Documentary was crucial to the early development of the cinema. Film history conventionally begins in 1895, when Louis and Auguste Lumière publicly exhibited their first program of short films in the basement of the Grand Cafe in Paris. With titles such as Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895), Arrival of a Train (1895), and Le Repas de Bébé (Feeding the Baby, 1895), the Lumières' films, or "actualites," were brief slices of life captured by the camera. According to the media historian Erik Barnouw, the Lumière programs were so popular that within two years they had approximately one hundred operators at work around the world, both showing their films and photographing new ones to add to a steadily increasing catalogue (p. 13). Many of the new enterprising film companies that sprang up at the turn of the century featured nonfiction titles, particularly travelogues. In an era before world travel was common and every tourist had a camera, scenes of foreign lands and life had considerable exotic appeal for film patrons, most of whom at this time were working class and could not afford travel.
As filmmakers such as Edwin S. Porter (1870-1941) and D. W. Griffith (1875-1948) perfected editing techniques for the purposes of advancing a story, nonfiction films were quickly eclipsed in popularity by narrative films, which exploited editing and other cinematic techniques such as framing and camera movement to involve spectators emotionally. As a result, nonfiction film assumed a subsidiary position, ultimately institutionalized in movie theaters as the newsreels or travelogues, one of a series of shorts shown before the feature attraction. Thus documentary has remained on the margins of mainstream cinema, only periodically producing a feature-length work that has managed to find distribution in commercial theaters.
In commercial motion pictures programming, documentary found a niche in the form of newsreels, which became a regular part of commercial film exhibition, along with previews and cartoons, all in support of the narrative feature films. Even though newsreels could only report on news after the fact, when the stories covered were already known, they appealed to audiences because they provided an experiential immediacy that surpassed the temporal immediacy of the daily newspaper. Each newsreel contained coverage of several stories and, after the introduction of sound, authoritative voice-over narration. Pathé News, which was begun in the United States by the Frenchman Charles Pathé (1863-1957) in 1910, proved so popular that by 1912 several other companies and studios, including Hearst, Universal, Paramount, and Fox, entered the newsreel field. Orson Welles's renowned first film, Citizen Kane (1941), assumes that newsreel conventions were familiar enough to movie audiences to begin with a mock newsreel (''News on the March''), which is at once a clever expository device and a parody of such newsreels, specifically of Louis de Rochemont's The March of Time. Newsreels lasted through the 1950s, until the disappearance of the double bill and the rise of television, with its nightly news broadcasts providing an even greater sense of immediacy and intimacy than did newsreels.
In 1922 Robert Flaherty (1884-1951), a former explorer and prospector with little prior training in cinematography, made Nanook of the North, a film about Inuit life in the Canadian far north, which demonstrated that documentary could be both art and entertainment. Flaherty deftly employed fictional techniques such as the use of close-ups and parallel editing to involve viewers in Nanook's world. The film moved beyond the picturesque detachment of the conventional travelogue to offer a poetic vision of human endurance against the natural elements. The film shows the hardships Nanook faces in finding food for his family in the icy Arctic, while at the same time creating an intimate sense of them as individuals about whom viewers might care (even if on occasion it might lapse into condescension, such as when Nanook is described in one of the insert titles as a ''happy-go-lucky Eskimo''). A commercial success, Nanook of the North had a lengthy run on Broadway (as the second feature with a Harold Lloyd comedy, Grandma's Boy ), and its distributor, Paramount Studios, commissioned Flaherty to go to the South Pacific to ''make another Nanook" (Barnouw, p. 43). The film that resulted was the aforementioned Moana.
Despite the artistry of Nanook, Flaherty did take liberties with his subjects. Some were necessary because of technological limitations: the scenes of Nanook and his family in igloos, for example, actually were shot in cutaway igloos constructed for the purpose of filming, since the camera was too big to get inside a real igloo and they did not provide sufficient light for filming. Other manipulations are more troubling. The Inuit were already acquainted with modern weapons and tools, but Flaherty chose to film Nanook without them, falsifying their actual lifestyle in order to present a more traditional view of their culture. When Nanook was being filmed seal hunting, he was unable to catch one, so a dead one was tied onto the end of his fishing line and he enacted his ''struggle'' with it. In response to criticism that he manipulated his subjects, Flaherty replied, ''One often has to distort a thing in order to catch its true spirit.'' The comment has significant implications for documentary practice, for it opens up the possibility that documentary films may legitimately seek to document more spiritual or intangible aspects of life beneath the physical and visible world.
Grierson's approach to documentary is often seen as antithetical to Flaherty's more romantic vision. For Grierson, the documentary was first and foremost a tool
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