Introduction

In this blog, I will be looking at extracts from documentaries, from some of the earliest examples of the genre, through the developmental period, to more recent examples. I will be showing how documentaries have evolved throughout the years, in terms of the historical significance of the films, and the development of the styles, techniques, and technical aspects of making these documentaries. I am writing this essay in the hopes that by seeing the progression of the form over the years, and by developing a historical context for these pieces, I will be better informed to create a documentary that expands on these ideas, to know what is expected in a modern documentary, and potentially use these to manipulate the audience’s expectations.

As a race, we have always sought to understand the world around us better, through mediums such as science, philosophy, art, and history. Early cavemen painted their lives on walls, scribes would keep records of the people around them, religious texts would tell us about the people who founded the religion. It is clear to see we are fascinated with documenting the past, especially as a story. The invention of film allowed this to be captured in a way that could never have been done before, and this is exactly what the Lumiere brothers did. Their earliest films were of normal people, getting on with normal life, such as leaving a factory after work, a train arriving at a station, a child eating breakfast, and a blacksmith working, amongst others. Eventually, however, film would be used to document the not-so-ordinary life, leading to documentary as we know it today.

Early Documentaries

Nanook of the North – Robert Flaherty (1922)

“Sometimes you have to lie. One often has to distort a thing to catch it’s true spirit.”

    – Robert Flaherty

Nanook of the north is a documentary about the life of an inuit family living in the Canadian Arctic.

Historical Significance

Nanook of the North is widely regarded to be the first ever documentary. The Lumiere brothers shot what was known as ‘actuality films’, everyday scenes from life, but these did not have a story to them, so although they are documenting reality, Nanook of the North is really the start of what we would identify today as ‘documentary’.

As a forerunner for documentary, we can still see it’s influence on modern documentary film making, which I will elaborate on later in this essay. Briefly, Nanook of the North’s use of a central character to carry the story is a technique still employed in many documentaries to date, and Robert Flaherty states this in the introduction, stating ‘But I did see that if I were to take a single character and make him typify the Eskimos as I had known them so long and well, the results would be well worthwhile.’ he could see that for documentary to work, many of us need a story, we need a ‘character’ whose world we can inhabit. Although the idea of fishing in the arctic may not appeal to us, if we can see the human strife involved in living in such conditions, we can relate to it. As long as we have a ‘character’ to follow, it almost doesn’t matter what the topic is.

Technical Developments

Nanook of the north is a black and white silent film, which uses title cards to tell the story. The cameras were still quite large and could not let in much light, this lead to some difficulties explained in the ‘Production Techniques’ section.

Production Techniques

Nanook of the North was filmed on location in the North of Canada, supposedly over the course of three trips, due to issues with earlier versions of the film, from being lost in a fire, to Flaherty not being happy with what he had captured. The film contains some staged moments as a way to capture life as it really was, which I will expand on in the ‘Ethical issues’ section. Flaherty states in the introduction that he took the necessary equipment with him to develop and cut the footage while on location, to show to Nanook and his family.

One reason for staging events was due to technical limitations. Since the cameras were large and not good at capturing in low light, filming in the igloo was problematic. To overcome this issue, Flaherty had Nanook build a ‘half-igloo’, exposed on one side, to allow them to create the illusion of being inside.

Predominant Style

Nanook of the North could be considered, to a certain extent, to be a proto fly on the wall documentary. Much of what we associate with this style could be seen as missing here, but we are following somebody through their life, the camera and creator do not get involved, they just observe. At least, as far as we’re aware.

Purpose

The purpose of this documentary is to show a different world, a simpler life, without the technical advances of the ‘white man’s world’, and the purity of this kind of life.

Ethical Issues

Ethically speaking, this documentary has created quite a bit of controversy and debate. ‘The movie is an authentic documentary showing the creation of itself. What happens on the screen is real, no matter what happened behind it. Nanook really has a seal on the other end of that line.’ This quote from Roger Ebert’s review of the film encompasses the main argument here. As stated before, lots of this documentary was staged. The hunters would really have used guns, as opposed to the traditional style of hunting depicted; the scene where Nanook supposedly sees a gramophone for the first time was equally staged; Even his family were not his real family. Flaherty said, as quoted earlier, ‘one often has to distort a thing to catch it’s true nature’. Flaherty had a clear purpose in creating this documentary, to show the merits of a simpler life, and to show the traditional inuit life. This way of life was mostly gone, was it wrong for him to recreate it? As Roger Ebert said, everything shown did happen, the hunting scenes were real, even if they used different weapons than they would usually. Personally, I do not have an issue with the staging of events in this documentary because I think the intent, to show what their life was like before the more modern era, was achieved. As stated earlier, they really were hunting that way.

Personal Development

I feel like I can learn from this documentary, and use it towards my own piece. I like how it chooses a central ‘character’ to tell the story around, and I will definitely incorporate this into my documentary. I find it interesting the use of staging events to show the true nature of things, although I will have to be very careful to be sure I am not lying, I would like to explore this more for my documentary. I understand the risk of staging things, but going to the point of reconstructions, I feel, would create a disconnect for the viewer.

Man with a Movie Camera – Dziga Vertov (1929)

“Freed from the boundaries of time and space, I co-ordinate any and all points of the universe, wherever I want them to be. My way leads towards the creation of a fresh perception of the world. Thus I explain in a new way the world unknown to you.”

    – Dziga Vertov

Man with a Movie Camera is a Black and white, silent, non-narrative film from 1929. It has no title cards as it’s stated goal is an international, visual language.

Historical Significance

Man with a Movie Camera is a non-narrative, non-lingual documentary, one of the first in a genre that has captured some truly magnificent moments of life, which we will see later on in Ron Fricke’s film Baraka. It is a completely different approach to documentary than Nanook of the North, and indeed most other films we’ll look at. Where these other films focus on individuals, documenting their lives, telling their stories, what they have to say, this style of documentary is more about the bigger picture. It’s about presenting us with the world, through the eye of the director, and letting us decide on it. It doesn’t tell us a story, rather it asks us to find one, which is done here through montage.

Soviet montage is the method of putting two images together to create a new meaning, absent from each individual image. The Soviet Montage movement was from 1924 to 1930, with this film being released towards the end of this movement. Although this specific movement ended, montage continued to be an inspiration to people such as Alfred Hitchcock.

It is difficult to watch a soviet film from 1929 without addressing the political climate at the time, and this film as propaganda is something I will go into in more detail later.

Technical Developments

Technically, this film is very similar to Nanook of the North, It is still in the black and white, silent era of filmmaking, but after the introduction there is no use of title cards. We can see, however, an early example of stop motion animation, and the use of overlapping images, such as at the start depicting a man standing on a large camera.

Production Techniques

Montage – he uses montage to relate things to each other, as a way to get his point across, possibly political (7:20, a soviet city is like a car, everything working together).

A woman wakes up as a city slowly comes to life. She washes herself as the streets are hosed down. She blinks, the shutters on a window open and close, the aperture on a camera closes and opens. This is montage, the main production technique used in this documentary. Individually, all we are seeing is a woman waking up and getting ready, a city, and a camera, but when edited together, we see the filmmaker is saying these three are alike. The city is like a person, a person is like a camera. We live our lives inside these living, breathing cities, and each day is like a film, so this film will be a look at a city, and a look at ourselves, seen through the eyes of the filmmaker, represented by the camera.

Predominant Style

The predominant style is the lack of narrative and the strong use of montage. The style can also be seen as propaganda.

The propaganda angle can be seen distinctly at 7 minutes 20, where, again through montage, we are shown the workings of a car intercut with images of the city. Vertov is showing that a soviet city runs as a well-oiled machine, where every part has it’s purpose, and every person has a place in this communist utopia.

Purpose

Vertov states at the start of the film the aim for the film: To create an international visual language for film, without the use of traditional language; to present the images without a story, or ‘scenario’ as he says; to break away from the ‘theatrical’ tradition of film; and to present daily life to the viewer. Although it isn’t specifically stated, a look back at history and at some of the images presented in the film reveal propaganda as part of the purpose of this film.

Ethical Issues

The main ethical issue presented by this film would be it’s use as propaganda. This is difficult to find fault with, however, since there is very little staging done in this film, it really is just a presentation of the daily life of the city, it is through the editing together of the film where meaning is created, images of Lenin linked to religious icons like a church, stating that he is god-like for example.

Personal Development

I really enjoyed this style of documentary, but I do not think I will be making anything similar anytime soon. What I will take away from this film is how meaning can be implied based on the context a shot is presented in. This is something I will have to be careful about, because I don’t want to mislead my audience.

Triumph of the Will

I do not intend to go into this documentary in much detail, just to say that it goes above and beyond Man with a Movie Camera in terms of political propaganda. The entire purpose of this film is to show how great Germany was, how great Hitler was, and how great he was going to make everything. This style of political documentary is something I will address later in this essay, but it is difficult to talk about them without some context provided by this film.

Triumph of the will is somewhere between Nanook of the North and Man with a Movie Camera, in that it doesn’t follow an individual, but it is also not completely without narrative. Rather, it exists to document an event, the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, a production style continued on to this day.

Development of the Format

A Hard Day’s Night – Richard Lester (1964)

This does not really fall into our traditional definition of a documentary. It is supposedly showing a ‘day in the life’ of the beatles, but it is very much embellished.

Historical Significance

A Hard Day’s Night can be seen to have been very influential on recent styles of documentaries, such as docudramas and mockumentaries. The docudrama is explained further in this essay. Mockumentaries are not really documentaries at all, they are generally satires of documentaries that use the format of one but follow a fake subject.

Technical Developments

This is the first documentary we’ve come to outside the silent era, so the inclusion of dialogue is a huge technical advancement, allowing stories to be told in different ways than the silent era.

Production Techniques and Predominant style

This documentary is an early form of what we’d refer to as a docudrama today. A docudrama is real life events that have been re enacted in the form of a film to tell the story. As with many films in this style, it plays fast and loose with the facts, and is more about entertainment than being informative.

Purpose

This film was made to be an entertaining look into the world of pop stars, and it was also intended to be a promotional tool for the band.

Baraka – Ron Fricke (1992)

Baraka is a non-narrative film, which picks up where Man With a Movie Camera left off. Rather than capture a day in a single city, Baraka was shot in 24 countries, in 6 continents, over 14 months.

Historical Significance

Baraka was the first film shot in the 70mm Todd-AO format in 20 years, and it was also the first film to be restored at a resolution of 8K

Technical Developments

Ron Fricke, who directed Baraka, created his own camera, a time-lapse camera, for filming this. And although this is by no means the first colour film, it’s the first colour documentary we’ve looked at. This documentary would not have been possible in the past. Affordable, regular travel around the world made this viable.

Production Techniques

This was shot with a very small crew, 5 people, all on location. The use of 70mm film created an incredibly sharp image.

Predominant Style

Non-narrative.

Purpose

The purpose of this documentary was to show life around the world, how different cultures live.

Ethical Issues

The film contains a scene where the body of a man is seen being cremated. This could raise ethical issues as to whether this should be shown on screen. Many people could be uncomfortable with this image, and the family could have concerns about their relative being seen like that.

Personal Development

What I took away from this film was that a visually stunning, high quality documentary can be made with a small crew of highly dedicated people.

The Thin Blue Line

I wanted to mention the thin blue line as this is what we would associate with a lot of documentaries. It is the only documentary we’ve looked at so far that has interviews. In fact, this film is almost exclusively interviews, with some reconstructions, which, at least in my opinion, is incredibly boring. The filmmakers themselves are trying to be completely impartial, allowing the words of the interviewees to tell the story, thus the visuals are very low key, and are not very important. This contrasts with films such as Baraka and Man with a Movie Camera, where the visuals are everything.

Recent Variations

Much of what we have looked at so far, style-wise, has been very singular. It’s been character driven, or event driven, or just about the interviews, or just about the visuals. In recent years, however, these have started to be combined. Stunning visuals, following a specific person, possibly looking at an event from their perspective.

Bowling for Columbine – Michael Moore (2002)

When talking to anybody about recent documentaries, it is inevitable for Michael Moore to come into the conversation. He is seen as a very controversial figure as he tends to be incredibly bias in his documentaries, often to the point of allegedly misrepresenting the truth.

Historical Significance

Michael Moore has been very influential in making documentary popular, with his strong opinions, strong personality and ‘character’, he is able to make any subject entertaining and make people watch, even just to disagree with him. This is where we can see an influence from earlier films, such as Nanook of the North and Triumph of the will. Mainly, we can see he uses a centralised character, himself, to give the audience someone to relate to, and this helps keep us interested in the events themselves. Nanook was all about the character, Triumph of the will was all about the event, Moore combines these two to keep us interested in the event, possibly a topic we wouldn’t usually find appealing, because we are following his ‘character’. Another comparison to Triumph of the will, which may seem a bit harsh to some people, is that it is very much a propaganda film. He makes no attempt to be unbiased, and will occasionally take statistics out of context to advance his own agenda.

Technical Developments

Modern cameras, being cheaper, lighter, and easier to operate, has had a drastic impact on modern documentary making. It allows for quicker set-up times, which makes it easier to get the kind of shots achieved in this documentary, such as hand-held shots and walking shots.

Production Techniques and Predominant style

Moore often uses humour to get his point across. The use of handheld camera and humour create a somewhat informal style, which I think he uses to ‘get away’ with his clearly biased and politically motivated films. Strong visuals are achieved here through the use of archived material of wars, revolutions, and other violent events such as the Columbine massacre.

Purpose

Left-wing, political propaganda. Stricter gun control.

Ethical Issues

Many of the ethical concerns raised in this film are about misrepresentation of the facts, and manipulative editing. The scene where Moore walks into a bank, opens an account and get a free gun has been shown to be staged, and the way footage of the National Rifle Association has been edited completely takes it out of context. The figure Moore uses for gun deaths in America has also been shown to be inaccurate, although the real figure is still incredibly high.

Personal Development

What I’ve learnt from this film is if you have strong enough opinions, and a strong enough personality, and are talking about a divisive enough topic, you don’t need to be accurate and unbiased with your facts.

The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive – Ross Wilson (2006)

Historical Significance

I do not believe this documentary has any historical significance, but it draws on many of the advances we’ve seen throughout this essay, as I will explain in the ‘production techniques and predominant style’ section.

Technical Developments

There were no technical developments specifically for this documentary.

Production Techniques and Predominant style

Like Bowling for Columbine, it uses a strong leading personality as a point of contact for the audience, rather than just explaining facts about bipolar disorder, it looks at the disorder from the perspective of someone suffering from it, it creates a human interest angle for us to latch on to. It combines this with interviews and facts to create a level of engagement that would be lacking otherwise.

Purpose

The purpose of this film is to raise awareness of manic depression, to show what it’s like living with it, and to try to break down the cultural stigma associated with mental illness.

Ethical Issues

There could be issues talking about certain aspects of bipolar disorder, such as suicide. It could act as a ‘trigger’ for people watching who have been affected by suicide.

Personal Development

I chose to cover this documentary because it directly relates to the documentary I want to make this year. I want to make a personality-driven look at the links between creativity and depression/mental illness.

Conclusion

We have seen the development of three forms of  documentary, and the convergence of these styles. While it is certainly possible for these styles to work by themselves: the visual approach of Man with a movie camera and Baraka, personality-driven documentaries such as Nanook of the north and A Hard days night, and information/interview-driven documentaries such as The Thin Blue Line; the best results are often achieved by combining these styles. This is what I intend to do with my documentary: I’ll take a personality-driven approach to presenting facts, with strong visuals, and include interviews.

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