focus on famous people. The central notion was that audiences were interested to know the person behind the persona.
This way, rockumentaries were created. A great example is the Gimme Shelter (1970) rockumentary.
5 Observational documentary features and characteristics
By this moment, you probably understand that observational documentary tries to show objective truth and reality from all sides, without having a specific opinion on the topic.
The observational mode just observes, without providing any narratives. This allows the viewers to find their conclusion from the movie.
2. Minimalistic Equipment
The equipment is usually minimalistic, so it is not disturbing the mood.
The smaller equipment is what allowed the development of the observation documentary. Since filmmakers did not have to use tripods and massive, hard to maneuver cameras, they could follow events more naturally.
Handheld cameras are the go-to in observation cinema.
3. No disruption
There are no interviews and no voiceovers - everything is as if you were watching events happen in real-time.
The filmmaker is "not" there. Everything should be happening organically.
4. No reenactments
Reenactments defy the basic notion of observation documentary - realism.
Therefore, you won't find any reenactments or second takes in authentic observation films. It would artificially impact the truthfulness the observational mode wants to show.
5. Long takes
Mostly long takes without cuts are used. Again, this is to create a sense of reality. The takes are organic, simply following the flow of events.
3 Methods used in observational documentary
Filmmakers try to get as close to the subjects as possible without interrupting the events. This is a challenge - since the closer you get, the more you influence your environment.
2. Camera style
The camera works as if a human eye was watching the circumstances happening. Unlike the classic "Hollywood" camera style, it is not a third-person POV with special effects.
You can compare the camera in an observational documentary to a ghost. It follows the environment, unnoticed and unobstructed.
Unlike classic filmmaking, Observational filmmaking thrives on randomness.
There is little to no preparation and planning. What is filmed is dependent on the specific circumstances of the environment. Unexpected events may happen, either disrupting the filming or changing the direction of the movie.
Now you should have a pretty clear picture of what is an observational documentary and how it works.
Let us look at our list of the most outstanding observational documentaries ever.
13 Examples of Observational Documentaries
1. Salesman (1969)
Story of four door-to-door salesmen selling luxury, ornate bibles on the road. They face rejection, constant travel, and endless grind. The film won Cinema Eye Honors Award 3 times in a row.
2. Young Plato (2021)
Set in Belfast, Ireland, this film follows the lives of marginalized working-class schoolkids. The story shows how their visionary Headmaster tries to encourage and educate the children.
He tries to improve their lives and challenge their thinking through lessons in philosophy, mythology, and history.
This film won Special Jury Award at the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival in 2023.
3. Rough Aunties (2008)
Rough Aunties is about a group of 5 women fighting for their neglected children in South Africa.
This movie is both tragic and empowering, showcasing the harsh everyday life but also the compassionate spirits of the Aunties.
4. Chronicle of a Summer (1961)
This observation documentary focuses on the everyday lives of Parisians. Today, it offers a fascinating look at life in the very 1970s.
People in the movie discuss politics, society, and other evergreen topics.
Do you think their ideals and principles were much different back then?
5. The Dog House (2019)
"What are you hoping that a dog would bring to your life?"
If you are a dog lover you will surely enjoy this documentary. Why?
It is full of dogs.
You can see how dogs change the lives of their owners for the better and how they give their owners happiness.
6. Our Yorkshire Farm (2018–2023)
Sometimes we all think about what life would be like if we were not living in a modern society like this.
What if we lived a simpler life?
This observational documentary series follows the life of a family on a remote farm in Yorkshire, UK.
It displays the nowadays unique lifestyle of being a sheep farmer. The family works together and cooperates in an inspiring way.
It is worth watching if your daily life includes at least an hour of social media scrolling.
7. Armadillo (2010)
Armadillo is an observational war documentary.
It follows the journey of Danish soldiers sent to Afghanistan for 6 months. There are no actors, only the camera crew following soldiers in actual military situations.
8. Hoop Dreams (1994)
If you like basketball, you will enjoy this one.
Hoop Dreams follows the lives of Chicago high school boys struggling to break into professional basketball. It shows their struggle with injuries, school grades, and training.
9. Children Underground (2001)
Children Underground shows the lives of homeless children in Romania.
The film shows the children's struggle for survival on the streets of Bucharest.
The film was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar award in 2002. It has won the Special Jury Prize from Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize too.
10. The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun (2006)
What does a relationship between an 80-year-old bachelor and a group of strong-willed Russian nuns look like?
Mr. Vig has lived his life without women, but now he shares his home with many orthodox nuns.
He is an 82-year-old man who bought the Hesbjerg castle in Denmark more than 50 years ago to turn it into a monastery.
Now, he tries to realize his dream. With the help of young Russian nuns, they work to repair the castle. Their relationships face many challenges along the way.
This is undoubtedly one of the more unconventional documentaries.
11. Sister Helen (2002)
Sister Hellen is a nun helping recovering alcoholics and addicts in the South Bronx, New York.
The film focuses on observing her day-to-day experience with the residents of the private home.
Sister Helen won the Directing Award at Sundance Film Festival in 2002, and the Gold Hugo Award at Chicago International Film Festival.
12. Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back (1967)
This observational documentary covers Bob Dylan's 1965 tour in the UK.
You can see a 23-year-old Bob Dylan in everyday situations during his concert tour. Bob Dylan will grip you emotionally and inspire you with his youthful ideals and thoughtful lyrics.
If you are a fan of his music, you will surely enjoy this documentary. It showcases his evolution from the acoustic folk style to the electric guitar rock'n'roll.
13. Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963)
And the final piece on today's list is the Crisis starring none other than President Kennedy.
George Wallace, then governor of Alabama, did not let two black students attend a public university. Kennedy fights this decision with his team.
But, he has to be aware of the political repercussion this decision may bring from some of his voters.
I won't spoil you how it ends, but I will tell you that President Kennedy ends up giving a captivating speech on Civil Rights on national television because of this case.
This film is a landmark of direct observational cinema. For anyone interested in the history of segregation and civil rights this film is a must-watch.
And that's it for our list!
Discover the best documentary filmmaking tips
In this article, you've learned all about the observational documentary. We've gone through the definitions, characteristics, and methods used.
What is an observational documentary?
Observational documentary is a non-iterrupted observation of real life. It follows situations without intrusion. Observational documentaries try to be objective, use long takes, and there are no interview, voiceovers, or soundtracks.
What is an example of an observational documentary?
Great examples of observational documentaries are Salesman (1969), Sister Helen (2002), Hoop Dreams (1994) and Young Plato (2021)
What are the types of documentaries?
The 9 types of documentary are: Direct cinema,docu-drama, expository documentary, participatory documentary, performative documentary, reflexive documentary, impressionistic documentary, experimental documentary, and poetic documentary.
How do you shoot an observational documentary?
Use minimal equipment, a handheld camera is enough. Just observe your subjects, dont disturb the environment. Finally, let events unwind organically, dont force your scenarios. Enjoy the process.