Lecture 8: Non-fiction / Documentary Film

vNon-fiction/Documentary Film



Documentary as Genre

      Absence of Fictionalizing Elements

       "Film which through certain conventions creates the illusion that the events depicted were not controlled by the filmmakers."

       4 functions of non-fiction film

      Neither peculiar to documentary nor exclude that which is not documentary.

1. To record, reveal, or preserve;

2. To persuade or promote

3. To analyze or interrogate

4. To express


Realism in documentary?

       Recreation films of historic events

    Fiction as part of documentary process

    Beginning of film industry included recreations

   1907 film about “Teddy” Roosevelt on an African hunting trip by William Selig
   Selig hires African Americans out of Chicago to portray “native” Africans and films an actor stalking through a jungle who then shoots a “aged” lion on camera
   Result is that Roosevelt viewed as hero and “the great white hunter.”



5 Types of Documentary

v       Primitive non-fiction 

v       Travel/Adventure Doc.

v       Camera as Observer

v       Didactic/Teaching Doc. ("propaganda")

v       Television doc. / Internet – Webcasting


Primitive Documentary

      Lumière Brothers films

    See lecture on Early Cinema.

      Mainly Newsreels

   News events around the world

   Emphasized events and locations


Dziga Vertov

       Dziga Vertov – Russian socialist and filmmaker

    Part of “Futurism” Movement in Europe

    Technology as a means to capture daily experience – Soviet reality

    Began films as part of  publication, Film-Truth (Kino-Pravda) from 1922 to 1925

    Emphasized 2 themes: camera as extension of “eye”and “truth”

    “I am cinema-eye”+ “Show bits of truth on the screen”

    1929 -- The Man with the Movie Camera

       Sub-genres created


    Actuality documentary


Avant Garde / Actualities

      1925 – Ballet Mécanique by French artist Fernand Léger and American artist Dudley Murphy

    Film emphasized mechanization of society and is composed mainly of moving gears, levers, pendulums and other mechanical items



      "Exotic" location/people/cultures

      Filmmaker imposes his/her culture on exotic cultures

    Ex. Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922) Inuit culture, 1922

    B&W, shot silent, no handheld camera, daytime shooting only, intertitles used to explain/comment on subjects

    Revillon, French distributor accepted the film (American companies were hesitant)

    Well received in theatres making documentary form and Flaherty popular in mainstream market

    In actuality scenes of hunting were staged and Flaherty exposed Inuit people in film to unnecessary and life threatening dangers


Camera as Observer

       Free Cinema (1960s, England)

    No narration

    Handheld camera

    No apparent staging

    Still mostly B&W

       Direct Cinema (1960s-70s, US)

    Ex. D. A. Pennebaker – made political work Primary (1960, about the Democratic Presidential Primary in Wisconsin) and Crisis (1963, about the desegregation of the University of Alabama),

    Don't Look Back, 1967 – 1st behind the scenes documentary on music stars -- Bob Dylan’s British Tour

    People living their lives and not just telling about them

       Cinéma Vérité (1960s, France)


Cinéma Vérité

      “Film Truth”

     Style of film making developed by French film directors in the 1960’s

     Production techniques did not depend on star quality actors, sets, props, casts of thousands, special effects and big budgets which was the trend in Hollywood films

     Used non-actors, small hand- held cameras, and actual homes and surroundings as their location for a film.

     Unrehearsed situations.

     Filming done unobtrusively so the subjects of the film would forget the presence of the camera and “just be themselves.”

     Goal to show life as it really is using the film as his artistic medium.


Didactic/Teaching Documentary

      1930s, England

    John Grierson, coined term, "documentary" when describing Robert

     Flaherty's second film, Moana (1926)

    Teach about social issues

   John Grierson, -- headed Film Unit of the Empire Marketing Board established to create documentaries which promoted the production and transport of Food throughout the British Empire

   Usually Expository style (voice-over) but Grierson used interviews of people telling their lives


Propaganda Documentary

       1935 – Triumph of the Will – Leni Riefenstahl

       Won Venice and Paris Film festivals

       Film commissioned by UFA and Nazi government -- Hitler requests Riefenstahl as director

     Enlisted military and civil service to help with the planning of film and “filmed” events

     No narrator just exerts of speeches by Hitler and other Nazi leaders

     Film and content highly orchestrated with camera shots planned along with rallies, parades, speeches for Hitler’s visit to Nuremberg

     Nuremberg built special bridges, towers, ramps to film content under the direction of director

     Opening sequence shows Hitler as “deity descending to earth to save the German people”

     Overall theme of German (under Nazi rule) Nationalism



U.S. Propaganda Documentary/ Films

       New Deal documentaries

     F.D. Roosevelt's recovery program creates relief agency -- Resettlement Administration (RA)

     RA creates Motion Picture Unit to educate and “sell” public on need for “New Deal” programs

    Goal is to promote policies for impoverished farmers, laborers and families during Depression

       Pare Lorentz – professional writer and film critic becomes main director of RA films

       Hollywood opposition to government supported film industry

     Denied Lorentz access to film archives

     Denied access to distribution outlets and theaters

    3000 theaters eventually show film

     1936 The Plow That Broke the Plains – film about soil conservation during the “Dust Bowl” conditions in Midwest

     1938 The River – film about the effects of flooding along the Mississippi



Pare Lorentz and the RA

       Films highly stylized and orchestrated

    Used editing to create visual metaphor (poetic)

    Music for mood

    Composer Virgil Thomson – wrote the musical scores for the films

    1938 – The River

    Wins best-documentary for Venice film festival

    Film shows the affects of flooding along the Mississippi and its tributaries

    Influences Hollywood interest in “realism” during this period resulting in films such as The Grapes of Wrath (1939).



U.S. Documentaries

       Office of War Information

      Commissioned films prior to and during WWII

      "Why We Fight" Series  / Prelude to War (Frank Capra, 1941)

      Narration used (omniscient narrator)

      Graphics---animation (Disney)

      Used previously shot footage found in archives

      Shot very little new footage

    Like projects such as Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi doc. Triumph of the Will

       Films focused on “political education” of American civilians enlisted in the military

    Frank Capra – director of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with James Stewart, is enlisted to direct series

    Asks to watch Riefenstahl’s Triumph to learn about documentary form



Modes of Documentary

      Reassembled / Archival




    Diaristic – popular form at present

    Personal essay

      Reflexive – made aware of documentary form

    Participatory documentary

    Filmmaker / director and “subjects” create film together




Assembled / Archival

      Esfir Shub – subtitler and editor of foreign film in Russia

      1927 – The Fall of Romanov Dynasty

    Uses home movies of Tsar Nicholas II and family to make feature length film

    Meant to be “counterrevolutionary” but film shows parades of religious dignitaries and officers dancing at a battleship party with the Tsar’s family – effectively reinforced the Russian revolution

    Resulted in film archives and film preservation


New Modes of Documentary

       Technological changes lead to various forms of non-fiction film

    Silent films more conducive to reassembled or archival films

    Non-tripodal camera – creates freedom for directors to go to varied locations

    Style changed making the films more observational

       Observational practices

    Reflexive style of filmmaking

    Diaristic documentary styles

    Participatory practice in filmmaking

    Engages more actively with the world of the filmed subject

    Less purely ethnographic film


Television doc. / Internet -- Webcasting

Qualities include

    Color video

    Handheld camera

    Digital graphics

    Not limited to daytime shooting

    Broadcasts on


   MTV’s The Real World


   OlympuSAT digital platform broadcasting network will host the Documentary Channel which will show unedited non-fiction film


New Developments using Documentary Form


v Self-Reflexive / Fictional Documentary

      This is Spinal Tap (1984)

    Example of “fake-documentary”

    Reflexive mode of flimmaking

    Parody of rock-documentaries, i.e. Don’t Look Back (1967) or Gimmie Shelter (1971)

    Succeeds by imitating codes and conventions of documentary style

     Kids (1995)– Explicit film about young urban mainly white teen-age culture

    Written by 21-year-old Harmony Korine

    Directed by 52-year-old Larry Clark