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
It is said that when the Lumiere Brothers screened their film Arrival of a train at la Ciotat, people fled the theatre because they thought the train was really coming at them. Indeed the first films transfixed for the world’s wonderment made a huge impression on the audience. Yet these films, called ‘actualities’, are without the spirit of documentary film because they were made with a passion for the technique to record an event and lacked the intent to convey anything about it.
Then came the travelogues (“scenics”), popular in the first couple decades of the 20th century, which gave audiences the opportunity to see parts of the world that had previously been available to them only as photographs, if at all. Though these were undoubtedly very interesting, their focus was on the places and people, not 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.
Because the new Russian government wanted cinema to be both realistic and inspirational for common people, and to get away from the ‘falseness’ and escapism of western commercial cinema, 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. During the Soviet Union’s period of great inventiveness in the cinema in the 1920s, Dziga Vertov served as a leading theorist His Man With A Movie Camera is his exhuberant record of his desire to experiment with the camerá’s ability to move, editing and to capture life in 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 one has no sense of artifice.
At first distributors refused to accept that Nanook of the North might have any interest for the Public, but they were quite wrong, for it drew large crowds in the United States and internationally, earning worldwide gross receipts of $251,000. Yet while audiences lined up to see the film, Nanook died on a hunting trip in the Arctic. The film had become so popular that the news of Nanooks’s 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
During the 1920s film had been used to show real life in a way that went beyond the fragmented representation of news footage, scenics or actualities. Vertov had experimented with a documentary film language and Flaherty had taken 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.
The Nazi’s, perhaps more than any other group, realized the unlimited potential in a generation meanwhil addicted to the cinema. In addition to propaganda films using carefully picked actors to show 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 undeniably belong with 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, to the health of the Nazi regime. Along with Triumph Of the Will this film is regarded 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 upon the consequences of massive warfare. The best example is perhaps Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series, sponsored by the US government to rally the American people behind the war effort in Europe and Asia. It was needed to quickly counter the isolationistic views the US government had been propagating since World War I. Cinema was the medium of choice because Americans had become absolute movie-mad in the past decennia. Capra, a well-known Hollywood director but with no experience in documentary filmmaking, borrowed techniques and footage liberally from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Like so many documentary films of the period, the Why We Fight series is outright propaganda needed 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
Two main technological advances began to radically transform documentary filmmaking in the 1950s. On was the Eclair self-blimped (mechanically very quiet) camera, which made flexible sync filming a reality. It also had quick change film magazines, which allowed only a few seconds of downtime during magazine changes. The other advance came from Ricky Leacock and the Robert Drew group at Time, Inc., of New York, who solved the problem of recording sync without linking recorder and camera by constricting wires. These improvements changed every phase of location filming by the beginning of the 1960s from news gathering and documentary to improvised dramatic production. Documentary filmmaking became much more up-close and personal. The result, variously known as cinéma vérité or direct cinema, was a significant change of the camera to the subject. The camera was now sufficiently mobile to become a subsidiary observer. There was no actual need for documentary directors to make imperious demands on the participant for the good of the recording process. Now the camera and sound were handheld and could follow the action wherever that action might lead. The camera became an active observer and this showed on the screen in the intimacy, immediacy and unpredictability of the new media form.
Great examples of documentary films made in the 1950s and 60 are Salesman (1969) and Gimme Shelter (1970) by the famous Maysles brothers. In pure direct cinema style Salesman follows a band of hard-nosed Bible salesmen on a sales drive in Florida. The much celebrate Gimme Shelter follows the Rolling Stones to their Gigantic outdoor concert in Altamont California. The film shows the dangerous side of th 60s counterculture, and culminates with the murder by the Hells Angels of a troublemaker in the crowd. 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 the 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. Shooting in color 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 the cinemas to appear on the home screen. Always potentially embarassing to its patron, the marriage between documentary and television has always been an uneasy one. The documentary now had to exist by permission of giant television networks, 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, a BBC dramatized documentary founded on facts known from the firebombing of Dresden and made to show the effect of a nuclear attact on London, has waited 20 years to broadcast. Another good example of a great – yet much younger – film being denied broadcasting due to its uneasy subject, is First Kill (2001, Coco Schrijver). First Kill later became an all-time audience favorite at one of the world’s leading documentary film festivals (IDFA)
Anyway, the 1970s saw television tighten its grip on the format (50min slots), content and plot structure of documentary film. When Television stepped 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, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. By the end of the 1970s, all through the 80s and 90s, the history of documentary film saw the emergence of very well plotted and structured films.
A great example is Birthplace Unknown ( 55min, 1988, VPRO Award IDFA) about director Karin Junger who follows her two adopted Korean half-sisters as they return to Korea on an exhilarating, and at times painful, search for their personal histories. Birthplace Unknown beautifully portrays the challenges that adopted children are presented at adolesence. However, director Karin Junger took security and preparedness to the extremes, 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) about the execution of the convicted and infamous Californian murderer Robert Alton Harris in 1992. Half the films budget went into the research of the murder case, traveling across the Atlantic, accessing libraries for archival footage, preparing subjects and interviews. The film was released both theatrically (85min) and television (50min version)
Television demanded certainty and security. What is the film about exactly, and how are you as a director going to show that (predefined plot structure) within exactly 49min (available timeslot) in an extremely appealing way to the audience (unique appraach)? Filmmakers who were unwilling to subject to these pre-set demands focussed on a theatrical release while others concentrated on television.
1980 - 2000 | Creative vs Factual Documentaries
Due to the influence of television documentary filmmaking developed into two somewhat distinct directions: Creative (theatrical) documentaries versus factual (television) documentaries. To avoid any misunderstanding it is important to point out that factual television documentaries can be very creative. However, due to the constraints imposed by television and its audience, they tend to be more information and current affaires oriented. Filmmakers looking to release their documentary theatrically were able to go all out and, more or less, choose any style or approach they desired. One of the best examples is Koyaanisqatsi, 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, but non-linear editing and relatively cheap, lightweight yet quality recording equipment had a huge impact on the style of documentary filmmaking. Non-linear editing software gave editors complete freedom in arranging material, looking for that perfect match between plot structure, sound and image. It resulted in films with scenes and sequences that resonated with the senses, much like commercials or music videos. The best example is no doubt the widely acclaimed Swedish documentary Surplus, terrorized into being consumers (2003, ). It’s an absolutely unique theatrical documentary that obviously 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 stylish film that intelligently mixes interview fragments with archive footage, underscrored 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 and not lose the attention of the audience along the way. Television too was to benefit from the NLE (Non-linear editing) techniques, producing great informative documentaries like the Power of Nightmares series (BBC, 2004).