The American Society of Cinematographers

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A New History of Documentary Film

Given the resurgent interest in documentary filmmaking since the 1994 release of Hoop Dreams, an updated survey of the field’s major works and trends is both timely and welcome. Film historians Jack C. Ellis and Betsy A. McLane fulfill this need with their aptly titled A New History of Documentary Film, which approaches the genre from a wide array of cultural and aesthetic perspectives and examines the role of the documentary in 20th- and 21st-century life.

The history of the documentary film is as long as that of cinema itself. Early movies like Louis Lumière’s The Arrival of a Train at the Station, Feeding the Baby, and Workers Leaving the Factory were slices of non-fiction life that presented exactly what their titles promised. For Ellis and McLane, however, the genre’s real birth as an art form begins with Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922). This study of Inuit Eskimos established many of the key formal elements of the documentary film: location shooting, a reliance on theme and ideas over plotting and story, and the use of non-professionals in front of the camera.

The authors address this latter point in an interesting way, pointing out that while the people in Flaherty’s films were not actors, they were carefully cast to represent their cultures in the ways Flaherty wished. This point has relevance in an era when films like Michael Moore’s have sparked widespread debate over what constitutes a documentary, with some commentators arguing that a film with a strong point of view has somehow betrayed the essentially “objective” nature of the form. Ellis and McLane’s history of the genre exposes the misguided nature of this argument on several levels. The most obvious point is that there’s no such thing as purely objective filmmaking — editing and composition inherently manipulate reality as the filmmaker chooses what to show and what to leave out, and reality is essentially altered as soon as a subject knows he or she is being photographed. (In this sense, the only true non-fiction filmmaker in history was probably Allen Funt, whose TV series Candid Camera truly caught its subjects unawares).

A less obvious but equally important point is the fact that from the 1920s on, the documentary film had two missions: as the authors state, its goal was always to be “part record of what exists, part argument about why and in what ways it should be changed.” Following their chapter on Flaherty and the birth of the naturalistic tradition, Ellis and McLane discuss the Soviet political films being made at the same time and point out that Marxists working in the media didn’t even see the word “propaganda” in pejorative terms — they understood that all selection and presentation of content was informed by ideological biases, and that to pretend otherwise was absurd. Ironically, Communist innovators like Dziga Vertov romanticized their images less than ostensible realist Flaherty, indicating that the notion of what constitutes “reality” in a documentary has been a complicated question right from the genre’s beginnings.

Throughout their book, Ellis and McLane address not only theoretical questions about the genre, but also historical relevance. In chapters on government-sponsored British and Canadian documentaries, American newsreels, and post-war cinéma vérité and direct cinema, the authors examine the impact documentaries have had on everything from wars to social mores. The sections on the British film industry are particularly revelatory in their exploration of the political and artistic influence of documentaries produced in the United Kingdom.

Later chapters chart not only the aesthetic and social evolution of the form, but also economic and technological changes. The enormous impact of television, from early news shows to cable television and reality TV, is a key topic, as is the influence of zoom lenses, lighter cameras, and faster film stocks after World War II. In the book’s conclusion, the authors provocatively explore the impact of the Internet and digital formats on the business, aesthetics, and ethics of non-fiction filmmaking.

Although the authors state that this is a history of North American and British documentary filmmaking, they also give detailed attention to pertinent movements in Soviet, European, and avant-garde cinema. All of this information is well organized and well-rounded; the writers give the expected and necessary attention to major figures like Les Blank and Frederick Wiseman, but also address the work of lesser known but important filmmakers such as Tony Buba and Donald Brittain. The end result is a comprehensive textbook that skillfully summarizes the history of a constantly evolving form of filmmaking.


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