While scholars of early film have been much preoccupied with the emergence of storytelling and narrative, the dominant mode of early cinema, beginning with the first films of the Lumières in 1895, was the actuality, or what might be called “documentary before documentary”. An instinct for what Siegfried Kracauer (1960) called “the seizure of physical reality” produced a huge variety of images that, despite their brief and fragmentary character, were not without ideological implications, since they generally reproduced social stereotypes unthinkingly and frequently projected and enhanced the iconic imagery of state power and authority. Cinema was born in the “civilized” countries of Europe and North America, and these early films also traded on exotic imagery from every corner of the world, which not surprisingly reflected the colonial ideology of the day. The French at this time used the term documentaire for what in English was called the “travelogue,” which emerged before World War I as one of the most popular protodocumentary genres, along with the wonders of science and expedition films. However, the recent rediscovery in Britain of the Mitchell & Kenyon films reminds us that turning the camera on your own community was also a fundamental propensity.
The rise of documentary as an art form after the war comprised several trends, which separated the form from both commercial interest films, and association with propaganda and public relations (the largest producer of short factual films in the USA in the early 1920s was the Ford Motor Company). One current, favored by European filmmakers influenced by the modernist avant-garde, turned toward the quintessential site of modernity – the city. The “city symphonies” of the 1920s, by directors like Walter Ruttmann (Berlin, Symphony of a City), Dziga Vertov (Man with a Movie Camera) and Jean Vigo (A propos de Nice), have long been celebrated for creating a new perception of the city for the twentieth century; in the process they discovered a visual language for the representation of space and place quite different from that of the enclosed fiction studio: instead of narrative continuity, these films explored and expanded the principles of montage first theorized in the context of the Russian revolution by Eisenstein and others, which still remain an essential resource of documentary film language.
A very different tendency gave the travelogue an ethnographic twist, turning the camera on the distant wilderness of “primitive” societies in what the filmmaking metropolis saw as the periphery. When John Grierson (1946) applied the word “documentary” to Robert Flaherty’s film of South Sea islanders, Moana, in 1926, he used it as an adjective, speaking of the film’s “documentary value” as “a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth and his family.” Within a few years, however, it turned into a noun and a subtle shift of meaning took place. What emerged in the 1920s was thus a range of films distinguished from fiction by their imagery of veridical reality, looking for a term to describe them in all their diversity.
For pioneering documentarists like Vertov, Joris Ivens, and Grierson himself, documentary represented a necessary alternative to the escapism and meretricious spectacle of commercial cinema. Ivens (1969), whose career spanned something like 70 films over 60 years, called documentary “a creative no-man’s-land, an interloper in the genre system.” For this very reason, however, it was largely marginalized from cinema as a site of mass entertainment and reduced to secondary status. One of the consequences is that the history of documentary would be quickly forgotten as the films disappeared into the archives (whence our new digital culture is now beginning to retrieve them rather randomly).
Coming Of Sound
The coming of sound was no help, because sound was introduced to serve the purposes of shooting fiction in the studio, and for many years remained deficient for location filming. Despite a few experiments in the creation of soundtracks by filmmakers like Vertov, Ivens, and the famous GPO film unit under Grierson’s leadership (Enthusiasm, Philips Radio, and titles like Night Mail respectively), documentary settled into a conventional format, using music, commentary and sound effects to impose a preferred meaning on the images. The pretence of omniscience found in the impersonal commentary led to Paul Rotha dubbing it the “voice of God.” Exceptions point in a different direction, like Humphrey Jennings’s wartime Listen to Britain, an essay on the collective experience of the nation carrying a soundtrack composed entirely of noises, sounds, snatches of speech and music, matching the visual collage of the image. If the authoritative commentary has remained a feature of television documentary, it is nowadays much less favored in independent films with any pretension to stylistic currency; here, if commentary is employed, it tends to use the personal tones of the filmmaker’s own voice.
Grierson argued for the production of documentaries in the public interest, as a form with “sociological rather than aesthetic aims,” although he also famously defined documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality.” When he wrote his “First principles of documentary” in the 1930s, he sought to distinguish “higher” and “lower” forms, to downgrade forms like the newsreel, the travelogue, and the educational “lecture” film, and to reserve the proper use of the term for films that aspired to the virtues of art. This turns out to be a difficult distinction to maintain, since the same skills are involved whatever the mode of the film, and most documentaries comprise an eclectic mix of different styles. Politically speaking, Grierson’s position was reformist (he once said he was always a little bit to the left of whatever government was in power), and the 1930s also saw the emergence on the Marxist left of documentary as a form of political agitation, not only on the part of filmmakers like Ivens, but also aficionados in the workers’ film associations that appeared in places like Japan, Europe, and the USA. This kind of filmmaking did not survive the cauldron of World War II, and would have to be reinvented in another form in the politicization that traversed the world in the 1960s.
Meanwhile, in the post-bellum, a still fairly small tribe of documentarists cultivated an essayistic approach to the form, like the Free Cinema group in Britain. This trend was particularly strong in France, where in 1955 Alain Resnais made the first documentary devoted to the Nazi concentration camps, Night and Fog, thus initiating one of the most crucial currents within documentary in the second half of the century: the reconstruction through archive footage of the history of the first half.
The 1960s brought technical and political factors into a new alignment. Television, after initial hesitancy, had adopted documentary eagerly but imposed its own codes of compliance, especially in the matter of political “balance,” a code word for not upsetting the conventional wisdom. But this was accompanied by a technical breakthrough which completely changed the ground rules: new lightweight 16 mm cameras capable of hand-held operation and synchronous location sound with portable tape recorders. The result, in the felicitous phrase of Mario Ruspoli (1964), one of a new breed of filmmakers who first filmed this way, was that for the first time “sound and picture stroll along arm-in-arm with the characters in motion.” This innovation produced an effect of remediation in which the quality of filmic representation shifted gear and a new paradigm of observed reality was installed, to be known by epithets like cinéma vérité, direct cinema, or fly-on-the-wall.
The result was the paradox, as Brian Winston (1995) put it, that “because the new equipment made filming so much less intrusive than it had been, the finished films were far more so.” The camera is now able to follow its subjects across social boundaries and borders which previously served to keep it from intruding, to enter the semi-private places and even intimate spaces of everyday social life whose portrayal was previously the privileged province of fiction. And since this is a camera with ears, Edgar Morin (2003), co-director with Rouch of the key film Chronique d’un Été, spoke of “an authentic talking cinema,” where “there are no fistfights, revolver shots, or even kisses,” in which “the action is the word,” conveyed by “dialogues, disputes, conversations.” But documentary entered the private domain only in order to reflect it back into the public sphere, and thus also contributed to a breakdown of the separation between public and private that is one of the markers of postmodern culture.
Different tendencies quickly emerged. In France, cinéma vérité was self-reflexive and dialectical, while direct cinema in the USA, in the style of Richard Leacock, D. A. Pennebaker, and above all Frederick Wiseman, aspired to unalloyed observation. In Canada, Michel Brault and Pierre Perrault pioneered a new current of French-Canadian documentary which offered a paradigm for the self-representation of cultural minorities until then poorly represented in the media. In Latin America, a radical movement emerged, stretching from Mexico to Chile, which valued documentary as an instrument of social analysis and political activism in opposition to the hegemony of the North. In Cuba, this included the films of Santiago Alvarez, who reinvented the newsreel, the compilation film, the travelogue, and every other documentary genre he laid hands upon in an irrepressible frenzy of filmic bricolage licensed by that supreme act of bricolage, the Cuban revolution.
Films of the two avant-gardes, political and artistic, circulated through alternative distribution in 16 mm throughout the 1960s and 1970s, finding audiences of trades unionists, solidarity groups, aficionados, and students wherever there was half a chance. By the 1980s, a new wave of independent documentary emerged aligned with new social sensibilities, from second wave feminism to the multiple strands of identity politics. Here an important tendency was a new mode of first-person address and the self-inscription of the filmmaker, which often translated into the autobiographical, replacing orthodox objectivity with new richer forms of social subjectivity. This is also true of the apogee of documentary as poetic essay in the work of Chris Marker, especially Sans Soleil.
Only after television had spawned consumer video would 16 mm decline, to be replaced by the camcorder and the video cassette, transforming the means of both production and distribution, which now began to reach new users and enter new spaces. On the one hand, documentary video art would become a regular feature of the art gallery. On the other, the camcorder was employed in countries like Brazil to create an indigenous video movement, dedicated to strengthening community politics, to be shown in the villages where the equipment would be powered by car batteries. But perhaps the most unexpected turn was the return of documentary to the big screen in the 1990s. Here the obligatory reference is Michael Moore, but as evidenced by the growing number of locally oriented documentary film festivals, the phenomenon is worldwide, with major documentary movements appearing in countries as diverse as Spain, Argentina, and China, testifying to a hunger for the renewed interpretation of social reality all too often absent from both fiction cinema and television. However, few of these films are able to reach foreign audiences as long as international distribution is dominated by the same monopolistic distributors who control both entertainment and art cinema (and excluded documentary from the cinemas in the first place).
These trends have been extended and diversified by digital video and the Internet, encouraging a variety of new forms and practices to develop on the margins of the commercial industry. Many commentators speak of these developments as a decentering of the public sphere, where the idea of documentary originally took root as a discourse of the factual and the real, and which indeed it helped to reconfigure, with the effect that the modern public sphere is in part defined by its practice. Indeed, it can be said that without the documentary, the public sphere is not functioning properly.
- Grierson, J. (1946). First principles of documentary. In F. Hardy (ed.), Grierson on documentary. London: Collins, pp. 78ff.
- Ivens, J. (1969). The camera and I. Berlin: Seven Seas.
- Kracauer, S. (1960). Theory of film: The redemption of physical reality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Morin, E. (2003). Chronicle of a film. In J. Rouch, Ciné-Ethnography (ed. and trans. S. Feld). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 229 –265.
- Ruspoli, M. (1964). The light-weight synchronised cinematograph unit. Paris: UNESCO, mimeograph.
- Winston, B. (1995). Claiming the real: The documentary film revisited. London: BFI.