Documentary Film represents life as it is. Different from film where directors have a story and find actors to represent it, documentary however uses real-life events to narrate a story. Depending on a wide variety of technological, cultural, philosophical, and political factors, throughout the history of cinema, documentary films have been changing to fit their world at the time.
Going back more than 120 years, the very first moving images were technically documentaries, at the time called Actuality Films, were short unedited clips of real life events.
La Sortie de L’usine Lumiere a Lyon – 1895, is one of the first moving image motion picture, and is just a 46seconds long short showing workers leaving the lumber factory, and there were more at the time similar to these type of short, things like a train entering the station or boat docking.
Documentary in the 20 century.
In the early part of the 20th century, filmmakers began taking the non-fiction film in many different directions, both filmically and geographically. First, the travelogue film became quite popular, giving audiences a peek at famous places all over the world, inviting them into places and cultures they would never seen in their lifetimes. Audiences liked travelogues because they were able to see new and exciting places.
But these films certainly didn’t contain very much in terms of storytelling, with theme, plot, characters, narrative arc. But soon, for some filmmakers, bringing the story front and center, above the “truth” became a necessity. Indeed, romanticized and staged films began entering the cinematic landscape where filmmakers put details within a staged story to call up the dramatic appeal.
For example in the 1914 film Land of the Headhunters, filmmaker Edward Curtis went to the Queen Charlotte Strait region of British Columbia, and used the local Kwakwaka’wakw people on his film.
The film did, indeed, show many good examples of accurate culture, and clothing, and dance, and technology, but also interspersed were inaccurate and dramatized details, either things that weren’t specific to the tribe at all, or things that were dated from many, many years before, and made the tribe seem much more primative than it actually was. So even though this film wasn’t presented to audiences as wholly true or wholly fictitious, we can see some of the first examples of the line that separates fiction and reality, and how filmmakers chose to portray it.
Eight years later, in the 1922 film Nanook of the North, we see very similar issues in this new and growing category of ethnographic films. Filmmaker Robert Flaherty traveled to Northern Quebec and told the story of a local Inuk man. But just as in the Land of the Headhunters, Flaherty combined truths with inaccuracies, providing lots of great details about the Eskimo culture, but also portraying them as more primitive than they actually were.
For example, asking them to hunt with harpoons rather than the rifles that they were used to. He also took some of the first liberties of adjusting the reality of the situation for the sake of the filmmaking experience. For example, it would have been too dark to film inside of an igloo, because the cameras of the day required lots of light. So he built a totally separate igloo without a roof so that he could film inside. We also can see the first examples of filmmakers adjusting the environment for technical reasons.
Nanook of the North was presented as reality to film audiences of the day. Making up exposition and story lines would certainly be criticized today as deceptive and untrue, but back then it was an enormous critical success, and audiences loved it.
Also during these early days, some filmmakers tackled the very first biographical documentaries of important people at the time and throughout history. One good of the time was, A Day With Thomas Edison, audiences got the opportunity to follow around one of the most famous men of the day at his work. In addition to that, this film was also one of the early examples of process-oriented documentary, nowadays some may call Tutorials, where it actually showed step-by-step how a light bulb is made. At the time, audiences appreciated being able to witness these type of novel details.
And during the late 1920s, filmmakers also began pushing frontier on each of these categories when they began making what were called city symphony films. These were films that often portrayed a sort of poetic representation of urban life, while also capturing the city’s spirit.
The most famous city symphony was the 1929 film, A Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov. Vertov believed that the camera was better equipped than the human eye to capture reality, because a camera has the benefit of capturing different shots and focal lengths, and combining them all together through editing, incorporating many different tools like slow-motion, and fast motion, split screen, creative compositing and more to tell the story and convey the energy of a place.
Vertov also drew total focus to the fact that this was a film being shot by, a man with a movie camera. The man with the movie camera is seen everywhere, all over the film, in all different types of shots and situations. Another way that Vertov draws attention to the medium of film is to juxtapose shots of the cameraman shooting his subject, and then views of the camera man shots. This certainly was very revolutionary in those days.
He not only drew attention to the filming process, but also to the editing process. In a very intricate way he shows how the very shots within the film are spliced together to form the finished product. Vertov also tells the story of the city from morning until night. It begins with slow, peaceful, quiet shots of a city sleeping. It progresses through the entire day, ramping up and using different shots and editing strategies, until at the very end of the film the shot choices and editing decisions depict a whole new type of energy and chaos that worked very well for the ending.
Once sound was added to film, News reel type of documentaries became quite popular. They run from the early 1900s til the mid of the 20th century, they were still very popular on the 60s. The newsreel is a type of short documentary film which offered audiences their only visual source of news, current events, news stories on government and politics, as well as current events of the day. News reel were a great source of information at the time and are valuable for documentary filmmakers today. Because these newsreels are often the only filmic record of historical events from this period in time and so they are often used in modern documentaries.
Also very popular during this period of time was the propaganda film. The Propaganda film purpose is to persuade audiences on a certain point and to influence the behavior of the viewer. There were a lot of methods involved, injecting highly subjective material and style to get the idea of truth. Definitely one of the most famous propaganda films of all time emerged from this era, the 1935 film “Triumph of the Will” by Leni Reifenstahl. Adolf Hitler hired her to document the 1934 Nazi party congress with the ultimate goal of showing the return of Germany as a great world power.
Many creative techniques helped to highlight this persuasive message. Reifenstahl really highlight the cinematography using aerial photography, moving cameras, many different camera angles of varying focal lengths all working together. At the time most non-fiction films were newsreel style, so something of this magnitude was just extraordinary and the films of that time didn’t often have so many production resources.
The use of music, both as background as well as the inclusion of patriotic German songs, was also a very important tool. To clarify the message, she really focused on several key things to appeal to her audience. Things like the importance of absolute unity among the nation’s people. The immense power of the German army, the idea that Germany was rising to become an important world power once again, pure patriotism, devotion, passion, and the connection to the vibrant German everyman. At the time it was just breathtaking.
This Much Is True – James Quinn
Directing The Documentary – Michael Rabiger
Imagining Reality – Mark Cousins & Kevin Macdonald