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How to cite a documentary

The guide discusses different ways of citing a documentary using the most common citation style guides (APA; Chicago, and MLA). Although your primary references should most often be comprised of peer-reviewed journal papers, there are cases where it may be relevant to cite a documentary. This article is produced as part of the Avidnote knowledge database. Avidnote is a free web-based application that makes it easier for researcher to write and organize their research notes online. You can read more about it by clicking here.

What is a documentary?

A documentary is a non-fictional film that is designed to serve certain purposes which include instruction, education, news, and entertainment, among others. Because of their informative and audiovisual nature, documentaries are frequently used at all levels of education to aid teaching and learning. In a multicultural yet globalized world, the use of documentaries can help students comprehend and internalize trends across the globe which they can easily adapt to their curricular activities and even personal development. Hence, the use of documentary films in a learning environment can enable instructors to grab the focus or attention of learners and subsequently make them embark on an audio-visual tour to experience the world and develop themselves. Because of the ability for global documentaries to transcend boundaries and cultures, they are powerful tools for integrating universal human values that are vital to the continuous development of global education.

Documentaries with a global outlook tend to impact strongly on the lives of learners as well as stimulate richer classroom discussions and activities. They help students not only to hone their observational and concentration abilities but also to have the ability to analyze and interpret things in their own voices. This also helps them to develop stronger personalities and become more globalized citizens in a world characterized by constant flux.

However, because of the dynamic nature of education as well as human differences, a film will never be a sufficient instructional tool on its own. It follows, therefore, that documentaries are mere complements that are sometimes deployed to facilitate a broader or holistic learning experience.

More recently, social-media forums such as YouTube and others have significantly enhanced the growth of documentary-film usage. With the help of the internet, these forums have helped to accelerate the production, distribution, ease-of-accessibility, and viewership of documentaries on a global scale, thereby increasing the ability to educate a larger number of viewers and broadening the reach of persons who receive information through documentaries.

As noted above, documentaries can be necessary if not sufficient tools for effective teaching and learning. This has brought about the need to cite them in all kinds of academic papers. Below are some documentary citation formats and examples on how to cite a documentary using the most common citation styles.

APA style [7th edition]

Documentary films or movies

Reference formatLast name, Initials. (Director). (Year). Title of film. [Documentary/Film]. Production company.
In-text citations formatParenthetical: (Last name, Year) Narrative: Last name (Year)
Reference exampleTerry, L. (Director). (2018). Witchcraft in Africa. [Documentary]. Coast Movie Productions
In-text citation examplesParenthetical: (Terry, 2018) Narrative: Terry (2018)

Note that when more than one production company is involved, they are separated with a semi-colon.

TV series

Format for referencesLast name, Initials. (Executive producer). (Span of years). Title of series. [TV series]. Production company.
ExamplePorter, S. (Executive producer), (2011-2019). The state of higher education in Africa [TV series]. Trust Productions; Afri Movies.
Format for in-text citationsParenthetical: (Last name, Span of years) Narrative: Last name (Year)
ExamplesParenthetical: (Porter, 2011-2019) Narrative: Porter (2011-2019)

MLA [8th edition]

Documentary listed with title

Format for referenceTitle of film. Directed by……., Production company, Date
ExampleOasis of love. Directed by Aisha Badawi, System Productions, 2021.
Format for in-text citationsParenthetical: (Title of film)   Narrative: Title of film
ExamplesParenthetical: (Oasis of love)   Narrative: Oasis of love

Documentary listed with director’s name

Format for referenceLast name, First name, director. Title of film. Production company.
ExampleBadawi, Aisha, director. Oasis of love. System Productions, 2021.
Format for in-text citationsParenthetical: (Director’s Last name)   Narrative: Director’s Last name
ExamplesParenthetical: (Badawi)   Narrative: Badawi

Chicago [17th edition]

Format for referenceDirector Last Name, First Name, dir. Year originally released. Title of film. Place of Production: Production company, year published. Medium or DOI or URL.
ExampleJordan, Barry, dir. 2018. Oil exploration techniques. New York: Silverscape, 2019. DVD. 
Format for in-text citationsParenthetical (Director Last Name Year originally released)   Narrative: Director’s Last name (Year originally released)
ExampleParenthetical: (Jordan 2018) Narrative:  Jordan (2018)

Author-date system

Notes and Bibliography system

Format for Bibliography. Director Last name, First name, dir. Title of Documentary Film. Place of production: Production company, film release date. Medium.
ExampleHenry, Bryan, dir. Climate Change. Austin, TX: BlackGold, 2017. DVD.  
Format for notes1 Director First name Last name, dir., Title of Film (Location: Publisher, Video release date), Format.
Example1 Bryan Henry, dir. Climate change (2017; Austin, TX: BlackGold, 2017), DVD.

Harvard style [in Cite them Right, 11th edition]

Format for referenceTitle of Documentary (Year of release) Directed by First Initial Surname. Available at: Platform (Accessed: Day Month Year).
The State of Education in Africa
 (2019) Directed by E. Nwaimo Available at: Netflix (Accessed: 11 March 2021).
Format for in-text citationsParenthetical: (Documentary Title, Year)   Narrative: Documentary Title (Year)
ExamplesParenthetical: (The State of Education in Africa, 2019)   Narrative:  The State of Education in Africa (2019)


The usefulness of documentaries in education has made them be included in the citation formats used in the industry. With the advent of digital technologies such as the internet and media such as YouTube, documentary usage has significantly increased helping to assist in the curricular and personal development of millions of learners all over the world. This paper has briefly examined the citation/reference formats of major styles such as the APA, MLA, Chicago, and Harvard. It is pertinent to note that these formats are not rigid and can differ across institutions and that citations/references can sometimes be impacted by a lack of one or more necessary components. Hence, the advice to students is to always make the most of what is available. 

Other resources

This post was produced as part of a research guide series by Avidnote which is a free web-based app that helps you to write and organize your research notes online. Click here to find out more.

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