Truls Lie on Observational Documentary

Norwegian Truls Lie, editor-in-chief of Modern Times Review, The European Documentary Magazine, wrote an interesting article (

that you should read, inspired by his visit to the 25th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival this year, a reflection on the observational documentary cinema: “In a film world dominated by one-character-driven three-act narratives, there is a growing need for documentaries that depart from this formula. With the festival’s concept, «The Art of Reality Beyond Observation» (mentioning the 20 film classics shown at the festival, ed.), and many observational films screened – both written texts and film examples marked this great alternative…”

Here is a long quote – permission granted by Lie: 

“Observational cinema was influenced by three predecessors: Italian neorealism, French cinéma vérité, and American direct cinema. The first was highly critical, emphasising the economic and social realities of the time after 2nd WW. Cinéma vérité observed contemporary society up close, capturing life with handheld cameras etc., to convey authenticity and realism. They both were presenting lived experiences rather than providing ‘information’. The third influence, direct cinema, starting with people like Robert Drew and Richard Leacock, aimed to record life «as it is». Like Drew once wrote against narration, they would «invite viewers to think for themselves, without intermediary, narrator, or correspondent. They invited them to be puzzled, confused, surprised …». He ended his text in Imaging Reality (1998) with «Narration is what you do when you fail.» And as Leacock once told Orwa Nyrabia and me in an interview we did in Helsinki in 2008: «I don’t like the word ‘director’. I like the French word better, ‘réalisateur’. You realise the film, you don’t direct it. You don’t tell the film how to be.». And a year before Albert Maysles died, he told me, «Too many documentary filmmakers are still depending on narration to tell what’s going on.»

Observational and participatory cinema bear witness to events. The filmmaker spends a long time with their subjects, creating a mutual familiarity. You can recognise such in filmmakers as Nick Broomfield,  Kim Longinotto,  Nicolas Philibert,  Sergei Dvortsevoy or Michael Glawogger…”

Ahh, all these great names behind great films, many many of them reviewed and written about on this site as well.

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Tue Steen Müller
Tue Steen Müller

Müller, Tue Steen
Documentary Consultant and Critic, DENMARK

Worked with documentary films for more than 20 years at the Danish Film Board, as press officer, festival representative and film consultant/commissioner. Co-founder of Balticum Film and TV Festival, Filmkontakt Nord, Documentary of the EU and EDN (European Documentary Network).
Awards: 2004 the Danish Roos Prize for his contribution to the Danish and European documentary culture. 2006 an award for promoting Portuguese documentaries. 2014 he received the EDN Award “for an outstanding contribution to the development of the European documentary culture”. 2016 The Cross of the Knight of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. 2019 a Big Stamp at the 15th edition of ZagrebDox. 2021 receipt of the highest state decoration, Order of the Three Stars, Fourth Class, for the significant contribution to the development and promotion of Latvian documentary cinema outside Latvia. In 2022 he received an honorary award at DocsBarcelona’s 25th edition having served as organizer and programmer since the start of the festival.
From 1996 until 2005 he was the first director of EDN (European Documentary Network). From 2006 a freelance consultant and teacher in workshops like Ex Oriente, DocsBarcelona, Archidoc, Documentary Campus, Storydoc, Baltic Sea Forum, Black Sea DocStories, Caucadoc, CinéDOC Tbilisi, Docudays Kiev, Dealing With the Past Sarajevo FF as well as programme consultant for the festivals Magnificent7 in Belgrade, DOCSBarcelona, Verzio Budapest, Message2Man in St. Petersburg and DOKLeipzig. Teaches at the Zelig Documentary School in Bolzano Italy.

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