An observational documentary records an individual or a group of people as they attempt to make a discovery. While other documentaries, like the expository documentary may record events in past tense, the observational documentary is in present tense because it records events as they happen. Aaron Kerner sheds even more light on the observational documentary concept by explaining that this genre of documentaries frequently documents social actors in transit, as opposed to the subject’s familiar domestic space. “Airplanes, taxis, buses, and trains figure prominently in observational documentaries, effectively adopting the characteristics of the road movie genre and integrating them into a non-narrative practice.” (Kerner, 2011). In essence, the observational documentaries do not really focus on the destination as its major objective; rather, it is what is discovered along the way that has more weight.
In brief, observational documentaries tend to record certain actions or activities while trying to make the subject of the documentary completely unaware of the presence of the camera, or at least make them forget that the camera is capturing their activities. It tries to make things appear as real as possible. However, the result is completely open to debate because others may argue that since the subjects are aware of the presence of the camera, either consciously, or subconsciously, it alters their natural behavior in a certain way; at least to a given percentage (Gripsrud, 1999).
Nonetheless, having noted the objectives of an observational documentary, it is explicit, or rather implicit that the documentary does not give a conclusive explanation to why certain things happen in a given way. Instead, it just illuminates how they happen. This is because the documentary maker only follows a person around or sets up a camera at a strategic point to observe an event. Also, the documentary maker does not conduct any interviews to find answers to get an explanation for anything that may be of interest to the viewers. That is why you can conclude that an observational documentary only gives a description of what is happening, through observation, and does not explain why it is happening as it is.