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Documentary film is a broad category of visual expressions that is based on the attempt, in one fashion or another, to "document" reality. 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.

Defining documentary

The word documentary was first applied to films of this nature in a review of Robert Flaherty's film Moana (1926), published in the New York Sun on 8 February 1926 and written by "The Moviegoer", a pen name for documentarian John Grierson.

In the 1930s, Grierson further argues in his essay First Principles of Documentary that Moana had "documentary value." Grierson's principles of documentary were that cinema's potential for observing life could be exploited in a new art form; that the "original" actor and "original" scene are better guides than their fiction counterparts to interpreting the modern world; and that materials "thus taken from the raw" can be more real than the acted article. In this regard, Grierson's views align with Vertov's contempt for dramatic fiction as "bourgeois excess", though with considerably more subtlety. Grierson's definition of documentary as "creative treatment of actuality" has gained some acceptance, though it presents philosophical questions about documentaries containing stagings and reenactments.

Flaherty's contribution to the advent of the Documentary is itself to be scrutinised closely in a new documentary in post-production at University of Lincoln UK, which will explore the nature of 'controlled actuality' and sheds new light on thinking about Flaherty. Furthermore the impact of these early films on subsequent generations of the indigenous peoples portrayed changes over time, as the films become valuable records of long ago.

In his essays, Dziga Vertov argued for presenting "life as it is" (that is, life filmed surreptitiously) and "life caught unawares" (life provoked or surprised by the camera).

Pare Lorentz defines a documentary film as "a factual film which is dramatic." Others further state that a documentary stands out from the other types of non-fiction films for providing an opinion, and a specific message, along with the facts it presents.

Documentary Practice is the complex process of creating documentary projects. It refers to what people do with media devices, content, form, and production strategies in order to address the creative, ethical, and conceptual problems and choices that arise as they make documentaries.

There are clear connections in terms of practice with magazine and newspaper feature-writing and indeed to non-fiction literature. Many of the generic forms of documentary (for example the biopic or profile; the observational piece or documentary. These generic forms are explored on the University of Winchester Journalism Department 'features web' where 'long form journalism' is classified by genre or content, rather than in terms of production as film, radio or 'print'.

History

Pre-1900

The filmmaker John Grierson used the term documentary in 1926 to refer to any nonfiction film medium, including travelogue 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 factory workers leaving 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, such as those made by Auguste and Louis Lumière, are a minute or less in length.

The French surgeon Eugène-Louis Doyen started a series of surgical films sometime before July 1898. Until 1906, the year of his last film, Doyen recorded more than 60 operations. As Doyen himself has said, his first films taught him how to correct professional errors he was unaware of until then. For scientific purposes, after 1906 Doyen combined 15 of his films into three compilations. Today only two of them survive, Extirpation des tumeurs encapsulées (1906), consisting of six films, and Les Opérations sur la cavité crânienne (1911), comprising four films. Together with five other films extant in French archives, these are the only recordings of Doyen that survived the time.

Frame from one of Marinescu's science films (1899).
Between July 1898 and 1901 the Romanianmarker professor Gheorghe Marinescu made some of the first science films in the world, in his neurology clinic in Bucharestmarker: The walking troubles of organic hemiplegy (1898), The walking troubles of organic paraplegies (1899), A case of hysteric hemiplegy healed through hypnosis (1899), The walking troubles of progressive locomotion ataxy (1900) and Illnesses of the muscles (1901). All these short subjects have been preserved. The professor called his works "studies with the help of the cinematograph", and published the results, along with several consecutive frames, in issues of "La Semaine Médicale" magazine from Parismarker, between 1899 and 1902. In 1924, Auguste Lumiere recognized the merits of professor Marinescu concerning his science films: "I've seen your scientific reports about the usage of cinematograph in studies of nervous illnesses, when I was still receiving "La Semaine Médicale", but back then I had other concerns, which left me no spare time to begin biological studies. I must say I forgot those works and I am thankful to you that you reminded them to me. Unfortunately, not many scientists have followed your way."

1900-1920

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. 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.

Early color motion picture processes such as Kinemacolor and Prizmacolor used travelogues to promote the new color process. (In contrast, Technicolor concentrated primarily on getting their process adopted by Hollywood studios for fictional feature films.)

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

1920s

Romanticism

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.

Paramount Pictures tried to repeat the success of Flaherty's Nanook and Moana with two romanticized documentaries, Grass (1925) and Chang (1927), both directed by Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack.

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 Walter Ruttmann's Berlin, Symphony of a City (of which Grierson noted in an article that Berlin represented what a documentary should not be), Alberto Cavalcanti's Rien Que les Heures, and Dziga Vertov's Man with the Movie Camera. These films tend to feature people as products of their environment, and lean towards the avant-garde.

Kino-Pravda

Dziga Vertov was central to the Sovietmarker 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.

1920s-1940s

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 (1935). Leftist filmmakers Joris Ivens and Henri Storck directed Borinagemarker (1931) about the Belgian coal mining region. Luis Buñuel directed a "surrealist" documentary Las Hurdes (1933).

Pare Lorentz's The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938) and Willard Van Dyke's The City (1939) are notable New Deal productions, each presenting complex combinations of social and ecological awareness, government propaganda, and leftist viewpoints. Frank Capra's Why We Fight (1942-1944) 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. Constance Bennett and her husband Henri de la Falaise produced two feature length documentaries, Legong: Dance of the Virgins (1935) filmed in Balimarker, and Kilou the Killer Tiger (1936) filmed in Indochina.

In Canada the Film Board, set up by John 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. 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 (Basil Wright), Fires Were Started and A Diary for Timothy (Humphrey Jennings). Their work involved poets such as W. H. Auden, composers such as Benjamin Britten, and writers such as J. B. Priestley. Among the most well known films of the movement are Night Mail and Coal Face.

1950s-1970s

Cinéma-vérité

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 with their subjects. 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, Near Death, The Children Were Watching, Primary, Behind a Presidential Crisis, and Grey Gardens.

Political weapons

In the 1960s and 1970s, documentary film was often conceived as a political weapon against neocolonialism and capitalism in general, especially in Latin America, but also in a changing Quebecmarker society. La Hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, from 1968), directed by Octavio Getino and Fernando E. Solanas, influenced a whole generation of filmmakers.

Modern documentaries

Box office analysts have noted that this film genre has become increasingly successful in theatrical release with films such as Fahrenheit 9/11, Super Size Me, 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.

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 & 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.

Although the increasing popularity of the documentary genre, and the advent of DVDs, has made documentaries financially more viable, funding for documentary film production remains elusive. 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.

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. The first 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.

Documentaries without words

From 1982, the Qatsi trilogy and the similar Baraka have been popular for their unique experimental film styles. These visual tone poems contain neither dialogue nor a vocalized narration: tone is set by the juxtaposition of images and music. Koyaanisqatsi consists primarily of slow motion and time-lapse photography of cities and many natural landscapes across the United Statesmarker. Baraka tries to capture the great pulse of humanity as it flocks and swarms in daily activity and religious ceremonies.

Bodysong was made in 2003 and won a British Independent Film Award for "Best British Documentary".

Notable is Genesis too, showing animal and plant life in states of expansion, decay, lovemaking, and death, but it is sorthly narrated.

Other documentary forms

Compilation films

Compilation films were pioneered in 1927 by Esfir Schub with The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty. More recent examples include Point of Order (1964), directed by Emile de Antonio about the McCarthy hearings and The Atomic Cafe which is made entirely out of found footage that various agencies of the U.S. government made about the safety of nuclear radiation (e.g., telling troops at one point that it's safe to be irradiated as long as they keep their eyes and mouths shut). Similarly, The Last Cigarette combines the testimony of various tobacco company executives before the U.S. Congress with archival propaganda extolling the virtues of smoking.

See also





Documentary film festivals

Documentary Film Awards



Notes and references

Sources and bibliography

  • Aitken, Ian (ed.). Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film. New York: Routledge, 2005. ISBN 1579584454.
  • Barnouw, Erik. Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, 2nd rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0195078985. Still a useful introduction.
  • Bernard, Sheila Curran. Documentary Storytelling, 2nd ed.: Making Stronger and More Dramatic Nonfiction Films. Burlington, MA: Focal Press, 2007.
  • Bernard, Sheila Curran and Kenn Rabin. Archival Storytelling: A Filmmakers Guide to Finding, Using, and Licensing Third-Party Visuals and Music. Burlington, MA: Focal Press, 2008.
  • Burton, Julianne (ed.). The Social Documentary in Latin America. Pittsburgh, Penn.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990. ISBN 0822936216.
  • Dawson, Jonathan. "Dziga Vertov".
  • Ellis, Jack C., and Betsy A. McLane. "A New History of Documentary Film". New York: Continuum International, 2005. ISBN 0826417507, ISBN 0826417515.
  • Goldsmith, David A. The Documentary Makers: Interviews with 15 of the Best in the Business. Hove, East Sussex: RotoVision, 2003. ISBN 2880467306.
  • Leach, Jim, and Jeannette Sloniowski (eds.). Candid Eyes: Essays on Canadian Documentaries. Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2003. ISBN 0802047327, ISBN 0802082998.
  • Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary, Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2001. ISBN 0253339545, ISBN 0253214696.
  • Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1991. ISBN 0253340608, ISBN 0253206812.
  • Nornes, Markus. Forest of Pressure: Ogawa Shinsuke and Postwar Japanese Documentary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. ISBN 0816649073, ISBN 0816649081.
  • Nornes, Markus. Japanese Documentary Film: The Meiji Era through Hiroshima. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. ISBN 0816640459, ISBN 0816640467.
  • Rotha, Paul, Documentary diary; An Informal History of the British Documentary Film, 1928-1939. New York: Hill and Wang, 1973. ISBN 0809039338.
  • Saunders, Dave. Direct Cinema: Observational Documentary and the Politics of the Sixties. London: Wallflower Press, 2007. ISBN 1905674163, ISBN 1905674155.
  • Walker, Janet, and Diane Waldeman (eds.). Feminism and Documentary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. ISBN 0816630062, ISBN 0816630070.
  • Documentary – reading list
  • University of Winchester Journalism Department (UK) Documentary Making and Feature Writing - practical notes on content and generic form


ethnographic film

  • Fatimah Tobing Rony. The Third Eye: Race, Cinema and Ethnographic Spectacle. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996. ISBN 9780822318408.
  • Ginsburg, Faye, Abu-Lughod, Lila and Brian Larkin eds. Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002. ISBN 9780520232310.
  • Grimshaw, Anna. The Ethnographer’s Eye: Ways of Seeing in Modern Anthropology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001. ISBN 9780521773102.
Recommended Text (books out of print)
  • MacDougall, David. Transcultural Cinema. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998. ISBN 9780691012346.
  • Brigard, Emilie de, "The History of ethnographic film", in: Paul Hockings (Ed.), Principles of Visual Anthropology, Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1995, pp. 13–43.
  • Devereaux, Leslie, "Cultures, Disciplines, Cinemas", in: Leslie Devereaux & Roger Hillman (Eds.), Fields of Vision. Essays in Film Studies, Visual Anthropology and Photography, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, pp. 329–339.
  • Heider, Karl G., Ethnographic Film, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.
  • Heusch, Luc de, Cinéma et Sciences Sociales, Paris: Unesco, 1962.
``Jameson, Frederic, As Marcas do Visível, Rio de Janeiro: Graal, 1995
  • Jordan, Pierre-L., Premier Contact-Premier Regard, Marseille: Musées de Marseille. Images en Manoeuvres Editions, 1992.
  • Leroi-Gourhan, André, 1948 - "Cinéma et Sciences Humaines. Le Film Ethnologique Existe-t-il?", in: Revue de Géographie Humaine et d'Ethnologie, n. 3, Paris, pp. 42–50.
  • Mac Dougall, David, "Whose Story Is It?", - in: Peter I. Crawford &, Jan K. Simonsen (Eds.), Ethnographic Film Aesthetics and Narrative Traditions. Aarhus, Intervention Press, 1992, pp. 25–42.
  • Sadoul, George, Histoire Générale du Cinéma. Vol. 1, L'Invention du Cinéma 1832-1897, Paris: Denöel, 1977, pp. 73–110.
  • Sorlin, Pierre, Sociologie du Cinéma, Paris: Aubier Montaigne, 1977, pp. 7–74.
  • Warren, Charles, "Introduction, with a Brief History of Nonfiction Film", in: Charles Warren (Ed.), Beyond Document. Essays on Nonfiction Film, Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1996, pp. 1–22.
  • Xavier, Ismail, "Cinema: Revelação e Engano", in: Adauto Novaes (Ed.) O Olhar, São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1993, pp. 367–384.


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