The History Of Documentary Film Before 1900
One could argue that the first films ever made were documentary films because they captured short snippets of real “actual” events, such as a boat pulling up to the dock or workers leaving a factory.
The First Films By The Brothers Lumiere
When the Lumiere Brothers screened their film, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat in 1896 , it was said that people fled the theatre because they truly believed a train was coming towards them. Those first films made a huge impression on the audience. Despite this, these films – called ‘actualities’ – lacked the spirit of a documentary because they were made with a passion for the technique to record an event but were without the intent to convey anything about it.
Next came the travelogues (“scenics”), which were popular the first couple decades of the 20th century. They gave audiences the opportunity to see parts of the world previously unavailable to them as anything but photographs, if even that. While these were undoubtedly interesting, their focus was on places and people, rather than on arranging them into stories.
1920s | History's First True Documentary Films
The true spirit of documentary filmmaking first surfaced in Russia, in the 1920s, during the revolution with the Kino-eye Dziga Vertov and his group. Dziga Vertov was a young poet and film editor, who produced educative news that were a vital part of the struggle during the Russian revolution. Vertov came to believe passionately in the value of real life captured by the camera, and, in keeping with the spirit of the time, to abhor the stylized and artificial fictional presentation of life in the bourgeois cinema.
The new Russian government wanted cinema to be both realistic and inspirational for common people. They also wanted to get away from the ‘falseness’ and escapism of western commercial cinema. For these reasons, a great deal of thought went into trying to codify cinema’s function. One of the results was a heightened awareness of the possibilities of editing. In the 1920s, during the Soviet Union’s period of great cinematic inventiveness, Dziga Vertov served as a leading theorist. His Man with a Movie Camera is an exhuberant record of his desire to experiment with the camera’s ability to move, edit and capture life on the streets.
The Man With A Movie Camera is now universally revered and considered a masterpiece because of its influence on the cinema that followed. Despite Vertov’s groundbreaking work for documentary film, the term documentary is said to be coined earlier by the Scottish film director Grierson while reviewing Robert Flaherty’s Moana. Like Vertov, Robert Flaherty was a pioneer in documentary filmmaking. But unlike Vertov, Flaherty used the editing to arrange his footage, the actualities and scenics into a story. His film Nanook of the North (1922) is therefore acknowleged as documentary’s seminal work and considered to be the first full feature documentary.
Flaherty’s Nanook of the North takes as its central figure the Eskimo hunter, Nanook, struggling to survive amid the ultimate in hostile enviroments. The film is of coarse silent, yet the sense of intimacy with Nanook and his family, of sharing his life, emanates from the screen in spite of the absence of speech. Although the film seems a fine example of Cinéma Vérité, many scenes were reenacted for the camera’s benefit, yet they are so evidently true to life and in good faith that no one has any sense of artifice.
Distributors initially refused to accept that Nanook of the North may interest the public, but they were wrong. It drew large crowds in both the United States and internationally, earning worldwide gross receipts of $251,000. Unfortunately, while audiences lined up to see the film, Nanook died on a hunting trip in the Arctic. The film became so popular that news of Nanooks’ death was published in places as far away as Tokyo and Singapore. One cannot imagine a more ironic endorsement of the truth in Flaherty’s vision.
1930s | Documentary Film Gained Popularity And 'Independence
In the 1920s, film was used to show real life in a way that exceeded the fragmented representation of news footage, scenics or actualities. Vertov experimented with documentary film language and Flaherty took it a step further by adding a story layer. Grierson, who pioniered the documentary movement in England, described the documentary form as the “creative treatment of actuality”.
In the development of national cinemas durin the 1930s, American documentaries often tried to copy Flaherty’s success by showing the struggle between man and nature. Paradoxically it was films made for the US government – The Plow That Broke The Plains (1936), The River (1937) – that showed rather to explicitely the connection between government policy and ecological disaster. Their success as indictments ensured that American documentary makers were soon turned loose to work without government funding
European documentaries of the 1930s, coming from societies neither recently settled like america, nor torn by revolution like Russia, tended to reflect more the onset of urban problems and modernity. A great example is Luis Bunuel’s Land Without Bread (1932), which showed the appalling poverty and suffering in a remote village on the spanish border with portugal. In its eloquent and impassioned way, the film leaves the spectator seething with anger at a social system too lethargic and wrapped in tradition to bother with such obsure citizens.
Perhaps more than any other group, the Nazi’s realized the unlimited potential of a generation addicted to cinema. Propaganda films, using carefully-selected actors, showed Aryan supremacy and the superiority of Hitler’s policies. The Nazi regime produced two epics, so accomplished in the musical and compositional elements of film, that they belong to a list of the greatest documentaries of all time. Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938) built the 1936 Olympic games into a paean to the physical well-being of athletes and, by association, the health of the Nazi regime. Along with Triumph Of the Will, this film is seen as a pinnacle in the exploitation of the documentary genre.
Leni Riefenstahl - The Advocate Of The Devil In Documentary Filmmaking
What is perhaps sinister in this evaluation is that the Triumph Of The Will has also been acknowledged as the greatest advertising film ever made. Its apparent subject was the 1934 Nazi congress in Nurenberg, but its true purpose was to mythicize Hitler and show him as the God of the German people. It is an abiding discomfort to film historians that great cinema art should eulogize such a historicaly evil figure as Adolf Hitler. Yet Riefenstahl’s work serves as a valuable reminder that records of reality require a wise and responsible interpreter if art is to be on the side of angels. In the 1993 documentary The Wonderful Horrible Life Of Leni Riefenstahl, director Ray Muller interviews Leni Riefenstahl at 90 years of age about her choices in life as filmmaker. The result is a fascinating examination of a talented but contradictory woman who will likely remain a controversial historical figure for years to come.
1939 - 1945 | War Time Documentary Filmmaking
World War II was a time of prodigious factual filming. Most documentaries were government-sponsored and focused on the consequences of massive warfare. The best example is Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series. It was sponsored by the U.S. government to rally the American people behind the war effort in Europe and Asia. It was desperately needed to counter the isolationistic views the U.S. government had been propagating since World War I. Cinema was the medium of choice because Americans had become absolutely movie-mad during the past decennia. Capra, a well-known Hollywood director but with no experience in documentary filmmaking, liberally borrowed techniques and footage from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Like so many documentary films of the period, the Why We Fight series is outright propaganda used to motivate the war effort. The film historian Erik Barnouw, called them “emotionalized history lessons”.
The 1950s And 60s | Technology Leads To Advances in Documentary Filmmaking
In the 1950s, two primary technological advances began to radically-transform documentary filmmaking. The first was the Eclair self-blimped (mechanically very quiet) camera, which made flexible sync filming a reality. It incorporated quick change film magazines, which allowed mere few seconds of downtime during magazine changes. The second came from the Ricky Leacock and Robert Drew group at Time, Inc., of New York. They solved the problem of recording sync without linking a recorder and camera by constricting wires. By the 1960s, these improvements had changed every phase of location filming from news gathering and documentaries to improvised dramatic productions. Documentary filmmaking became more up-close and personal, resulting in cinéma vérité or direct cinema, a significant change from the camera to the subject. The camera was now sufficiently-mobile to become a subsidiary observer. There were no actual documentary directors needed to make imperious demands on the participant for the good of the recording process. The camera and sound were now handheld and could follow the action wherever it lead. The camera became an active observer, showing the screen in the intimacy, immediacy and unpredictability of the new media form.
Great examples of documentary films made in the 1950s and 1960 are Salesman (1969) and Gimme Shelter (1970) by the famous Maysles brothers. In truedirect-cinema style, Salesman follows a band of hard-nosed Bible salesmen on a sales drive in Florida. The much-celebrated Gimme Shelter follows the Rolling Stones to their enormous outdoor concert in Altamont, California. The film shows the dangerous side of 1960s counterculture, and culminates with the murder of a troublemaker in the crowd by the Hells Angels. Many camera crews were deployed and the film continually cuts from position to position in the swollen, restless crowd.
Another fine example of documentary film benefiting from new mobility was The Anderson Platoon (1967), directed by the French embedded filmmaker Pierre Schoendoerffer. He and his crew risked their lives to follow a platoon of GIs in Vietnam led by the black lieutenant Anderson.
1970s Televison Enters The History of Documentary Film
By the late 1960s, increased camera mobility was matched by improvements in color-stock sensitivity. Color shooting increased the price of filmmaking, and the stock budget remained a large impediment to documentary production. By this time, television had bitten deeply into cinema box office figures, and the documentary had migrated from cinemas to the home screen. Always potentially embarassing to its patron, the marriage between documentary and television has always been an uneasy one. Documentaries now existed by permission of giant television networks, and were always susceptible to commercial, moral and political pressure groups. Although the documentary flourished in Europe within its widespread public broadcasting system, even the BBC with its liberal and independent reputation, drew the line at broadcasting Warrendale (1967, Allen King), a Canadadian film about a controversial treatment center for disturbed adolescents. Likewise, Peter Watkins’ chilling The War Game, was a BBC-dramatized documentary founded on facts uncovered from the firebombing of Dresden. It was made to show the effect of a nuclear attack on London, and has waited 20 years to broadcast. First Kill (2001, Coco Schrijver) is another good example of a great and much younger film being denied broadcasting due to its uneasy subject It later became an all-time audience favorite at one of the world’s leading documentary film festivals (IDFA).
The 1970s saw television tighten its grip on the format with 50-minute slots, content and plot structure of documentary film. When television stepped up, the Cinema Verite style stepped out. It was sheer horror for any commissioning editor to listen to a director proposing a Cinema Verite style documentary. The idea of allowing a director to ‘run around loose’ with huge stocks of color film following a subject and ‘see’ what comes out was unacceptable for any network boss. Although television restrained documentary film in nearly every way, it wasn’t a bad thing. By the end of the 1970s and all through the 1980s and 1990s, documentary film history saw the emergence of very well-plotted and structured films.
One great example of this is Birthplace Unknown (55-minutes, 1988, VPRO Award IDFA). It was about director Karin Junger who followed her two adopted Korean half-sisters as they return to Korea on an exhilarating, and sometimes painful, search for their personal histories. Birthplace Unknown beautifully portrays the challenges that adopted children are presented with at adolesence. However, director Karin Junger took security and preparedness to the extreme ethically, when she decided not to tell her half-sister that she had fully researched their personal histories in detail before embarking on the journey. Another good example is the Dutch documentary, Procedure 769, witnesses to an execution (1995, Jaap van Hoewijk) which follows the execution of the convicted and infamous Californian murderer Robert Alton Harris in 1992. Half the film’s budget went into the research of the murder case, trans-Atlantic travel, accessing libraries for archival footage, preparing subjects and interviews. The film was released both theatrically (85 min.) and in television (50 min. version)
Television demands certainty and security. Commissioning editors want to know what a film is going to be about exactly? They want to know everything beforehand – approach, style, interviews, archive footage, etc. Filmmakers unwilling to subject to these pre-set demands, must focus on a theatrical release while others can concentrate on television.
1980 - 2000 | Creative vs Factual Documentaries
Due to the influence of television, documentary filmmaking developed into two distinct directions – creative (theatrical) documentaries versus factual (television) documentaries. To avoid any misunderstanding, it is important to point out that while factual television documentaries can be very creative, due to the constraints imposed by television and its audience, they tend to be more informative and current affair-oriented. Filmmakers interested in releasing their documentary theatrically were able to go all out and choose any style or approach they desired. One of the best examples is Koyaanisqatsi. This type of documentary which would be unthinkable on television.
1995 - 2020 | Nonlinear Editors and Lightweight Digital Camera's Define Documentary Filmmaking
In the first decade of the millenium, the distribution channels stayed more or less the same. However, the instroduction of non-linear editing and relatively cheap and lightweight recording equipment made a huge impact on the style of documentary filmmaking. Non-linear editing software gave editors complete freedom in arranging material, and looking for that perfect match between plot structure, sound and image. It resulted in films with scenes and sequences that resonate with the senses, much like commercials or music videos. The best example is the widely-acclaimed Swedish documentary, Surplus, terrorized into being consumers (2003). It’s a unique theatrical documentary that drew inspiration from Koyaanisqatsi, but took it to a whole new level.
Another great example from the era, is the Oscar-winning (2003) documentary, Fog Of War – Eleven Lessons From The Life Of Robert McNamara. As the title suggests, the film centers around an in-depth interview with Robert McNamara. It is a fascinating and stylish film that intelligently mixes interview fragments with archived footage, underscored by Philip Glass music, into a nearly two-hour timepiece of the Vietnam era. Without the use of a non-linear editor, it would have been impossible to create such a mix without losing the audience’s attention along the way. Television also benefitted from the NLE (Non-linear editing) techniques, producing great informative documentaries like the Power of Nightmares series (BBC, 2004).
Access to lightweight and cheap quality video equipment
The low-budget documentary, We Will Be Happy one Day, perfectly shows the impact of lightweight digital cameras on documentary filmmaking. The film failed to get the recogmition it deserved. Yet, with little doubt it is one of the best documentaries ever made. It is a character-driven documentary comedy which is by far the most difficult style to execute in documentary filmmaking. The director must be fully aware of its charaters predicaments within their environment in order to translate that awareness into a comic dramatic plot that can sustain the length of the documentary. Only a few films in history have succeeded in doing this, one of them being We Were Happy One Day.
In We Will be Happy One Day, the plot of the individua’sl aspiration for self-realization tangles with family attachment. The story is set in the poverty-stricken Lipiny quarter in Katowice, Poland. It turns out not to be as sad as it seems in the beginning. Daniel, the main character, dreams about making his own film. He wanders about with his mobile phone, recording his neighbors, and organizing a real casting for his production. His loving and devoted granny waits for him at home, ready to order him around and hinder his film career. Behind the scenes, Director Pawel Wysoczanski helps Daniel organize his own story into an comically-engaging plot of how poverty smothers ambition, using the intimacy of mobile phone recording. This level of intimacy in We Will Be Happy One Day could never have been achieved without the use of a mobile phone and other lightweight video equipment.
2006 and beyond | Internet and the future of documentary film making
Despite the existence of quality internet streaming since 2005, neither YouTube, Vimeo, Netflix, or any of the other VOD-services have made any significant impact on documentary distribution. As with the disruption in the music business that iTunes delivered, the documentary business is still waiting for that affect. Perhaps the recent COVID-19 pandemic will bring about a change by off-setting theatrical distribution and festival markets, but that remains to be seen. The main ‘problem’ is that VOD cannot yet generate enough income immediately after a film’s release. Through pre-sale constructions, TV-channels and theatrical distributors are often involved in the production of a documentary together with local or transnational funds. This has been a longstanding construction and they don’t allow VOD in easily. In fact, the internet and VOD are potentially threatening to documentary theatrical distributors and TV-channels because they undermine their right to exist. As a result, they have tried to control the internet-transition by either frustrating VOD-distribution with territorial rights and unreasonable MG’s (minimal garantees), or by setting up their own VOD-channels. The latter is always unsuccessful because TV and VOD-distribution are entirely different ballgames.
In 2018, suddenly and to everyone’s surprise, both Netflix and Amazon stopped purchasing documentaries at markets and transitioned to self-producing them. While Amazon’s strategy remains unclear, Netflix claimed to see no point in buying documentary films made for television. This was the first sign of a major industry change, meaning that VOD-services acknowledge both theatre and television formats are limiting the audience’s potential of documentary film on the internet. To improve this impact and outreach of the documentary genre, Netflix and Amazon found it wiser to self-produce or engage directly with a documentary producer. It is a very interesting development to see producers and VOD-services team up to create documentaries intended for the internet. DocsOnline is excited to see where this goes.