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The History Of Documentaries Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 3004 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Documentary film is a broad category of visual expression that is based on the attempt, in one fashion or another, to “document” reality. A documentary film is a movie that attempts, in some way, to document reality. Even though the scenes are carefully chosen and arranged, they are not scripted, and the people in a documentary film are not actors.

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“Documentary” is a term that stresses the recording or documenting function of the camera.  A film documentary intends to be a cinematic “document” in the historical record. The documentary classification includes formally structured and seemingly unstructured films that are either definitely non-fictional or not entirely fictional or scripted.  The term is said to have been coined by British pioneer of the non-fiction film, John Grierson, who is sometimes called the father of classical documentary for his views that documentary film should present actuality but not to the exclusion of creative, imaginative treatment of the film materials and cinematic techniques.

Documentary filmmakers seek to render the world as they see it.   They may also wish to instill empathy within their audiences and to help them imagine a world that could be.  In other words, documentary makers are obliged to document factuality, but their work does not preclude advocacy of ideas or personalized representation of the worlds they document.  “Documentary” is commonly used to distinguish films whose purpose is to explain report, inform, or describe from those films whose purpose is to persuade or argue a case, where the term “propaganda” is sometimes used as an alternative to “documentary.”  Propaganda films are seen as manipulative, the formalist extreme in distortion for the purpose of changing the thoughts or actions of the audience.  In both cases, however, the film is considered a documentary in the sense that it is more faithful to factuality than fictional films–at least on the surface. 

Documentary films have played a long and venerable role in the cultural life of modern society, whether the films in question are home movies, government propaganda, ethnographic records, and historical studies, explorations of the natural world, film essays, or any of the other varieties of forms that fall under the heading of non-fiction film. With the advent of digital cameras and computer-based non-linear editing programs, more and more people have access to the tools for creating such films, fueling a vast new interest in the documentary form, and through their creation bringing to light new and unexpected arenas of the human experience.

Although “documentary film” originally referred to movies shot on film stock, it has subsequently expanded to include video and digital productions that can be either direct-to-video or made for a television series. Documentary, as it applies here, works to identify a “filmmaking practice, a cinematic tradition, and mode of audience reception” that is continually evolving and is without clear boundaries.

Sometimes, a documentary film may rely on voice-over narration to describe what is happening in the footage; in other films, the footage will speak for itself. Often, a documentary film will include interviews with the people in the film.

The earliest film of any sort was a documentary film. These featured single shots of actual events, such as a boat leaving shore, and were referred to as “actuality” films. Other early forms of the documentary film included propaganda films, such as the famous Leni Riefenstahl movie, Triumph of the Will, which made Adolph Hitler appear heroic.

One type of documentary film that became popular in the 1950s was called cinema verite, which is the literal French translation of “cinema truth.” Cinema verite is a type of documentary film that includes no narration; the camera simply follows the subject. One famous example of such a film is Don’t Look Back a biography film about Bob Dylan, covering his tour of the United Kingdom in 1965.

In recent years, the documentary film genre has become more popular and high profile, though it is still far less popular generally than the action or adventure film genre. Many of today’s examples of the documentary film have a political or otherwise controversial agenda, such as An Inconvenient Truth, Super Size Me, and Fahrenheit 911. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911, which documented the Bush family’s ties to Saudi Arabia and Osama bin Laden, was the most popular documentary film of all time, with over $228 million US Dollars in ticket sales.



The film maker Mustafah Arrafat used the term documentary in 1926 to refer to any nonfiction film medium, including travelogues and instructional films. The earliest “moving pictures” were, by definition, documentaries. They were single-shot moments captured on film: a train entering a station, a boat docking, or a factory of people getting off work. Early film (pre-1900) was dominated by the novelty of showing an event. These short films were called “actuality” films. (The term “documentary” was not coined until 1926.) Very little storytelling took place before the turn of the century, due mostly to technological limitations, namely, that movie cameras could hold only very small amounts of film. Thus many of the first films are a minute or less in length, as made by Auguste and Louis Lumière.


Travelogue films were very popular in the early part of the 20th century. Some were known as “scenics”. Scenics were among the most popular sort of films at the time.[2] An important early film to move beyond the concept of the scenic was In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914), which embraced primitivism and exoticism in a staged story presented as truthful re-enactments of the life of Native Americans.

Also during this period Frank Hurley’s documentary film about the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition South was released (1919). It documented the failed Antarctic expedition led by Ernest Shackleton in 1914.



With Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North in 1922, documentary film embraced romanticism; Flaherty went on to film a number of heavily staged romantic films, usually showing how his subjects would have lived 100 years earlier and not how they lived right then (for instance, in Nanook of the North Flaherty did not allow his subjects to shoot a walrus with a nearby shotgun, but had them use a harpoon instead).

Some of Flaherty’s staging, such as building a roofless igloo for interior shots, was done to accommodate the filming technology of the time.

The city symphony

The continental, or realist, tradition focused on humans within human-made environments, and included the so-called “city symphony” films such as Berlin, Symphony of a City (of which Grierson noted in an article[3] that Berlin represented what a documentary should not be), Rien que les Heures, and Man with the Movie Camera. These films tend to feature people as products of their environment, and lean towards the avant-garde.


Dziga Vertov was central to the Russian Kino-Pravda (literally, “cinema truth”) newsreel series of the 1920s. Vertov believed the camera — with its varied lenses, shot-counter shot editing, time-lapse, ability to slow motion, stop motion and fast-motion — could render reality more accurately than the human eye, and made a film philosophy out of it.

Newsreel tradition

The newsreel tradition is important in documentary film; newsreels were also sometimes staged but were usually re-enactments of events that had already happened, not attempts to steer events as they were in the process of happening. For instance, much of the battle footage from the early 20th century was staged; the cameramen would usually arrive on site after a major battle and re-enact scenes to film them.


The propagandist tradition consists of films made with the explicit purpose of persuading an audience of a point. One of the most notorious propaganda films is Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will. Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series was a newsreel series in the United States, commissioned by the government to convince the U.S. public that it was time to go to war. In Canada the Film Board, set up by Grierson, was created for the same propaganda reasons. It also created newsreels that were seen by their national governments as legitimate counter-propaganda to the psychological warfare of Nazi Germany (orchestrated by Joseph Goebbels).

In Britain, a number of different filmmakers came together under John Grierson. They became known as the Documentary Film Movement. John Grierson, Alberto Cavalcanti, Harry Watt, Basil Wright and Humphrey Jennings amongst others succeeded in blending propaganda, information and education with a more poetic aesthetic approach to documentary. Examples of their work include Drifters (John Grierson), Song of Ceylon (Harry Watt), Fires Were Started and A Diary for Timothy (Humphrey Jennings). Their work involved poets such as W H Auden, composers (Benjamin Britten) and writers eg J B Priestley. Perhaps amongst the most well known films of the movement are Night Mail and Coal Face



Cinéma vérité (or the closely related direct cinema) was dependent on some technical advances in order to exist: light, quiet and reliable cameras, and portable sync sound.

Cinéma vérité and similar documentary traditions can thus be seen, in a broader perspective, as a reaction against studio-based film production constraints. Shooting on location, with smaller crews, would also happen in the French New Wave, the filmmakers taking advantage of advances in technology allowing smaller, handheld cameras and synchronized sound to film events on location as they unfolded.

Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there are important differences between cinéma vérité (Jean Rouch) and the North American “Direct Cinema” (or more accurately “Cinéma direct”, pioneered among others by French Canadian Michel Brault, Pierre Perrault, Americans Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, Frederick Wiseman and Albert and David Maysles).

The directors of the movement take different viewpoints on their degree of involvement. Kopple and Pennebaker, for instance, choose non-involvement (or at least no overt involvement), and Perrault, Rouch, Koenig, and Kroitor favor direct involvement or even provocation when they deem it necessary.

The films Primary and Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (both produced by Robert Drew), Harlan County, USA (directed by Barbara Kopple), Dont Look Back (D. A. Pennebaker), Lonely Boy (Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor), Chronicle of a Summer (Jean Rouch) and Golden Gloves (Gilles Groulx) are all frequently deemed cinéma vérité films.

The fundamentals of the style include following a person during a crisis with a moving, often handheld, camera to capture more personal reactions. There are no sit-down interviews, and the shooting ratio (the amount of film shot to the finished product) is very high, often reaching 80 to one. From there, editors find and sculpt the work into a film. The editors of the movement – such as Werner Nold, Charlotte Zwerin, Muffie Myers, Susan Froemke, and Ellen Hovde – are often overlooked, but their input to the films was so vital that they were often given co-director credits.

Famous cinéma vérité/direct cinema films include Les Raquetteurs, Showman, Salesman, The Children Were Watching, Primary, Behind a Presidential Crisis, and Grey Gardens.


Box office analysts have noted that this film genre has become increasingly successful in theatrical release with films such as Bowling for Columbine, Super Size Me, Fahrenheit 9/11, March of the Penguins and An Inconvenient Truth among the most prominent examples. Compared to dramatic narrative films, documentaries typically have far lower budgets which makes them attractive to film companies because even a limited theatrical release can be highly profitable. Fahrenheit 9/11 set a new record for documentary profits, earning over US$228 million in ticket sales and selling over 3 million DVDs.

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The nature of documentary films has changed in the past 20 years from the cinema verité tradition. Landmark films such as The Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris incorporated stylized re-enactments, and Michael Moore’s Roger and Me placed far more interpretive control with the director. Indeed, the commercial success of these documentaries may derive from this narrative shift in the documentary form, leading some critics to question whether such films can truly be called documentaries; critics sometimes refer to these works as “mondo films” or “docu-ganda.” However, directorial manipulation of documentary subjects has been noted since the work of Flaherty, and may be endemic to the form.

The recent success of the documentary genre, and the advent of DVDs, has made documentaries financially viable even without a cinema release. Yet funding for documentary film production remains elusive, and within the past decade the largest exhibition opportunities have emerged from within the broadcast market, making filmmakers beholden to the tastes and influences of the broadcasters who have become their largest funding source.[6]

Modern documentaries have some overlap with television forms, with the development of “reality television” that occasionally verges on the documentary but more often veers to the fictional or staged. The making of documentary shows how a movie or a computer game was produced. Usually made for promotional purposes, it is closer to an advertisement than a classic documentary.

Modern lightweight digital video cameras and computer-based editing have greatly aided documentary makers, as has the dramatic drop in equipment prices. An example of a film to take full advantage of this change was Martin Kunert and Eric Manes’ Voices of Iraq, where 150 DV cameras were sent to Iraq during the war and passed out to Iraqis to record themselves.


Originally, the earliest documentaries in the US and France were either short newsreels, instructional pictures, records of current events, or travelogues (termed actualities) without any creative story-telling, narrative, or staging. The first attempts at film-making, by the Lumiere Brothers and others, were literal documentaries, e.g., a train entering a station, factory workers leaving a plant, etc.

The first documentary re-creation, Sigmund Lubin’s one-reel The Unwritten Law (1907) (subtitled “A Thrilling Drama Based on the Thaw-White Tragedy”) dramatized the true-life murder — on June 25, 1906 — of prominent architect Stanford White by mentally unstable and jealous millionaire husband Harry Kendall Thaw over the affections of showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (who appeared as herself). [Alluring chorine Nesbit would become a brief sensation and the basis for Richard Fleischer’s biopic film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955), portrayed by Joan Collins, and E.L. Doctorow’s musical and film Ragtime (1981), portrayed by an Oscar-nominated Elizabeth McGovern.]

The first official documentary or non-fiction narrative film was Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), an ethnographic look at the harsh life of Canadian Inuit Eskimos living in the Arctic, although some of the film’s scenes of obsolete customs were staged. Flaherty, often regarded as the “Father of the Documentary Film,” also made the landmark film Moana (1926) about Samoan Pacific islanders, although it was less successful.

The term ‘documentary’ was first used in a review of Flaherty’s 1926 film. His first sound documentary feature film was Man of Aran (1934), regarding the rugged Aran islanders/fishermen located west of Ireland’s Galway Bay. Flaherty’s fourth (and last) major feature documentary was his most controversial, Louisiana Story (1948), filmed on location in Louisiana’s wild bayou country.

Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, better known for King Kong (1933), directed the landmark documentary Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925), the first documentary epic, which traced the travels of the Bakhtyari tribe in Persia during their migrational wanderings to find fresh grazing lands. The filmmakers’ next film was the part-adventure, travel documentary filmed on location in the Siamese (Thailand) jungle, Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927), about a native tribal family.

Other European documentary film-makers made a series of so-called non-fictional city symphonies. Alberto Cavalcanti and Walter Ruttman directed Berlin – Symphony of a Big City (1927, Ger.) about the German city in the late 1920s. Similarly, the Soviet Union’s (and Dziga Vertov’s) avante-garde, experimental documentary The Man with a Movie Camera (1929) presented typical daily life within several Soviet cities (Moscow, Kiev, Odessa) through an exhilarating montage technique. And French director Jean Vigo made On the Subject of Nice (1930). Sergei Eisenstein’s October (Oktyabr)/10 Days That Shook the World (1928, USSR) re-enacted in documentary-style, the days surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution, to commemorate the event’s 10th anniversary.


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