“Documentary can be no more easily defined than ‘love’ or ‘culture’” says Bill Nichols in “How Do Documentaries Differ from Other Types of Films” (20). The definition thus the legitimacy of documentary is relative to fiction and avant-garde film, as the concepts of love and culture being meaningful only in contrast to their counterparts. Even though the definition resides in a grey and dynamic area, documentary audience is a conservative crowd. The audience reacts skeptically towards novelty in non-fiction film as a result of genre’s infamous claim of “representing reality”. In that case, can animation which creates its world frame by frame and which preeminently falls under the realm of the imaginary be considered a valid tool for documentary films (Kees, 1)?

The legitimacy of documentary partially lies in the judgment of the viewer. The authenticity of image, sound or both constructs what the audience perceives as conventional documentary. However relying on what claims to be and resembles the reality can be tricky. One of the landmarks of documentary cinema, Nanook of the North by Robert Flaherty (1920), tells us about the Inuit culture depicted through Nanook and his family.

The film utilizes the visual codes, which will later become the indicators of ethnographic documentary. Despite its naturalism and its resemblance to reality, Nanook of the North did not represent the Inuit customs of the 1920’s at all. In contrast to the fantasy life that Flaherty wanted to portray, real Nanook did not use some primitive spears but guns to hunt, he did not die of starvation but was a victim of tuberculosis, his real name was not Nanook, and the women in the film were not his wives. There was no way the audience could tell the reality apart. Therefore, maybe the authentic footage (or sound) is not really necessary to validate a film as a documentary, especially when there’s no way to validate the materials’ authenticity.

Another instance would be Louis Bunuel’s 1932 film on the peasant life in a mountainous region of Spain: Las Hurdes: Land Without Bread.

If the closest we could get to the definition of documentary is “you know it when you see one”, then Las Hurdes definitely lives up to one’s expectations with its authoritative voice-over and its supposed “fly on the wall” style. However throughout the film, Bunuel’s ethnographic/surrealist documentary forces fiction into reality. As the text reads “At times a goat falls from the rocks”, we see smoke followed by a goat actually falling from a cliff. When asked in an interview, he justifies this event by saying “Since we couldn’t wait for the event to happen, I provoked it by firing a revolver” (which reminds us of Leni Riefenstahl's staged reality of the Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg; even though everything looks natural, “in actuality, with a crew of 172 under her command, Riefenstahl bent reality to her will from mise-en-scene to montage.” (Macdonald, K. and Cousins, M., 130)) (Macdonald, K. and Cousins, M., 86) In the same interview, Bunuel mentions that he did not mean to reveal his intervention (which can easily be called into question regarding Bunuel’s surrealist background), but they could not repeat the scene because they would not want to make the natives (who only eat the animals that die of natural causes) upset. If everything went as they were planned, we would have believed in Bunuel’s sincerity because Las Hurdes is a perfect example of an educational and authoritative visual essay and yes, sometimes that’s what it takes to win over the trust of the documentary audience. If the reliability of the lens-based image can go as far as the filmmaker’s intentions, then is it truly necessary to oblige non-fiction film to the actualités? If that is not the case, then can the actual world be represented through the constructed images?

If the staple characteristic of a documentary film is the authentic footage of the actual event or the person, surprisingly the secondary convention would be the use of reenactment. Reenactment comes handy when technical difficulties such as death of the protagonist or the necessity of representing a prior event corner the filmmaker. Bill Nichols classifies five types of reenactments. The realist dramatization would be the most problematic one because it can be mistaken for either the fictional representation of a past event or the actual event that is being reenacted in the documentary, which means it has the potential of looking as both real and fiction but in the wrong context. Typification is what we see in Nanook of the North where a stereotypical instance of a non-specific event or a person is created through reenactment. Brechtian distantiation is used where the disparity between the real event and the recreation of it is emphasized. Stylization also creates a sense of separation while dramatizing the subject’s feelings as in the famous murder scene of the Dallas police officer in Errol Morris’ Thin Blue Line. The final type of reenactment is Parody and Irony (Nichols, B. “Documentary Reenactment and the Fantasmatic Subject”). If we consider the use of animation as a form of reenactment in documentaries, then animation in effect falls under one of the most established conventions of the non-fiction films. Animated documentaries are perfect examples for the stylization in documentaries, they can be utilized to produce a Brechtian alienation effect to create a more engaged audience, moreover they can, by default, never be mistaken for the reality as in the case of contentious realist dramatization. They don’t pretend to be something they are not but they stylistically paraphrase the reality and offer an interpretation as in the case of reenactments: "Reenactments are clearly a view rather than the view from which the past yields up its truth. Reenactments produce an iterability for that which belongs to the singularity of historical occurrence. They reconcile this apparent contradiction by acknowledging the adoption of a distinct perspective, point of view, or voice" (Nichols, B. “Documentary Reenactment and the Fantasmatic Subject”, 80).
It turns out, animation is far away from being an inappropriate tool for documentary, it actually is a variation of genre's one of the most typical characteristics. Moreover, in contrast to the common assumption, employment of animations is not totally a rare practice as it is illustrated in the following paragraphs.

Animation came in handy for educational and propaganda purposes since the 1920’s. Disney’s 1943 film Victory Through Air Power promotes the employment of an “air army” to succeed in the war.

After watching the “father” of the U.S. Air Force, Billy Mitchell, talk about the virtues of aerial power in war, we are taken on a journey through the “History of Aviation”. The skillful and humorous animations depict the evolution of the planes with technical explanations that could not be possible to illustrate any other way. Another Disney film from 1957 Our Friend the Atom narrated by the scientist Dr. Heinz Haber educates the viewer on the merits of the atomic power.

In addition to the film’s highly informative and remarkably persuasive form and content, Disney makes its signature mark with a genie being the analogy for the atomic power: capable of doing good or evil. In terms of their praise of power and efficacy on influencing masses, are they less of a non-fiction propaganda film than any Triumph of the Will?

The first animated documentary in the history is considered to be Winsor McCay’s 1918 film The Sinking of Lusitania.

The film portrays the story of the American ocean liner Lusitania that got torpedoed by a German submarine, causing almost 2000 people to die and USA to enter the First World War. Considering that at the time illustrating newspaper articles was a common solution for visualization of the actual events, why would the animated reconstruction of the tragedy be less of a representation of reality? Since the actual footage did not exist, the use of animation is extremely purposeful. Besides The Sinking of Lusitania, there are many examples of animation as a creative solution to the lack of an actual footage. Jessica Yu's In the Realms of the Unreal (2004) is a feature-length non-fiction film on the peculiar life and the naïve works of the painter Henry Darger.

Darger spent most of his life as a lonesome janitor, isolated from any kind of social interaction. Only months before his death, his landlord discovered his 15000 pages of illustrated epic story of the Vivian girls against the evil. The story of the Vivian girls was obviously a symbol for Darger's childhood nightmare at an asylum. As the director explored Darger's work, the artist had already deceased, leaving only his work to speak for himself. Therefore Ju chose to animate Darger's paintings in order to “illustrate” his life. Another creative/practical use of animation can be seen in Brett Morgen's Chicago 10: Speak Your Peace (2007) that unfolds the story of Chicago 8.

The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was shadowed by the parallel event/protest by the anti-Vietnam group. As a result of the dispute between the protestors and the police, eight people (Chicago 8) were charged of inciting a riot. In Chicago 10, Morgen employed animation to reenact the scenes that took place in the courtroom. Since cameras are not allowed during the trials, director’s choice was a very pragmatic one as in the cases of the two previous documentaries.

Aside from making the propaganda films look cuter and more audience-friendly or filling the gaps of the footage of the actual event, animation has also been widely used in illustrating radio interviews. In Abductees by Paul Vester, people who claim to be kidnapped by the aliens are interviewed.

Every single incident is illustrated in a distinctive style, which “gives the story a personal touch- as though the experience was filtered by memory” (Sofian, 8). Chris Landreth’s Ryan employs a similar technique.

Landerth tracks down the legendary animation director Ryan Larkin who has been penniless and an alcoholic for the past 20 years. He conducts a series of interviews with Larkin, which constitute the source material for the documentary. Departing from the footage of the interviews, the photographs and the sketches of the interviewee, the director builds the characters in not three but four dimensions: "…what I'm most interested in is not achieving photorealism in CGI, but in co-opting elements of photorealism to serve a different purpose—to expose the realism of the incredibly complex, messy, chaotic, sometimes mundane, and always conflicted quality we call human nature. I refer to this as 'psychorealism.'" In Ryan, the characters reveal the emotional and psychological scars physically on their bodies. Ryan’s head is mostly hollow with only one eye and glasses. When he gets angry red thorns burst out of his head violently. On the other hand, the interviewer’s inner demons are depicted as colorful ribbons coming out of and wrapping around his body aggressively. Through the use of animation in Ryan, the characters’ psychological conditions are revealed in an extremely concrete way. Both in Abductees and Ryan, the utilization of animation contributes immensely to the portrayal of the characters’ state of mind.

In addition to its ability to visualize emotions and inner worlds, animation can as well be used to construct “visual euphemism” for sensitive subjects. Animated worlds may be a safer ground for touchy topics like sex, death, war, and crime. When Life Departs by Karsten Kiilerich is a perfect example to animation’s ability of lightening difficult subjects. For this animated short, Kiilerich interviewed children on their ideas and experiences about death.

Softening the intensity of the severe subject, the children’s graphically detailed thoughts are beautifully animated. Having children as interviewees for an animated documentary is a fantastic idea since their magical realist vision is highly compatible with the medium. Jones Odell’s Never Like the First Time illustrates interviews about people’s first sexual experiences.

An unsuccessful attempt to make love for the first time or having been beaten up and getting raped are not scenes that can be easily represented. With the buffering effect of animation, all of these scenes become digestible moreover highly artistic. Dennis Tupicoff's His Mother's Voice (1997) illustrates the very moment when Kathy Easdale learnt that her son Matthew was shot dead. The director utilizes two different styles of animation to tell the story twice. This is a text book example of generating various feelings with different styles of representation which could not be possible with a film footage. Cindy Klein's personal documentary, Phyllis and Harold, opens up with an animation in order to introduce film's tone to the audience.

Klein says this was a conscious decision she had taken because the documentary deals with dark subjects about her parents' “59 year disastrous marriage”. The opening scene is her way of telling the audience that the heavy subject will be lightened with the style she chose to employ. Throughout the film, cut-out animations illustrate sensitive events like Klein's mother's affair with an old lover, her father's sudden death followed by her mother breaking her legs and ribs one after the other and catching pneumonia from which she never recovers. None of these events actually drive us to the point of painful misery because of Lisa Craft's “goofball animations” (What's Up Doc?).

Utilizing an stylistic manner rather than employing the raw reality can offer diverse possibilities to represent memory, dreams and psychological state of the protagonists. One instance would be Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir.

In this feature-length animated documentary, the story of a veteran is told. Being an autobiographical film, Waltz with Bashir portrays Folman’s memories of himself being a 19-year-old Israeli soldier in the First Lebanon War. The film starts with a dream scene where a man is being chased by dogs. Later on, we see the same man talking to the animated character of Ari Folman about his dream, which they conclude must be connected to the War. That’s when Foldman realizes with great surprise that he does not recall anything from the War at all. In his interviews on Waltz with Bashir, Folman states that the animation was essential for this film since the whole documentary is the visualization of the director’s subconscious being excavated and his lost memory being recalled. While investigating memory, dreams and subconscious, Waltz with Bashir “psychologizes a complex political event conveying a disturbingly skewed account of the First Lebanon War... even the atrocities against the Palestinian refugees are all about Folman and his apparent psychological suffering”(“Waltz with Bashir”) The animation not only represents Folman's inner conflict but it also becomes the allegory of a more extensive event, the politics between Lebanon and Israel.

The most progressive example of the animated documentary genre would be Douglas Gayeton’s Molotov Alva and His Search for the Creator: A Second Life Odyssey.

This is a documentary that completely takes place in the virtual world of Second Life. When Gayeton was commissioned a documentary about the web culture, he had to come up with an idea that would not require him to travel a lot because his wife had recently given birth. Therefore he decided to shoot a documentary film in front of his desktop. He based the documentary on his own Second Life experience as the avatar Molotov Alva, which consists of ten episodes. The project’s two layers of reality cause ambiguity in assigning a genre to the film. If we think of Second Life as a self-contained world, then the film that is totally shot within this world to depict the experience is surely a documentary. However if we consider this world as the primary reality, then are the avatars animated characters, or are they this second world’s reality? Molotov Avla and Dougles Gayeton are certainly challenging the borders of the animated documentary genre.

To distinguish various sub-genres of documentary, Bill Nichols identifies six modes of representation in his article “What Types of Documentaries Are There?”. Animated documentaries are most likely to lend themselves to the fifth mode: reflexive documentary. In the preceding observational mode, the filmmaker is reduced to a “fly on the wall” for the sake of capturing the pure reality. The absence of the filmmaker during the filming process and the post-production supports the idea that a documentary film is as good as its content. The reflexive mode questions this theory by investigating various ways of representing the raw reality: "Trinh Minh-ha's declaration that she will “speak nearby” rather than “speak about” Africa, in Reassemblage (1982), symbolizes the shift reflexivity produces: we now attend to how we represent the historical world as well as to what gets represented" (Nichols, B. Introduction to Documentary, 125).

In the same article Bill Nichols further argues the parallelism between reflexivity and Bertolt Brecht's “alienation effect”, Russian formalists' “making strange”, or surrealist effort to see the everyday world in different ways. This approach creates an interaction between the filmmaker and the audience by “readjusting the assumptions and expectations of the audience” (Nichols, B. Introduction to Documentary, 128) rather than presenting them what they are already familiar with. Reflexive mode rejects documentary cinema's formal conventions. It rejects the idea that the greatest documentary is the one with the shakiest camera and the anonymous director. The use of animation in documentary films is mostly a representational and stylistic choice that can create a more engaged audience. It does not pretend to be the reality but an iteration of the actuality. Therefore it fits what Nichols calls a reflexive mode of documentary.

The animated documentaries discussed in this essay support the genre’s power of telling stories in a way that cannot be told in any other media. They prove that the genre of animated documentaries definitely exists and it is not only capable of representing the reality but actually good at it. Animated documentary sets the filmmaker free from many technical obstacles such as the necessity of an authentic footage of an historical event and many ethical ones like representing crime, sex, and death. It increases the limited creative options of a documentary filmmaker hence creating a more engaged audience. Since the animated documentary can never claim to be the authentic footage, the audience can always rely on its sincerity and sympathize with the characters easily. Moreover it allows technological and stylistic innovations for the further development of the genre.

Documentaries being able to reflect the “objective” reality through lens-based media is a superstitious belief. Nothing we see on the screen is natural as we never perceive the world in cuts, edits or selected scenes. Dziga Vertov argues on his writings on the “kino-eye” that the viewer sees the world in the manner best suits the kino-eye's (camera and therefore the director’s) presentation (Macdonald, K. and Cousins, M., 54). As we witness in Vertov's 1929 non-fiction film The Man with a Movie Camera, reality on screen is man-made. In the case of non-fiction film, the only reason why we label one type of representation as more realistic is the visual codes they possess. In effect, film or video footage do not necessarily show unbiased reality as in the cases of Nanook of the North, Las Hurdes or Triumph of the Will. Whereas animated documentaries by its nature can never attempt to be objective but rather stylistic representations of the real. Therefore they can be categorized as a sub-genre of the “reflexive” documentaries which “mix observational passages with interviews, the voice-over of the filmmaker with intertitles, making patently clear what has been implicit all along: documentaries always were forms of re-presentation, never clear windows onto “reality”; the filmmaker was always a participant-witness and an active fabricator of meaning, a producer of cinematic discourse rather than a neutral or all-knowing reporter of the way things truly are.”
As a sub-genre of the reflexive documentaries, animated documentaries bring openness and honesty to the representation of reality in addition to their contextual richness, stylistic innovation and technical profits.


Bunuel, Louis. Las Hurdes. 1933.
DelGaudio, Sybil. “If Truth Be Told, Can ‘Toons Tell It? Documentary and Animation”. Indiana U. P., 1997.
Disney, Walt. Victory Through Air Power. 1943.
Disney. Our Friend the Atom. 1957.
Douglas, Gayeton. Molotov Alva and His Search for the Creator: A Second Life Odyssey. 2007. Video.
Driessen, Kees. “More Than Just Talking Mice”. IDFA Magazine. 2007.
Evans, Noell Wolfgram. “J.R. Bray- Documentarian?”. FPS Magazine. March 2005: 12.
Flaherty, Robert, dir. Nanook of the North, 1922.
Folman, Ari. Waltz with Bashir. 2008.
Grant, B. K. and Sloniowski, J. Documenting the Documentary. Wayne State University Press. 1998.
Gunnar, Strom. “How Swede It Is”. FPS Magazine. March 2005: 13-16.
Kiilerich, Karsten. When Life Departs. 1997.
Klein, Cindy. Phyllis and Harold. 2008.
Krinsky, Tamara. “Virtual Documentary: The Making of Molotov Alva”. 25 Oct. 2010. Web. 25 Oct. 2010.
Landreth, Chris. Ryan. 2004.
Macdonald, K. and Cousins, M. Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. Faber and Faber Ltd., 1996.
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. MIT Press. 2001.
Matlin, Julie. “What Makes a Great Documentary?”. National Film Board of Canada’s web blog. 15 Feb. 2010. Web. 28 Oct. 2010. <>
McCay, Winsor. The Sinking of Lusitania. 1918.
Morgen, B. Chicago 10: Speak Your Peace. 2007.
Nichols, Bill. “Documentary Reenactment and the Fantasmatic Subject”. Critical Inquiry. Autumn 2008: 72-89.
Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana U. P., 2001.
Nichols, Bill. “The Voice of Documentary”. Film Quarterly. Spring 1983: 17-30.
Odell, Jones. Never Like the First Time. 2006.
“Psychorealism” Computer Graphics World: July. 2004. Web. Oct. 2010.
Riefenstahl, Leni. The Triumph of the Will. 1934.
Sarris, Andrew. “The Illusion of Naturalism”. The MIT Press:1968.
Sofian, Sheila. “The Truth in Pictures”. FPS Magazine. March 2005: 7-11.
Tupicoff, D. His Mother's Voice.1997.
Vertov, Dziga. Kino-eye: the Writings of Dziga Vertov. Berkeley, Ca.: University of California, 1984.
Vertov, Dziga. The Man with a Movie Camera. 1929.
Vester, Paul. Abductees. 1996.
“Waltz with Bashir” Cineaste: 34 no.2. Spring 2009.
Yu, Jessica. In the Realms of the Unreal. 2004.