“The pleasure and appeal of documentary film lies in its ability to make us see timely issues in need of attention, literally. We see views of the world, and what they put before us are social issues and cultural values, current problems and possible solutions, actual situations and specific ways of representing them. The linkage between documentary and the historical world is the most distinctive feature of this tradition.”

Preface (Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary By Bill Nichols 1991)

Nanook“Nanook of the North” regarded as the first feature length documentary was released in 1922 by Robert J Flaherty. The idea for this film came from his experiences while exploring the Arctic region of NE Canada for a mining company. During these expeditions he befriended the native Inuit population and was encouraged by his boss Sir William Mackenzie to capture life in the Ungava province with a motion picture camera. Having no previous understanding of the film process Flaherty, through trial and error, realised that his film would be more effectual when based around a central character. With co-operation from his native friend, “Nanook-The Bear”, enough footage was finally gathered to portray how he, his family and tribe survived in the harsh Arctic conditions.

The elements of humour, suspense and danger in the events depicted in this educational documentary help carry the viewer’s interest through from start to finish. Watching this silent film in 1922 must have been an amazing experience not only on a technical level but also as the subject matter and this natural environment would never have been seen by most people.

As a novice Flaherty pieces this story together successfully. The film begins with a preface presented on title cards and is followed with establishing shots introducing the viewer to the story’s location. We are then presented, with humour, to the main character and his family. With a variety of static camera shots we are able to follow the action in an observational “fly on the wall” style.

Music in the silent film era played a more prominent role in supporting the storyline and footage and is skilfully employed in Flaherty’s production. In one scene Nanook and two others, in need of sustenance, sneak up on a beached walrus. Suspenseful music accompanies their actions and bursts into a dramatic climax as our hunters pounce and struggle to keep a hold of their catch. In other humourous scenes a light, jaunty score complements the action.

Throughout the film some descriptive narrative appears on title cards adding information to this visual story telling. Scenes are obviously choreographed and staged to accommodate the restricted camera movement for example panning sequences and a section of the igloo is also cut away to achieve internal shots. Under the difficult Arctic conditions the seemingly, effortless manner of our subjects help Robert J. Flaherty represent their customs and actions in a natural and truthful way.

Dziga Vertov“Man with a Movie Camera” directed by Dziga Vertov and released in 1929 is considered to be one of the most innovative and influential films of the silent era. Born Denis Arkadievitch Kaufman he changed his name to Dziga Vertov which in Ukrainian loosely translates as “spinning top”. As an established Russian film director and theorist he sought to promote the art of documentary film making, motivated by the belief of capturing “film truth”. He also encouraged the use of innovative techniques as an efficient means of visual story telling. The film’s introductory titles inform the viewer that it is an experiment in cinematic communication of real events. His aim is to create a truly international language of cinema based on its absolute separation from the language of theatre and literature.

Filmed in Ukraine this depiction of urban life begins with musically unaccompanied footage of an empty theatre as it prepares to show Vertov’s film. The projectionist lines up the film reel, the audience takes their seats, the lights dim and the silent suspense builds as a long sequence of shots relay the anticipation of the theatre orchestra. Poised and ready their signal arrives as the projector springs to life and so the accompaniment begins.

The film subject portrays a day in the life of citizens in their urban environment. A succession of images lasting over five minutes illustrates the slow awakening of a city and its characters. The film’s pace ebbs and flows as we are shown, in an amusing manner, the people’s interaction with technology in the workplace and recreational environments. The visual demonstration of their cultural and physical activities have been interspersed with footage of how technically some difficult shots were achieved by him and his brother, Mikhail Kaufman, the chief camera operator. His wife Yelizaveta Svilova had also a major part to play as editor. At stages throughout the film we see her pioneering work as she interacts with the images in the cutting room.

Although originally released with orchestral instructions written by Vertov, It has been re-scored many times over the years. In this version, released in 2003,”The Cinematic Orchestra” (an electronic/jazz outfit) created a well received complimentary soundtrack. In the 2012 “Sight and Sound” poll the film itself was voted by critics as the 8th best film ever made.

Their innovative use of a wide variety of camera techniques and ground breaking editing styles still influence cinematographers over 80 years later. These methods some of which included split screens, multiple exposures, Dutch angles, freeze frame, time lapse, fast and slow motion, stop motion, montage collision editing and many others along with choice of real life scenarios and subjects help make this observational documentary an entertaining and educational piece of work.

Hearts and minds“Hearts and Minds” directed by Peter Davis and released 1974. This political, interview based documentary takes its name from a term used by the U.S. during the Vietnam war, which refers to their idea of winning the support of the Vietnamese population. The film through its interviews, newsreel footage and Davis’s newly filmed material reveals opinions and attitudes from both sides of the conflict. It documents the tragic human cost that the ignorance of propaganda generates.

Released one year before the end of the war, at a time when American support for this futile anti-communist conflict had waned, it received major critical interest both positive and negative which reflected the division of opinion in the U.S. over their foreign strategy. The film premiered in the 1974 Cannes Film Festival and in 1975 won the Academy Award for best documentary.

The opening scenes depict the tranquillity of life in a village North West of Saigon. This is quickly replaced with an interview from a post WWII presidential aide in which he reflects on the change of America’s view on the rest of the world. They not only felt a sense of responsibility but also a sense of power that they could control the future of the world. This is followed with a newsreel footage collection of presidential speeches from post WWII up until the Vietnam war in which they disclose their concerns about the growing communist influence in this region.

Throughout the rest of the film the viewer is subjected to varying accounts and views from participants and casualties of the conflict. Horrific incidents are recounted by Vietnamese victims together with relative archival footage. We see ex U.S. combatants in close ups or medium shot camera angles relating their experiences but towards the end of the documentary, as their opinions seem to alter, the director introduces a reveal as we now see them in a wider shot, wheelchair bound or sporting prosthetic limbs. In a close up a former pilot contemplates the repercussions of his actions. During this encounter the camera holds on a long dramatic pause as he struggles to control his emotions. In another scene Daniel Ellsberg (a former aide to the Defence Department) discusses the U.S. involvement in the war and comes to this conclusion that, “We weren’t on the wrong side. We were the wrong side”.

Without narration the viewer is left to absorb the director’s compilation of interviews and sometimes graphic footage. This style of documentary could be all the more influential as the viewer may feel they have formed their own opinion. The delivery of this collection of experiences and attitudes appear structureless but the intensity and the human interest of this subject make this documentary a compelling experience.

Baraka“Baraka” (Arabic and Hebrew for blessing) released in 1992, directed, photographed and edited by Ron Fricke, produced by Mark Magidson. This observational style documentary is an engaging piece of visual story telling. Without narrative the viewer is carried along in what feels like the current of a river as it runs its natural course, in some places fast and turbulent in others gradual and calm.

The director and producer with a crew of three took 14 months to shoot the film on location. They traversed six continents, visiting 24 countries. Fricke was quoted as saying that, “Baraka did not have a scripted kind of approach. You simply looked for the essence of things”.

The film opens with some epic establishing shots of a mountain range in Japan. From these scenes depicting the scale of the natural world we observe a snow monkey reflectively enjoying a soak in the hot springs of his natural habitat. We then criss-cross the planet as we witness various ceremonies being held in temples and worshipping places of the major world religions. The film reverts back to images of the wonders of the natural world interspersed with footage of the varied indigenous populations that inhabit it, displaying their customs and dance rituals. Through this sequence the director shows us how rhythmically in tune these people are to the planet.

The pace of the documentary then changes as we witness the effects of how man supplements their existence at the expense of the natural world and the loss of native instinct. We see the destruction of rain forests and images of overpopulated cities that show us how detached we have become from our more natural being. Amongst this a poignant image of a Shinto priest taking slow measured steps along a busy Tokyo street while meditating to the light, intermittent chime of a small bell he rings. This passage of the film ends with footage of war and genocide which we are left to reflect on before heading into the final section which tells us through our meditative religious rituals we can reconnect to our natural environment on a spiritual level.

The atmospheric music by Michael Stearns throughout this documentary effectively enhances the strategically edited images. As the mood and tempo of the visual story varies his thoughtful arrangement is there to strengthen and compliment the ambience.

Considered to be a master of time lapse photography, Ron Fricke uses this method to great effect throughout this production along with other camera techniques such as wide shots, pans and tilts, jib shots, steadicam and tracking shots. He also chose to film in expensive 70mm Todd-AO format, a method that hadn’t been used in twenty years.

Touching the Void“Touching the Void” directed by Kevin McDonald and released in 2003. This interactive documentary is a fact based misadventure with dramatized re-enactments (docudrama). The narrated story is told by the two survivors of this ordeal and a third party whose involvement was minimal. The film is based on a book by the same name by Joe Simpson released in 1988 and is an account of his and his friend Simon Yates’ near fatal attempt to climb the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985.

The film opens with creative close up camera shots of climbing techniques used in icy conditions. This cuts to another close up of our main narrator Joe Simpson with a concise, emotive introduction. The establishing shots that follow consist of some beautiful aerial and ground footage of the mountain range. This helps create a good idea of the scale of this undertaking. The reconstructed scenes are point of view orientated and are also very effective when supporting the narrative descriptions that detail the terrible and dangerous conditions involved. The viewer really gets the feeling of being in the climber’s boots.

The sequences of events that are recounted by our three characters are delivered in a strong suspenseful manner that arrest the attention and help drive the documentary along. Extreme close ups of the interviewees are employed when dealing with the more tense sections of the story.

Alex Heffes composed the dramatic musical accompaniment and is responsible for adding suitable ambience to reflect the changing fortunes of our resolute adventurers, for example when Joe finally reaches the base camp we hear serene, calming music that expresses the feeling of safety and relief.

Some camera effects included focus pulling which helped put the viewer in the character’s point of view, for example poor visibility conditions or a disoriented feeling. For the delirium scenes the snorricam was very useful, extreme close ups and over lapping images also helped manage this surreal sequence. Time lapse footage greatly added to the effect as well.

After the film’s release a debate ensued as to how much re-enactment footage a documentary could have before it lost its authenticity. In this film the sincerity and intensity of the interviews help resolve this question and the reconstructed scenes which are beautifully and skilfully shot are secondary to the actuality of the events.

Exit“Exit through the Gift Shop” A film from Banksy (Bristol, graffiti artist) released in 2010. Produced by Jaimie D’Cruz and edited by Chris King and Tom Fulford. The blurred origins of this interactive/performative documentary seems to stem from a potential project by a then unknown French, LA based shop keeper and amateur film maker Thierry Guetta. He had already stockpiled lots of footage on noted street artists and felt it was essential this collection included Banksy. They finally met and Guetta and his camera were allowed to accompany him on some of his street art ventures. Banksy realised the importance of documenting this art form and they decided a more considered approach to the project would be achieved if he would take over. With a production team assembled, editors then sifted through the mountains of tape, painstakingly piecing the film together. It was nominated for best documentary feature at the Academy Awards 2011.

The Welsh actor Rhys Ifans provides some sparse narration but on the whole this film is guided and driven along with interviews and supporting footage. Stills and archive material are also added to assist the narrative. Thierry Guetta’s hand held camera work adds realism to the look of the documentary particularly when the covert street art operations are being carried out. This modern style compliments the underground, alternative subject matter. Banksy’s disguised voice and darkened hooded interview that appears throughout also adds a touch of mystery and intrigue.

Geoff Barrow is responsible for the music that plays an unassuming supporting role during the film with additional compositions from Roni Size to bolster select scenes. The song “Tonight the Streets Are Ours” by Richard Hawley is used for the opening and closing sequences. This aptly titled tune not only creates an upbeat ambience to whisk the viewer into the world of street art but also leaves them and the subject matter on a high note.

The quirky characters and slight humorous style of the film may lend a little credence to the notion suggested by some critics that aspects of the production are fictional and that Banksy’s motivation for the documentary may be to highlight the contradiction of commercialising street art.


Reviewing and researching these documentaries helped achieve a greater understanding of the various styles and formats a particular subject may be represented in like the exciting energy that springs from the pioneering work of Robert J Flaherty and Dziga Vertov. Their work was produced at a time when the film industry was in its infancy and the limits of achievement seemed boundless. It is no wonder that these early documentaries have gone on to inspire later generations of film makers.

In “Hearts and Minds” (the historical/political documentary) released by Peter Davis, almost 50 years later, we see the development of visual story telling with the inclusion of skilfully edited interviews and archive material to support the serious nature of the film. This strong humanist theme continues with Ron Fricke’s “Baraka” released in1992. Comparisons can be drawn with the silent era format represented here by Flaherty and Vertov as no narrative guides the viewer, only pure emotive, visual story telling with the accompaniment of a strong musical score.

The recent documentaries reviewed (“Touching the Void” and “Exit through the Gift Shop”) have been produced in a more competitive and more critical environment. The struggle for originality is something that the pioneers would not have had great issue with in the early years and although the technical advancements that have been made throughout the years have greatly enhanced the process of film making the fundamental essence of the documentary remains the same and that is truth.

“Utilizing the capacities of sound recording and cinematography to reproduce the physical appearance of things, documentary film contributes to the formation of popular memory. It proposes perspectives on the interpretations of historic issues, processes and events.”

Preface (Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary By Bill Nichols 1991)


“Nanook of the North”

Nanook Of The North 1922 Cult Classic , Full Film – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LfBiEFGpVI. [Accessed 05 November 2013].

Senses of Cinema – Robert Flaherty. [ONLINE] Available at: http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/great-directors/flaherty/. [Accessed 05 November 2013].

“Man with a Movie Camera”

Man with a Movie Camera, Cinematic Orchestra Full – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zuEA7rgnCyg. [Accessed 05 November 2013].

Man with a Movie Camera, Cinematic Orchestra Full – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zuEA7rgnCyg. [Accessed 05 November 2013].

M-AUDIO – The Cinematic Orchestra. 2013. M-AUDIO – The Cinematic Orchestra. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.maudio.co.uk/artists/en_gb/TheCinematicOrchestra.html. [Accessed 05 November 2013].

Sight & Sound Revises Best-Films-Ever Lists | Studio Daily. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.studiodaily.com/2012/08/sight-sound-revises-best-films-ever-lists/. [Accessed 05 November 2013].

“Hearts and Minds”

HEARTS AND MINDS (1974) – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1d2ml82lc7s. [Accessed 05 November 2013].

Movie Review – Hearts and Minds – ‘Hearts and Minds,’ a Film Study of Power – NYTimes.com. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9C01E0DE103AE03BBC4C51DFB566838E669EDE. [Accessed 05 November 2013].

Hearts and Minds (1974) – IMDb. 2013. Hearts and Minds (1974) – IMDb. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071604/. [Accessed 05 November 2013].



Baraka (Philosophical Films). [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.philfilms.utm.edu/1/baraka.htm. [Accessed 05 November 2013].

YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t05z6EpGAfY. [Accessed 05 November 2013].

About Baraka | The official site for the films SAMSARA and BARAKA. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.barakasamsara.com/baraka/about. [Accessed 05 November 2013].

RON FRICKE – Pure Cinema Celluloid. [ONLINE] Available at: http://purecinema-celluloid.webs.com/ronfricke.htm. [Accessed 05 November 2013].

Baraka – a nonverbal film by Ron Fricke | Spirit of Baraka. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.spiritofbaraka.com/baraka. [Accessed 05 November 2013].


“Touching the void”

Touching the Void (2003) – IMDb. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0379557/. [Accessed 05 November 2013].

Mountaineering: The Making of Touching the Void | Mountaineering | OutsideOnline.com . [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/climbing/mountaineering/Making-the-Cut.html?page=2. [Accessed 05 November 2013].

At the Movies: Kevin Macdonald. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.abc.net.au/atthemovies/txt/s1139506.htm. [Accessed 05 November 2013].

Exit through the Gift Shop”

Banksy Exit Through The Gift Shop 2010) eng subs – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9rnyCyLFtE. [Accessed 05 November 2013].

Banksy Puzzles With �Exit Through the Gift Shop� – NYTimes.com. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/14/movies/14banksy.html. [Accessed 05 November 2013].

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) – Plot Summary – IMDb. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1587707/plotsummary?ref_=tt_ov_pl. [Accessed 05 November 2013].


Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary – Bill Nichols – Google Books. [ONLINE] Available at: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Jq2cS7qARd8C&printsec=frontcover&vq=%22Documentary%22&source=gbs_citations_module_r&cad=7#v=onepage&q=%22Documentary%22&f=true. [Accessed 05 November 2013].