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Documentary vs. Feature Film: What's the Difference?

Edited by Janet White || By Harlon Moss || Updated on October 13, 2023
Documentary is a film that provides a factual record or report. Feature Film is a main film in a cinema program that is typically fictional and entertaining.

Key Differences

A documentary is a non-fictional motion-picture intended to document reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction, education, or maintaining a historical record. Feature films, on the other hand, are often fictional, created with the intent of entertaining and possibly also informing or eliciting emotional responses from the audience.
Feature films primarily aim to entertain and may present fictional or dramatized events in a narrative format that emphasizes a plot with beginning, middle, and end. In contrast, documentaries focus on presenting factual information and aim to educate or shed light on particular events, issues, or topics.
When it comes to production elements, documentaries usually involve real people (not actors) discussing real events or issues in their own words. In feature films, actors portray characters following a script, with the events and dialogues often being creations of writers.
Feature films tend to follow a script, use actors, and are often intended to be more commercially viable, possibly aiming for broad entertainment and appeal. Documentaries, however, are typically more informative, presenting real-life issues, stories, and events with an educational, informative, or advocacy-focused purpose.
Documentaries utilize a variety of forms and styles, such as interviews, archival footage, and voice-over narration to convey authentic stories and facts. Unlike feature films, they don't necessarily adhere to traditional narrative structures, instead often prioritizing truthful presentation over storytelling techniques.

Comparison Chart


To inform, educate, or record real events or facts.
To entertain, often with a fictional narrative.


Real-life events, people, and facts.
Fictional or dramatized stories and characters.


Real people, not actors.
Actors portraying characters.

Narrative Structure

Often flexible, prioritizing factual presentation.
Structured with a clear beginning, middle, end.

Viewer Engagement

Intellectual engagement, often seeking to inform.
Emotional engagement, primarily seeks to entertain.

Documentary and Feature Film Definitions


Documentaries often serve to educate viewers on specific topics or issues.
The new documentary educates viewers about the struggles of refugees.

Feature Film

Feature films typically follow a structured narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
The plot twist in the feature film surprised and delighted viewers.


Documentaries can advocate for change, highlighting social, political, or environmental issues.
The award-winning documentary played a crucial role in advocating for criminal justice reform.

Feature Film

Feature films often employ professional actors to portray fictional or dramatized characters.
In the feature film, the renowned actor played the role of a charismatic villain.


Documentaries use real-life footage, interviews, and data to convey their message.
The documentary featured interviews with prominent scientists and activists.

Feature Film

Feature films are crafted to entertain, amuse, and emotionally engage the audience.
Viewers praised the feature film for its heartwarming and inspirational story.


A documentary aims to explore truth and facts, often revealing new or detailed information.
The documentary revealed shocking insights into the political scandal.

Feature Film

A feature film usually spans multiple genres, such as drama, comedy, action, or thriller.
The feature film effortlessly blended action and comedy, appealing to a wide range of audiences.


A documentary provides a factual and true account of events or subjects.
The documentary on climate change showcased the harsh realities of global warming.

Feature Film

A feature film is a full-length movie intended primarily for theatrical release.
The feature film attracted large audiences during its opening weekend at the cinema.


Consisting of, concerning, or based on documents.


Presenting facts objectively without editorializing or inserting fictional matter, as in a book or film.


Do documentaries use actors?

Typically no, documentaries primarily feature real people and events.

What is a documentary?

A non-fictional film that presents factual information about a particular subject.

What is a feature film?

A full-length movie, typically fictional, designed to entertain and possibly inform audiences.

Can feature films be educational?

Yes, though their primary aim is usually to entertain.

What is the primary aim of a documentary?

To inform, educate, and/or provide a record of real events or issues.

Can a documentary be a feature film?

Yes, if it has the typical length and production quality of a feature film.

What defines the genre of a feature film?

Elements like narrative style, themes, and mood determine genre.

Are documentaries typically independent films?

Many are, though they can also be produced by larger studios.

Are all feature films made for entertainment?

Primarily yes, though they can also convey messages or themes.

Can a documentary be made on a feature film?

Yes, it can explore the making, impact, or context of a feature film.

How long is a typical documentary?

Length can vary widely, from a few minutes to several hours.

Who typically creates documentaries?

Filmmakers, journalists, or experts in a relevant field.

What are common styles of documentaries?

Expository, observational, participatory, and poetic are common styles.

Are feature films based on real stories?

They can be, but feature films often explore fictional narratives.

Do feature films have a specific structure?

They often follow a three-act structure but can vary.

Can documentaries have fictional elements?

Generally no, as they strive to represent factual information.

Can documentaries be biased?

Yes, they can reflect the perspectives and intentions of the filmmakers.

Can feature films be based on documentaries?

Yes, a documentary's topic can be adapted into a fictionalized feature film.

What is the typical duration of a feature film?

Usually between 90 and 180 minutes.

Can feature films win documentary awards?

No, awards are typically genre-specific.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.

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