What separates a movie like "White Wilderness" (1958) from "Ingagi" (1930)?
One is a sanitized depiction of the natural world.
The other may is an exaggeration of middle-class fears and desires...
Yet both idealize a wild environmental setting to such a degree that it's hard to classify them as pure documentaries.
They're certainly not other genres: not a horror film, not a thriller, not a romance, not a comedy, not a drama, not even fiction.
So by deductive reasoning, they must be documentaries.
And yet there's so much editorial interpretation of the real world going on within these movies. There's so much flat-out fakery.
How could they still be classified as documentaries?
However, with close examination, it seems clear to me they're more documentary than fiction simply because of the abundance of rare and precious factual events depicted.
There is something purely documentary about dressing a real animal as a fake mythical creature (see: Tortadillo), depicting local actors as bare-breasted African tribe women engaging in fake rituals, inter-cutting anthropological stock footage with the staged footage, staging footage of arctic animals going about their daily life, fabricating true-life lemmings plunging to their actual deaths...
They are documentaries of rare and precious events: that of filmmakers manufacturing a documentary.
Of course, all movies by this criteria are, in a sense, documentary movies.
But what makes "White Wilderness" and "Ingagi" both documentaries despite the amount of fictionalization contained within them is that they function to lend the overall illusion of "real-life-ness" to the movie.
The fakery is not meant to be interpreted as fictional, but as factual.
And, more often than not, there's a base pleasure in the very attempt of forging a documentary that is, in itself, (perversely) purely documentary.