touching-the-voidDocumentary making has gone through many changes throughout the years in regards to how the story is told. Many aspects have influenced these changes, including advances in the development of technology and the expectations of the public. I will be looking at six documentaries, ranging over 90 years, from 1922 – 2012, which show how documentary making has developed.

Nanook of the North (1922)

In 1922, director Robert Flaherty released “Nanook of the North”. With the first film camera only being made available just 20 odd years prior, documentary making was still in its early stages. “Nanook of the North” is one of the first documentaries of its kind and gave Flaherty the title of “the father of documentary”.

Having looked at the first 10 minutes of this documentary, there is a clear comparison between Flaherty’s 1922 film and documentaries that we would be used to seeing in present day, i.e. Daniel Gordon’s 2012 production “The Race that Shocked the World”. In the 1920’s, Flaherty had no option but to produce a silent film. Audio syncing to video had not yet been introduced; therefore Flaherty relied heavily on title cards to tell the story. Unlike “The Race that Shocked the World”, Flaherty was restricted and unable to overlay the footage he had taken with the story being told (title cards). Therefore, the introduction of audio syncing in 1927 meant documentary makers were able to change how they shot and edited their films, subsequently changing the style of documentaries.

Another factor Flaherty had to deal with technologically was the size of the camera. As he was filming in the arctic, he had a very small crew. This meant that the camera shots were quite simple, static shots. As the camera would have been quite large and potentially heavy, this would have proven to be challenging for Flaherty carry around for a year. Flaherty would most likely have shot on 35mm film, as 16mm was not yet available. Unlike today, Flaherty would not have been able to back up any footage, so if it was destroyed, his time was wasted. He found this out the hard way as he had gone to the arctic filming before in 1914. His footage “accidentally” caught fire when he was struggling to edit it together. In a way, this was a good thing for Flaherty as it gave him a way to go back to film, but this time with the experience on how to shoot and edit it. He raised the money himself to return to the arctic, but this time came back with a documentary like no-one had seen before.

When the film was being shown in the cinema, it is possible that music was played alongside the picture to create an atmosphere and to put emphasis on the mood of the film.

As for the style of “Nanook of the North”, Flaherty made the documentary mainly observational, but also with a mixture of interactive and performative style too. He followed the life of Nanook and his family for a year, filming their way of life. This shows a “fly on the wall” observational style used, although some critics may argue against that it is a “docudrama” as some shots were set up for the camera.

In terms of documentary making, this could ask the question of what is a documentary. Is it unethical to set up shots for a “documentary”? In my opinion, it is okay for “Nanook of the North”. Flaherty had spent a year with these Inuits; therefore, I believe any depiction he set up of them was an accurate representation of their way of life. Flaherty was just making sure he had captured this on camera so he would be able to show American audiences what he say when he came home.

One of the biggest ethical issues raised with “Nanook of the North”, other than the set ups, was the fact that the Inuit known as Nanook was actually called Allakariallak. He also cast Inuits to play the family.

“ “Nanook” was in fact named Allakariallak, while the “wife” shown in the film was not really his wife. According to Charles Nayoumealuk, who was interviewed in Nanook Revisited (1988), “the two women in Nanook – Nyla (Alice [?] Nuvalinga) and Cunayoo (whose real name we do not know) were not Allakariallak’s wives, but were in fact common-law wives of Flaherty.” ”


While he may still be showing an accurate representation of an Inuits way of life, to me, Flaherty is trying to persuade his audience that these Inuits are a real family. By using “actors” so to speak, Flaherty is breaking the trust and truth between his audience and what they expect a documentary to be.

Historically, “Nanook of the North” was able to show American audiences how the Inuits lived. This was a great cultural difference from what the American audience were used to seeing, and as travelling to foreign countries was not often done by the everyday citizen in the 1920’s, the documentary gave them an insight into a whole different culture and is a rare example of the way of life of a 1920’s Inuit.

Triumph of the Will (1935)

“Triumph of the Will” was directed by Leni Riefenstahl is 1935. Riefenstahl was commissioned by Hitler to create a film showing the rally of the Reich Party Congress. Unlike “Nanook of the North”, Riefenstahl covered the week long rally using a massive crew of 120 technicians and 30 cameras being used. As the documentary was commissioned by Hitler, she had the budget and opportunity to get complete coverage of the event and good quality footage. With the introduction of audio syncing on film, she was able to record speeches, crowds cheering, etc, which was relatively new to documentary making, but make a huge impact in the overall documentary. As it was still quite new, the recording of audio was not utilized to its full capabilities. For example, “Hearts and Minds” made great use of audio recording to tell the story of the Vietnam war, but Riefenstahl decided not to do this and kept with a more observational style in “Triumph of the Will”. This style lets the viewer decide their opinion of the rally for themselves.

Riefenstahl decided to use title cards at the start of the film to emphasise what a great man Hitler was said to be getting Germany out of its recession. An example of a title card at the start says, “sixteen years after the start of the German suffering”. In my opinion, Hitler wanted this made to convince the public to trust and follow him. In fact, in the 1930’s, the film industry in Germany boomed and many films were made to distract people from the war.

“Triumph of the Will” was thought of as being Nazi propaganda when the war finished and Riefenstahl was put in prison for making this documentary. She was later released as the documentary was seen as being too artistic for propaganda.

“Riefenstahl was imprisoned by the Allies after the war, and then released, partly because no one could figure out if a film could be an instrument of war.”


This makes me ask the ethical question of what would happen if a documentary like this was made today. Has documentary making changed with freedom of speech or could a filmmaker still end up in jail for a documentary on the on goings of a modern day terrorist group, for example?

Indeed, legal cases have been made regarding defamation of a person in a documentary. A good example of this is the Peter Davis documentary “Hearts and Minds”. One of the interviewee’s, Walt Rostow, was able to stop distribution for a while as during the interview he answers quite angrily. He tells says “you can throw away the tape”, but the director keeps it in the documentary. Although Rostow did not have a case against Davis as he was not misrepresented, this raises the ethical issue showing the interviewee in a light he did not wish to be seen in.

Personally, I think Riefenstahl did not set out to make a propaganda film and therefore it was unfair to imprison her for her work. She took an accurate and journalistic approach to the film and created a documentary true to how the crowds were feeling at that time.

Hearts and Minds (1974)

In 1974, director Peter Davis made a documentary about the Vietnamese war called “Hearts and Minds”. To me, the purpose of the documentary was to ask the question, why did the war go on for so long? What started the war and why did the Americans intervene? The documentary touches on the theme of racism. A review on IMDB said the documentary:

“evolves into a historical document about the violent social rupture that happened between the fifties and the sixties.”


“Hearts and Minds” relies on archive footage and interviews to tell the story. He uses titles and music together to give the viewer a feel of the location.

Unlike “The Thin Blue Line”, Davis’ documentary never overlays footage over an interview. The archive footage is used to tell the story as much as the interviews and Davis was going against the grain of documentaries being produced in the 1970’s. In that time, documentaries were expected to have a narrator tell the story. In a YouTube clip, Davis says that if he tried to make “Hearts and Minds” through a television production, his documentary would not have been made the way he wanted:

“commercial television always demands a correspondent, a reporter on air, telling you what to think”


Davis obviously wanted to leave it up to the viewer to decide what to think. By doing this, his documentary is a mixture between expository and reflective. He doesn’t hold back on his questions and leaves in the footage of Walt Rostow reacting badly to his question.

By leaving that in, Davis faced issues with distribution, as mentioned earlier. This could also raise ethical issues for the director.

During the time the documentary was made, technology advancements made interviews a lot easier to conduct. Radio microphones had only been made available a few years earlier and this gave Davis the freedom to film his interviews anywhere. As he was trying to focus on the story and what the interviewee was saying, Davis shots his interviews in a room with no background to suggest the Vietnamese war.

I think, historically, “Hearts and Minds” gives the viewer an accurate representation of the war, especially with the archive footage use. It shows the viewer the real footage and leaves it to them to decide their opinion. It was one of the few documentaries made in the 70’s to steer away from the conventional narrative type documentaries. It uprooted beliefs the American government fed its people during the war, many of which turned out to be false or misleading. In my opinion, Davis made a documentary based solely on actuality, which let the viewer decide what they thought.

The Thin Blue Line (1988)

The production of Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line” had an extraordinary outcome. The documentary started when Morris decided to conduct interviews with some prison inmates. One story fascinated him and he decided to start his own investigation into it, interviewing the people involved. He investigated for 2 years and through his own investigations and interviews, he was able to get enough evidence together to prove the innocence of Randall Adams, who had been convicted of murder. In “The Making of The Thin Blue Line”, Morris says,

“truth, to the extent that we can ever grad a hold of it, is a product of a lot of hard work and investigation”


The making of the documentary got his investigation into the public eye and made sure it was not overlooked, but this was not the main purpose of his documentary. “The Thin Blue Line” was a documentary Morris had not set out the produce initially. He was able to use his interviews conducted during his investigation with re-enactment footage to create a visual masterpiece which accurately represented the story. While shooting “The Thin Blue Line”, Morris made it his job to find out who shot the police officer.

The documentary is a combination of performative, interactive and expository styles of documentary making, by focusing mainly on what the interviewees have to say and backing this up with recreation footage.

Morris produced a documentary with great production value, similar to that of a film. Because of this, “The Thin Blue Line” became quite popular and was interesting to watch. In the 1980’s, the public associated documentaries with visual style. For example, documentaries were expected to be shot in black and white or to use handheld camera shots. This definitely meant no re-enactments or slow motion shots. By changing the visual style, Morris was;

“provoking debate on the reliability of documentary”


With the cinematic re-enactments, Morris was able to creatively imply the faults in the investigation by the police. An example of this was that the license plate on the car changed throughout the documentary.

Some of Morris’ interviews were shot in a cell and had no titles to describe who the interviewee was. This forced the viewer to pay attention to the story to know who it is.

In my opinion “Hearts and Minds” was edited more like a film than a documentary, which gave a completely new look on how to produce documentaries in the future. This inspired a new way of documentary making using re-enactments. An example of this is the 2003 documentary “Touching the Void”.

Touching the Void (2003)

In 2003, director Kevin Macdonald decided to recreate the story of two climbers in “Touching the Void”. The story is told by the interviewees (the 3 main people involved) and told through re-enactment footage. He also uses titles and music to explain and emphasise the story.

In this case, the style of the documentary is performative, interactive and reflective.

Like “The Thin Blue Line”, Macdonalds’ documentary was shot very cinematically and he used editing to show the effects of how the person was feeling. For example, overlaying the same shot to give a crazy feel to the shot.

In 1994, small DV cameras were introduced into the market and took over from celluloid film cameras. These cameras were small and the introduction to digital video made editing a lot easier. With Final Cut Pro coming out in 1999, documentary making became easier and cheaper to do.

Macdonald most likely used these digital video cameras to film “Touching the Void”. As he shot on location in Peru with a very small amount of crew, he most likely used a small and lightweight camera. Due to location and crew size, Macdonald may have filmed in similar conditions to those Flaherty had to put up with while filming “Nanook of the North” in 1922.

When filming “Touching the Void”, Macdonald first interviewed the 3 main climbers involved. When filming on location in Peru, Macdonald brought the two main people the documentary was about (Simon and Joe) to Peru and used them to film the wide shots of the re-enactment. By doing this, Macdonald was faced with the ethical issue of making the climbers re-live their time in Peru after the trauma that occurred last time. By getting them to tell the story on camera, the interviewees had to re-live the memories from their experience in the 1980’s.

Tensions arose during filming in regards to the safety of the crew. One of the climbers, Simon Yates, thought Macdonald was so focused on his film that he did not care about the welfare of the crew.

“The parallel seemed more acute when Yates acused me of letting our Peruvian cook almost freeeze to death one night on the glacier. I told him it wasn’t my fault. He insisted. He felt that, taken together with my allowing the climbers on to the face of Siula Grande, I was practically a homicidal maniac, willing to endanger anyone in order to get the film I wanted.

The atmosphere became so poisonous and paranoid and mixed up that towards the end neither Simpson nor Yates was really talking to me. They were caught up with their own private demons – which it seemed I was responsible for unleashing.”


“Touching the Void” told a brilliant story of fighting against the odds, but through making this, Macdonald burnt his bridges with Yates, who has not spoken to him since filming.

The Race that Shocked the World (2012)

In 2012, Daniel Gordon directed “The Race that Shocked the World”. This expository and interactive documentary uses interviews and archive material to tell the story about the Ben Johnson illegal substance abuse in the 1988 Olympic Games.

Like so many of the modern day documentaries, including “Touching the Void”, Gordon’s documentary is very visual and cinematic. While a lot of the content is archive footage, the interviews and opening shots have a very high production value, typical of a BBC production. The use of archive footage is similar to that of “Hearts and Minds”, but I think Gordon’s production was shot a more cinematically. This may have been a repercussion from Morris’ documentary “The Thin Blue Line”, which had a massive influence on the visual style used in documentary making.

With modern technology, cameras are now very cheap to buy or rent. They are also lightweight and easy to move around. Therefore interviews have multiple camera angles and are visually appealing, although Gordon had to be careful not to cut too much between angles as to not distract the viewer. The background of the interviewees is generally quite plain to focus the attention on what is being said.

Like most other documentaries, Gordon uses titles to introduce the interviewee or to tell the viewer the location.

I think Gordon made this documentary to show the truth about what went on in these Olympic Games, to let the runners tell their side of the story and asking the question, is it only wrong if you get caught?

“As Gordon points out, Canada instigated an official inquiry in a spirit of national soul-searching that established Johnson’s guilt and stigmatised many others. No other country has dared open their own can of worms with any similar tribunal; was it always just a question of Thou Shalt Not Get Caught?”


Ethically, Gordon had to make sure he did not misrepresent an interviewee. He would have had to make sure his edit was an accurate representation of events.

Touching on a subject of outing the Olympic drug users, Gordon had to be careful the interviewees knew that the documentary would show the world exactly what they did.


Even throughout the past 100 years of documentary making, the style and ways of filming and editing a documentary have changed, but one thing remains the same; to make a documentary, you must capture reality. While some documentaries push on the ethical border of documentary making, they are all about telling the story truthfully, by whichever means possible.

Having looked at many different styles used in these documentaries, I think my own personal documentary production will follow a similar style to “Triumph of the Will”, with an observational “fly on the wall” approach, but with also a mixture of interviews and possibly archive footage, an interactive style, a bit like “The Race that Shocked the World”.


Nanook of the North

Uden Media. 2013. Uden Media. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 November 2013].

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Nanook of the North (1922) | ShotOnWhat? Technical Specifications . 2013. Nanook of the North (1922) | ShotOnWhat? Technical Specifications . [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 November 2013].

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Nanook of the North. 2013. Nanook of the North. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 November 2013].

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Nanook of the North. 2013. Nanook of the North. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 November 2013].

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Triumph of the Will

The History Place – Triumph of Hitler: Triumph of the Will. 2013. The History Place – Triumph of Hitler: Triumph of the Will. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 November 2013].

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Film Notes -Triumph of the Will. 2013. Film Notes -Triumph of the Will. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 November 2013].

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Hearts and Minds

Hearts and Minds: Information from 2013. Hearts and Minds: Information from [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 November 2013].

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Peter Davis on Hearts and Minds – YouTube. 2013. Peter Davis on Hearts and Minds – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 November 2013].

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Hearts and Minds Reviews & Ratings – IMDb. 2013. Hearts and Minds Reviews & Ratings – IMDb. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 November 2013].

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The Thin Blue Line

Making of The Thin Blue Line 1/2 – YouTube. 2013. Making of The Thin Blue Line 1/2 – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 November 2013].

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Making of The Thin Blue Line 2/2 – YouTube. 2013. Making of The Thin Blue Line 2/2 – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 November 2013].

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Touching the Void

Kevin Macdonald on filming Touching the Void | Film | The Guardian . 2013. Kevin Macdonald on filming Touching the Void | Film | The Guardian . [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 November 2013].

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Touching the Void: Interview With Kevin MacDonald | Movie Mail UK. 2013. Touching the Void: Interview With Kevin MacDonald | Movie Mail UK. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 November 2013].

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Touching the Void (2003) – IMDb. 2013. Touching the Void (2003) – IMDb. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 November 2013].

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The Race that Shocked the World

9.79* – review | Film | The Guardian . 2013. 9.79* – review | Film | The Guardian . [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 November 2013].

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