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Documentary Cinema

Jean-Luc Godard famously claimed that all films are documentaries, identifying a documentary as any film that authentically or accurately documents reality, be it a factual or fictional reality. This essay provides an overview of key developments within the genre over the past 100 years.

Early Non-Fiction Filmmakers (1920s-1930s)

Nanook of the North directed by Robert J. Flaherty © Pathé Exchange 1922.
All rights reserved. Photo Courtesy of TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy Stock Photo.

Documentary scholars have often identified Robert J. Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922) as pioneering the concept of the "docudrama", blending observational footage with staged scenes to depict the Inuit way of life. Others have argued that a variety of non-fiction films preceded Nanook, including newsreel, scientific films, ethnographic films, official public educational and propaganda movies. However, as Brian Winston noted in his introduction to The Documentary Film Book, ‘other films may have had ‘documentary value’, but the power of narrative – determined not so much by what was filmed but by how that footage was edited – is what Nanook’s appearance in 1922 heralded.’

A key figure in the early development of the genre was John Grierson (1898-1972). Although he was not primarily a filmmaker himself, he was a vocal proponent of using film as a tool for social change and is considered the founder of the British documentary movement. In this chapter of The Grierson Effect: Tracing Documentary’s International Movement, Stephen Charbonneau argues that Grierson was a ‘uniquely transnational historical figure’ who synthesised a number of philosophical and theoretical traditions, and through his writings emphasised the connection between film, propaganda, education and citizenship within democratic societies.

Cinema Verité and the ‘New American Cinema’ (1950s-1960s)

Chronique d'un eté (Chronicle of a Summer) directed by Jean Rouch and
Edgar Morin © Argos Films 1961. All rights reserved. Photo Courtesy of
colaimages / Alamy Stock Photo.

In the aftermath of World War II, filmmakers embraced a more observational approach to documentary, using lightweight cameras and synchronous sound recording equipment. Direct Cinema, as it developed in the USA, and Cinema Verité in France, emphasized capturing reality as it unfolded without interference. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith explores the inception of this cinematic movement in this chapter of Making Waves: New Cinemas of the 1960s. He writes, ‘Whether in the form of cinéma vérité or direct cinema, the revolution was entirely dependent on the development of new technology.’ This new technology came in the form of the Éclair NPR camera, designed by the French engineer André Coutant, which became the camera of choice for the next twenty years. Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin used an early prototype of Coutant’s camera in the filming of Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer) (1961), a key example of the cinema verité approach. In his entry on the film in 100 Documentary Films, Jim Hillier considers how Rouch and Morin deviated from a strictly observational approach through their use of improvised monologues, and how in doing so, their film ‘reintroduces us [the viewer] to life.’

Activism and Advocacy (1960s-1970s)

The 1960s and 1970s saw an upsurge of politically engaged documentary filmmaking. The new ease of use and low cost of video production of the 1980s made it easier for activists to cover situations in remote places. Films like Emile de Antonio's Point of Order! (1964) and Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, USA (1976) addressed social and political issues, advocating for change. In her interview for The Documentary Filmmakers Handbook, Kopple describes the harrowing realities of the coal-miner strike in Harlan County and the determination of the miners and their families, ‘In Eastern Kentucky, the issue was trying to stay alive. We were always trying to film in a way that would ensure nothing would happen to anybody on that picket line and to these people that I’d come to know and care about so much.’

Harlan County, USA directed by Barbara Kopple © Cabin Creek Films 1976.
All rights reserved. Photo Courtesy of Everett Collection / Mary Evans.

In 1968, Henry Hampton (1940-98), established Blackside, Inc., the largest African-American-owned film company of its time. Through his chronicling of racial injustice, Hampton came to be known as one of the key documentarians of the period. In this chapter of A New History of Documentary Film, Betsy A. McLane describes Hampton’s PBS series Eyes on the Prize (1987) as ‘a touchstone in television documentary history in its telling of the story of race relations in the United States’.

The 1970s also saw the emergence of high-profile environmental documentaries that moved away from a scientific perspective to emphasize the relationship between nature and civilization. A key example was Werner Herzog’s Fata Morgana (Mirage) (1971). Incorporating a series of panoramic shots of the Sahara desert, mirages, animals, abandoned airplanes, and human figures, the film serves as a contemplative exploration of the themes of time, creation, and the human condition. John A. Duvall considers the film’s significance in this chapter of The Environmental Documentary: Cinema Activism in the 21st Century: he writes ‘the film is an ambiguous allusion, suggesting that human civilization may be little more than a fleeting moment in the natural world…as always with Herzog, there is a visionary sensibility behind the concrete images—a mystical yet unsentimental view of nature.’

Expanded Boundaries and Hybrid Forms (1980s-2000s):

The advent of digital technology in the late 1990s revolutionized documentary production and distribution, enabling more filmmakers to tell their stories. In the USA, filmmakers like Errol Morris began experimenting with unconventional storytelling techniques and hybrid forms. His The Thin Blue Line (1988) adopted a visually arresting approach, incorporating stylized re-enactments and challenging the boundary between fiction and non-fiction. In this entry on the film in 100 American Independent Films, Jason Wood describes the film as a ‘provocative piece of photojournalism that serves as a sobering meditation on the failings of the American justice system.’

Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s Close Up (Nema-ye nazdik) (1990) similarly challenged the boundary between fiction and documentary. As Jim Hillier writes in In his entry on the film 100 Documentary Films, ‘Close-Up is an intriguing, partly autobiographical reflection on the power and authenticity of cinema’. In this chapter of Projections 4½: Film-makers on Film-making, Kiarostami reflects on the positionality of fact and fiction within his own filmmaking, writing ‘I should confess at once that I haven't been particularly struck by either a director or a film. My films are much more influenced by events which occur in daily life, and which, without realizing it, I store in my memory well before they make their appearance in a new film’.

Close Up (Nema-ye nazdik) directed by Abbas Kiarostami © Kanun parvaresh fekri 1990. All rights reserved. Photo Courtesy of Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo.

The 1990s also saw the rise of several key women documentary filmmakers. Amongst them was Kim Longinotto, her film Pride of Place (1976, co-directed with Dorothy Gazidis) led to the investigation and closure of her repressive former boarding school, the film’s subject. In this interview with Fraser MacDonald in Projections 12: Film-makers on Film Schools, Longinotto described her directorial debut as a ‘revenge film’, evidencing a shift wherein documentary filmmakers embraced personal narratives and subjective perspectives. Films like Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing (2012) blended activism, personal storytelling, and provocative filmmaking techniques.

Documentary Filmmaking in the Modern Era (2000s-Present):

Today, the ubiquity of camera phones and self-recording on social media platforms has enabled citizen filmmaking to become a key tool in raising awareness, educating, promoting advocacy, and preserving history, particularly when the traditional media machinery fails to convey the socio-political realities of the region. In this chapter of Documenting Syria, Joshka Wessels underscores the importance of YouTube videos in capturing the Syrian Revolution. He argues that not only are these videos essential to the memorialization of the revolution, but that ‘the very identity of Syrian revolutionaries is partly constructed with the audiovisual narratives that are created through these diverse digital platforms.’ Similarly, in this chapter of Egyptian Cinema and the 2011 Revolution, Ahmed Ghazal underscores the significance of the self-reflexive Egyptian documentary Crop (2013), writing ‘The film emphasizes the concept of citizen photojournalism, and historicises its use during the revolution, as an alternative to the misleading state media.’

However, as John Ellis identifies in this chapter of Documentary: Witness and Self-revelation, the genre today remains an incomplete project, as ‘the very technologies that enable documentary filming also frustrate its most idealistic aims of showing things as they are’. As technological developments take place, beliefs about what constitutes adequate documentary communication are also constantly changing. In this chapter of The Act of Documenting: Documentary Film in the 21st Century, Brian Winston, Gail Vanstone and Wang Chi contemplate these changes, ‘All three legs of the traditional documentary—scientistic objectivity, eurocentric production norms, and patriarchal tone—are affected by the digital.’ As the genre expands to embrace new forms of docmedia, for example, web-/i-docs, narrative is no longer a synonym for fiction and non-fiction is not a synonym for documentary.