Grey Gardens

Albert Maysles on Gray Gardens 2006 ,  on  Grey Gardens DVD

Nanook of the North     Robert J Flaherty 1922

Considered to be the first feature length documentary  this shows us  the way of life of the Inuit tribe in northern Quebec through the life of one man Nanook and his family. Flaherty originally was hired as an explorer and prospector for the Canadian  Pacific Railroad  and brought a camera. It was only on his return from the trip that he took a serious interest in photography and did a three week course before going back to film again . Unfortunately or as he says himself, perhaps fortunately, he set fire to the film by accident. He then decided to focus on one particular character Nanook and returned for a further year to follow the life of him and his family.

There has been much documented criticism of the fact that many of the scenes and set ups were staged eg the walrus hunt, the use of harpoons rather than guns that they usually used ,demonstrating the gramophone as if he had never seen one when he actually had previously. The two women who were portrayed as his wives which were in fact according to Charles Nayoum Taluh in an interview recorded in’’ Nanook Revisited’’ (1988) that they were in fact common law wives of Flaherty nor were the children Nanook’s . The end of the documentary tells us that Nanook died of starvation two years later while hunting where in fact he died at home probably of  T.B. This was against the ideals of cinema verite purists who felt that staging action and attempting to steer documentary action was unethical as such reenactments deceive the audience who believes it.  Flaherty said that rather than depicting the Inuit way of life now it depicted it in the past . He defended his staging of some events saying a filmmaker must distort a thing to catch its true spirit and as Roger Ebert said just because you stage the walrus hunt , you still hunt the walrus and the walrus probably didn’t get the script.

Production techniques would have been heavily influenced by the remoteness of the location and climatic conditions . Flaherty took two Akeley cameras, a Haulberg electric light plant and a projector, portable development and printing equipment .In addition the long days and nights in the arctic would have presented problems with light .They  used a deep focus lens , depth of field photography and long takes. Lack of lighting facilities also meant that the interiors e.g of the igloo had to be manipulated in order to allow room for the large immobile camera and equipment.    

Ethically, the Montaqe blog website states that if documentaries are the subject of film and and films are subjective them we can consider that Flahertys film Nanook of the North represents Inuit people from the viewpoint of not only its director but its financial backers the French fur company Reuillon Freres and that this is ethically acceptable. An article on ethnography by Fatimah Rony leads us to the conclusion that Perry and Jacobson the explorers he accompanied on the initial trip were kidnappers and slave owners of the Inuit people and some of their actions would not be socially acceptable or moral in the present day . The same article said they felt that it did not appear the Flaherty was in any way cruel to the Inuits as they took the humorous demeanour of Nanook as suggesting that it was unlikely that Flaherty had  illtreated him or his people .

 Also this review raises the issue of how ethical news broadcast should represent an objective point of view allowing for the viewer to decide their own judgment on the reality.


The predominant style of this silent documentary is in a tradition of what would later be called salvage ethnography .Its purpose was to relay the lives of this distant people and a way of life that was fast disappearing .It was considered ground bereaking , was a huge box office success and hailed unanimously by critics. It is still shown frequently in cinemas today and was one of the first 25  films to be selected for preservationin the United States National Film Registry as being ‘’culturally, historically or aesthetically significant’’.

Nanook was said by Roger Ebert to be one of the most vital and unforgettable human beings ever recorded on film. 







THE THIN BLUE LINE    Errol  Morriss 1988


Morriss initially set out to do a documentary on a Dallas Psychiatrist Dr James Grigson who had given evidence that so many defendants were sociopaths and deserved the death penalty that he was known as Dr Death . During his research he became more interested in a particular trial of two young men involved in the shooting of a police officer in 1972, one of whom Adams was convicted and the other Harriss wasn’t.

In the  Bennett, L. Gershman article ‘’The thin blue line :art or trial in the fact finding process?’’  the author argues that at the conclusion of the movie the film has convinced (the audience) that we know the better ‘truth’ about the case and Adams’ innocence (316).This ‘’truth ‘’revealed at the end of the film is simply Moriss’ interpretation and presentation of the events and yet he succesffully convinces audience members to believe him. By doing so it shows audiences are as willing to accept his construction of Adams’ innocence as jurors were  willing to accept the prosecutions construction of Adams’ guilt.In the documentary he assembles an almost unassailable case for Adams and against Harriss

Morriss was a former private detective and he jokingly describes himself as not a producer director but as a detective director . Ebert  says this is not a conventional documentary . (it throughtout morriss voices his unyiending belief that the prosecution  concoted evidence by editing testimony, supressing signig=ficant documents really manufacturing a case that didn’t exist .Ebert says Morriss is more interested in the spaces between facts that facts themselves. He uses distorted and murky reenactments that support the account of Officer Woods murder .Ebert says such thematic devices are rarely used in documentary. He employs unrealistic highly stylised and visually captivating film noir like scenes (Curry 154) e.g the slow motion of the milkshake falling as we hear the shot that kills the Officer, close ups of flashing police lights, he includes excerpts of the films the boy said they had seen that night . The music score by Philip Glass is atmospheric, dramatic and poignant

In the documentary He demonstrates how the schema and scripts of peoples thinking can distort things in the direction of the familiar and can lead to incorrect understandings of the actual truth.He makes the audience the jurors.He has approached his subject as a detective.

Production . He has a particular way of shooting his interviews  straight on , and framing subjects so that we look at them very carefully , leading us  as much by what we see as what we hear using reenactments etc . He also had a particular method whereby he sat behind a curtain. The interviewee would be staring onto the camera which fed into a teleprompter that the interviewee could interact with .His wife jokingly named this an interrotron.

He splices together interviews and edits in a montage of newspaper clippings. It is only after that we learn thaat Adams was arrested for the murder 6six minutes into the film to avoid the stigma of the audience

At the end of the film his camera had broken and he only had a voice recording of the interviews . He provides visuals of shots of a tape recorder from various angles.

Ethically there is little, if any objectivity. He has also been asked why he left out an interview that he recorded with District Attorney Doug Mulder whyo was highly influential in the convicting of Adams. When asked why he said it was because it was ‘’boring’’

The film was successfully received and highly regarded today .










Man With A Movie Camera      Dziga Vertov

This film is to show the life in a Russian city over 24 hrs although it was filmed in three cities over a period of 4 years. It was not the first ’City documentary ’.It followed Berlin:Symphony of a great City (1927)

It is considered a groundbreaking film then and now, not least because of its average shot length(ASL) which was 2.3 secs compared with the average at the time of 11.2 secs.Audiences weren’t used to it and   The New York Times critic  said at the time ‘’Vertog does not take into consideration the fact that the human eye fixes for a certain space of time that holds  the attention ’’.

Vertov was part of the Kinoki filmmakers which advocated a new style of filmmaking. He said in Man with a Moving Camera that he wanted to get away from film being looked at in the tradition of stage plays. He announces by way of title cards that it is a film without dialogue, story , intertitles,and actors. The film opens on shots of the city public buildings, people at work but also a woman lying in bed then getting dressed and another giving birth.There is also a shot of a woman putting on stockings and underwear which was probably quite risqué at the time It also shows him using the camera to photograph shots in the movie and shows the audience how it is done.

Production: there were 1775 shots. Thirty years later Godard was credited with the jump cut in ‘Breathless’ but Man with a Moving Camera is almost entirely jump cuts . Some feel of the two films, Vertov’s film is the fresher.

He also used freeze frames , tracking shots ,slow motion , split screens , fast motion and double exposure e.g he shows miniaturised people on top of the camera.

The style is predominantly informative and was also termed a’ City documentary’ but given the time and  regime in Russia it is probable that there is also a propaganda element to it as Tom Weiner  has said   ‘’Vertov’s claim it was an unmediated presentation of daily life is undercut by the films optical tricks and more importantly by its stinting of any portrayal of poverty, crime and other social ills, not surprising given the heavy hand of the party censors’’ .

It obviously broke the mould in many ways and it was controversial for use of style at the time of its release but it is now considered one of the best and most influential films of all time.Also it is felt that the editing anticipated the visual language of music videos.
























The Race That Shook The World

very public investigation of the Canadian This documentary covers the doping scandals of the Olympic x race in x and the athletes invloved.

It is informative, investigative  and to some extent expository but mainly it is exposing facts already known following the trial. It has the benefit of being able to use a lot of archival footage since it was such a major media event as was the trial that subsequently followed.Most of the documentary is formed from interviews witht the athletes involved, coaches , lab scientists etc

The makers can rely on good archive footage as it the race was such a major media evn=ent and the subsequent trial also. The main body of the interview is made  up of interviews . They use set ups that have indicated the fall of the athlete eg going fromshots oh=f him on a podium with amedal to sitting in their basemend=st with packed up belongings and medals/trophies in boxes. Slo contrasting the buzz of the stadium on the day with the empty stadium . They also show a lot of cut aways to the sky day and night shots  which seems to be a themesky shots , day night and also when they go to jamaica

 I think the strength of this documentary is that the athletes inteviewed are notably frank and candid in their retelling largely because they have so little left to loose in terms of public opinion (they were stripped of their medals and banned from many races) which gives it a ‘no holes barred’ feel . It is refreshing to hear them talk so openly about a subject that is usually shrouded in secrecy. The documentart=y also makes implications without stating this explicitly e.g it links one of the athletes talking about how at the time he says they knew that anyone who wa swearing dental braces  was using Growth Hormone ,  shrtly \after this the documentary makers sshow footage of this same athelete wearing braces!footage is shwonof this particular athlete wearing braces himself!While no comment is made the implication is there.  

As the documentary notes despite these practices still being widespread as seen in the Lance Armstrong case, no Country has ever followed suit and held such a public enquiry as the shame of the athletes became the shame of the Nation  .






This documentarty uses interviews with three central players as narrative over a reenactment of events as they happened . They filmed it in the Alps and also the Andes where the incident happened twenty years previously. There are some sweeping shots of the Andes and the director appears to give a nod to fellow documentary maker Errol Morriss re this esp Fog of War. The re-enactment uses actors which doesn’t take away from it as they are mostly snow covered , bearded and barely recognisable . Nor does it particularly stretch the audience to see that there is a camera below in the crevice waiting for Simpson to fall in.

The interviees are very candid and frank in interview particularly when the climber  has to admit that he cut the rope and was subsequently blackballed from the climbing clubfor this . His friend Simpson says that he would have done the same thing . Not only are they still friends but also still climb together. One

One criticism would be that they are not shown with their names at the beginning ad it was hard to follow who was who as they looked quite similar in build, hair colour etc.


It is a drama documentary . Production wise one website describes it as being like a Discovery Channel documentary with higher production values  .It was very well received  . Most people who saw it had no knowledge of mountaineering like the Guardian critic /Philip French and were riveted . It was rightly the winner of several awards.










The Maysles brothers spent six weeks filming Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie American aristocrats fallen on hard times in a rambling mansion Grey Gardens. As Edie declares herself ‘’staunch’’woman and both are . They aere intelligent opinionated if a little eccentric and are great documentary subjects as they say what they want and don’t care much what anyone thinks as they have done throughtout their life.It soes however make you a little uncomfortable the the women are bing exploited . One critic said the film ‘’is an aimless act of ruptured privacy and an exploitation’’Walter Goodman of the New York Times said ‘’The sagging flesh , the ludicrous poses , the prized and private collections strewn about the anong thetimns of catfood – everything is grist for that merciless camera.The sadness for the mother and daughter turns into disgust at the brothers ‘’

The brothers denied this as did Edie who wrote back to the New York Times  an excerpt of which:

‘’You talk about my sagging thighs. Let me see yours at 60. Im  a marvellous specimen and so is my mother. And we live on practically nothing. We love each other and is that love so hard to take? So we don’t live conventionally ; so what? Everybody sends mothers away. Not me Mr Goodman.’’…The Maysles are film pioneers and because of that they will be criticised . But to my mother and I, ‘’Grey Gardens’’is a breakthrough into the very beautiful and precious thing called life. Were proud of it and couldn’yt be more pleased. It’s us ! And , Mr Goodman we’re hardly (as you wrote) ‘’a circus sideshow’’

It is an example of direct cinema which is similar to cinema verite but approaching from a different angle  but both with a goal that is nothing less than reality itself. These days we are used to being assailed by reality T. V but in those days it was not often seen and met with a mixed reception as you can see from the reviews.

The brothers take part as active participants in the film interacting with their subjects during filming. They use juxtaposition a lot , which in direct cinema the camera operator is not supposed to manufacture meaning or generate pathos but the brothers have used manipulated juxtaposition such as when the unflappable positivity of Norman Vincent Peale issues from the radio as the two ladies listen in squalor or a portrait of Edith as a beautiful young woman on the floor beside the cat litter.


Ethically Arthur Maysles was asked in the interview on the DVD said he could not remember if the ladies had signed the release forms before or after seeing the film but one would suspect before. They did get behind it they do not appear to be two who would loose too much sleep over what people thought .



The film was successful .A play followed and a Holywood film was madein 1996 with Drew Barrymore playing Edie .

As one critic said: this film achieves what cinema verite aims for but seldom achieves : a sense that the material is telling itself.



Interview with Arthur Maysles 2006 on Grey gardens DVD  and accompanying booklet