How Do Experimental Films Differ from Documentary Films?

Since the development of the first motion pictures in the 19th century, a multiplicity of different styles and genres of filmmaking have emerged. Most films that make it to the cinema screens nowadays are examples of narrative filmmaking; films that utilise a narrative and structure to tell a story produced from fiction. However, there are some less popular film types that don’t follow this traditional style of filmmaking. Experimental and documentary films often reject the more traditional methods of narrative films, and favour more abstract methods of storytelling.

Both experimental and documentary films are enjoyed by a large number of people all over the world, but go about telling their stories in very different ways. So, how exactly do experimental films differ from documentary films?

Experimental films subvert the use of a narrative, and instead focus on attempting to evoke certain moods, emotions or thoughts using light, rhythm and motion (considered to be the most fundamental elements of film). Documentaries on the other hand, may utilise elements of a traditional film narrative, and focus on exploring real-life events through the lens of the filmmaker.

How Do Experimental and Documentary Films Differ?

When it comes to the differences between documentaries and experimental films, you might think that there is a clear distinction between the two, and you would be partly right. Experimental films are far more concerned with the abstract than the actual, and attempt to convey real emotions, moods and thoughts rather than events, places and people. Documentaries remain firmly planted in real-life events, often using interviews with real people to share a compelling story.

However, there is ongoing discussion surrounding what an experimental film actually is, as some films tend to fall somewhere in between an experimental film and a more traditional narrative film, often using techniques that are found in both styles. In the same light, some narrative feature films draw on elements of experimental film. Of course, there are also some documentary films that draw on elements found in traditional filmmaking.

It would therefore be naive to assume that films are made using one style or that all films conform to one distinct genre of film, as films often draw on elements of multiple different genres.

What is Experimental Film?

In the 1920s, as narrative feature films grew in popularity, experimental filmmaking also began to grow traction. During this time, a group of French filmmakers in Paris started the ‘Cinèma Pur’ (French for ‘Pure Cinema’) movement, with the aim of reducing film to its most fundamental elements of light, rhythm and motion. The artists that were part of this movement formed groups, and exhibited their work in cafes and art houses in Paris during this time. Experimental filmmaking, also known as ‘Avant-Garde’ or ‘Vangarde’, can cover a wide variety of film styles, lengths and goals.

Key Features

Experimental films tend to reject the accepted norms of traditional filmmaking, and instead adopt more original methods of filming and production, typically on a much lower budget than your average Hollywood blockbuster. Often, experimental films feature either a loose narrative, or no narrative at all, with filmmakers attempting to share their vision using other methods. Experimental films are not usually intended for mainstream appeal or traditional distribution, and often utilise unorthodox filming techniques such as such as deploying lesser used cinematography techniques, unusual or experimental production design or non-linear or purely textural storytelling.

Notable Examples of Experimental Film

Interestingly, prior to developing the Star Wars franchise, George Lucas produced a series of politically-charged avant-garde shorts as a film student. Music videos frequently draw on filming styles that are typical of the experimental genre, often using unorthodox shots and a loose narrative to portray complex emotions and concepts. Here are some examples of other experimental films and their directors that have gained particular attention:

  • The Lighthouse (2019), Dir. Robert Eggers
  • La Casa Lobo (2018), Dir. Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León
  • The Lobster (2015), Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
  • Russian Ark (2002), Dir. Aleksandr Sokurov
  • Gummo (1997), Dir. Harmony Korine

What Is a Documentary?

Documentary films are developed from non-fictional events, aiming to document or show an exploration of reality as accurately as possible. Although a documentary normally attempts to show reality as accurately as possible, documentary filmmakers inevitably influence the narrative and style of storytelling to an extent.

Documentary films can be seen dating back to the first cinema screenings, during which governments would take the opportunity to show short clips documenting real events from all over the world. In the 1980s and 90s documentaries grew in popularity, with dedicated channels such as the Discovery Channel making documentaries more accessible to a larger audience.

Key Features

Although documentaries typically show real events and people, documentary filmmaking is a very broad category of film. Documentary films are often produced using a series of interviews and footage of real events, but sometimes a more abstract approach can be taken by documentary filmmakers, and documentaries often employ techniques of fictional narrative filming to help to recreate past events.

Notable Examples of Documentaries

While documentary films may borrow techniques from traditional filming methods to help tell their story, they are primarily produced on the basis that they are conveying stories that have actually happened. Here are some documentaries and their directors that have gained significant popular attention:

  • The Act of Killing (2012), Dir. Joshua
  • Oppenheimer, Anon., Christine Cynn
  • Blackfish (2013), Dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite
  • Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010), Dir. Banksy
  • Free Solo (2018), Dir. Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
  • Man on Wire (2008), Dir. James Marsh

Bring Your Vision to Life

No matter what film project you are embarking on, Dot Films provide a comprehensive filmmaking service that can be tailored to meet your specific requirements. Dot Films is an expanding film agency that channels the art of visual storytelling, and has worked on projects for brand, travel, music, and experimental films. Be sure to get in touch to discuss your vision with a member of Dot Films’ expert team, and turn your vision into a reality.

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Alamu Tosin

The writer is Alamu Tosin. I have three strong passions in life — football, blogging and movies — in that order. I love spending time with friends talking about the important things in life and hate nothing more than ‘authority’ and hypocrisy. My personal believe in life is that once an individual sets his/her mind to achieve something, it is totally possible. And oh!, I am a strong Lannister, because I always pay my debt. For writing or fixing gigs, contact [email protected].
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