Most attempts to define the documentary genre have done so by distinguishing it from fiction. At the other end of the spectrum the documentary borders on factual reporting, but as with fiction the borders are not crystal clear and distinct.

Yair Lev
A documentary filmmaker based in Israel, who teach at the Sam Spiegel Film School and Bezalel Art Academy both in Jerusalem. Also the Head of Studies of "Greenhouse" development program. Email:
Published date: June 7, 2000

YAIR LEV takes up the challenge and makes an attempt to characterize the differences between reportage and documentary film.

One of the most difficult issues to untangle in the making of documentary cinema is the issue of its limits: how does it differ from reportage? When can we determine with any certainty that we are watching a movie and not a news report, interesting or exciting as that may be? The difficulty of creating clear-cut definitions in the fields of aesthetics and literary criticism is well known, although intuitively the differences are often clear.

Reportage Types

Essentially, there are two types of reportage: ‘news reports’, which deliver “objective” coverage of events, and the other type of reports I will refer to here under the generic umbrella of ‘colour reports’. These reports deal with a variety of phenomena that exist on the fringe of a news event or are generated by them, for example the reports in weekly news magazines. Other times they are more “freestyle” and less crucial, such as reports about migrating birds in the Hula Valley or new Internet sites. A sub-genre of the ‘colour reports’ is the ‘personal report’, usually longer, carried out by a well-known investigative journalist, reporting from his personal viewpoint. A genre that is also called ‘New-Journalism’, and aims to expose an aspect of life. This sub-genre, the ‘personal report’, crystallizes the difference between the report and the documentary film. ‘News reports’ and ‘colour reports’ demand utmost “objectivity”, whereas in the ‘Personal’ report the reporter’s subjectivity is inevitable. As we shall see however, it does not transgress the border into the realm of the documentary cinema.

Subjective Point of View

What is that realm then and which border are we talking about? In discussing reportage, I mentioned three key issues: journalism, information and “objectivity”. Directors of documentary cinema often commit themselves to doing quite the reverse. Rather than striving for “objectivity” they look for the subjective point of view from which they can process the material into a personal statement on the reality. The information derived from this reality is artistically moulded into a cinematic drama. This does not …

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