Is the movie structured linearly or not? Narrative movies often present facts in a chronological order, just like life. High Noon (1952) is an example of a linearly structured movie. It opens with Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) planning his wedding and retirement. When he finds out that Frank Miller, a deadly killer, was set free and is now returning to his county, Kane cancels his plans. During the middle portion of the movie, Kane tries to recruit men to help him. The movie ends with the showdown between Kane and Frank Miller.
On the other hand, documentaries are a collection of scenes and moments assembled in a non-linear fashion. If done right, the several sequences in a documentary interweave back and forth to create a meaningful amalgam that surveys a specific theme and makes a specific point.
Who’s point of view is it? A documentary film assumes the position of a specific group of people that defends a certain cause. In order to offer a holistic analysis of any given topic, documentaries often have an investigative perspective that surveys many sides pertinent to an argument. But this could be biased.
Narrative movies often share the protagonist’s perspective, and everything pertinent to the story is told from his or her point of view. This quality of narrative cinema attempts to make the audience identify with the main character.
Theme is the central idea that governs and unifies a film and its elements. A narrative movie can have a theme like “love conquers all” or “greed is your demise.” One-word themes like “justice” or “peace” are also fair game and quite common.
In documentary cinema, the theme is called “thesis,” to borrow from the tradition of academic papers and scholarly journals. A thesis, like a theme, also unifies and governs the movie. However, theses are different because they are complex statements that must be identified before pre-production or even development can start.
FILM AS ART
Film resembles painting, music, literature, and the dance in this respect—it is a medium that may, but need not, be used to produce artistic results. Colored picture post cards, for instance, are not art and are not intended to be. Neither are a military march, a true confessions story, or a strip tease. And the movies are not necessarily film art.
There are still many educated people who don’t consider film as art. They say, in effect: “Film cannot be art, for it does nothing but reproduce reality mechanically.” Those who defend this point of view are reasoning from the analogy of painting. In painting, the way from reality to the picture lies via the artist’s eye and nervous system, his hand and, finally, the brush that puts strokes on canvas. The process is not mechanical as that of photography, in which the light rays reflected from the object are collected by a system of lenses and are then directed onto a sensitive plate where they produce chemical changes.