纪录片 are the characters for documentary film. All have the fourth tone; the pinyin is ji lu pian. I have know the pinyin for a while, but I didn’t look up the characters until today. I think the characters 纪录片 have a meaning that appeals to both the poetic, imaginative and the factual, “evidentiary” aspects of documentary.
The first character - 纪 - means to remember.** The second character - 录 – means to record. The third character is what is called a measure word, a word used with an object to classify it. Here, the character 片 denotes a flat or thin thing, or things that are in slices. I like the duplicity of the meaning of slice here: to slice a film could mean to “cut”; each frame is also a “slice”, or element, of time (24 frames per second; or 29.97 fps, etc). Another way that 片 is used is to define expanses or stretches of ocean, fog, mist; it can also reference atmosphere or moods. These meanings of 片 are all perfect in defining the documentary. Documentary is expansive; it is an allusive mode as well as a factual one. When I’m making a documentary I often feel like I am in a giant fog, feeling my way through a misty landscape; I rarely know what’s right around the corner. Whether or not the completed documentary captures this state, it certainly feels “atmospheric” (i.e., emotional, aesthetic) to be in the process of producing one.
**Note! Thank you to Ge Laoshi, who provided a correction to the above. 片 here is a shortened form of 影片 yingpian, which means “to film”. So the use of 片 is less a measure word in this context than it is a shortened version of “to film”. Also, “to remember” is actually 记 and not 纪; 纪 means “to record” something in writing, especially history. So the meaning of 纪录片 is similar to “document(ary)” in the sense of making a record. Even so, I like the poetry of my original post (albeit not exactly true), and I continue to like the definition of documentary as a creative treatment of actuality. (2-10-09)