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Documentary exploits the camera's affinity for recording the surface of things, what the realist film theorist Siegfried Kracauer called the "affinity" of film as a photographic medium for capturing "life in the raw." Even before the invention of motion pictures, photographers of the nineteenth century, such as Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904), with his "animal locomotion" series, demonstrated the extent to which the camera might reveal facts and details of the world to us that we could not perceive with the naked eye.

Documentary images are different from fiction precisely because they possess an indexical bond, a referent, to the historical real. Thus documentaries are unique in engaging what the documentary theorist Bill Nichols calls our epistephilia, a pleasure in knowing about the real world. At the same time, however, no matter how marvelous the special effects in a fiction film, a death scene will never produce the same kind of horror as that generated by, say, the Zapruder footage of President John F. Kennedy being assassinated or the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger as caught by television news cameras. Therefore, documentary film has the power to bring about change in the audience, whether to influence attitudes, increase understanding, or persuade to action, and for this reason documentary film has frequently been used for propaganda purposes, both overtly and subtly.

John Grierson (1898–1972), the filmmaker, producer, and advocate who spearheaded the British documentary movement in the 1920s, coined the term "documentary" in a review of Robert Flaherty's Moana (1926). The film, he wrote, "being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth and his family, has documentary value" because the camera captured and revealed truths about Polynesian culture (Hardy, p. 11). Although later on such assertions would be challenged as First World privilege and presumption, for filmmakers of Grierson's generation the relation of the camera to the profilmic event was for the most part unproblematic.

Because of the wide stylistic diversity of films commonly categorized as nonfiction, documentary has been notoriously difficult to define. In seeking to be inclusive, inevitably most definitions have been vague, clumsy, and prescriptive. As Nichols observes, "Documentary as a concept or practice occupies no fixed territory. It mobilizes no finite inventory of techniques, addresses no set number of issues, and adopts no completely known taxonomy of forms, styles, or modes" (p. 12). Clearly documentary cannot be understood as a genre in any sense equivalent to the genres of commercial fiction cinema; yet whatever the style of individual documentary films, all documentaries make truth claims about the real world. Perhaps the most useful definition, then, is the one offered by Grierson: the "creative treatment of actuality." It not only has the virtue of brevity, but also incorporates both documentary's connection to the real world ("actuality") and the filmmaker's inevitable shaping influence ("creative treatment"). Of course, the perennial problem, for documentary filmmakers as well as critics and audiences, has been to negotiate a proper balance between the two.


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 Café 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 "actualités," 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 [1922]), 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 of social propaganda, in the sense of the medium's potential to reach and educate the masses. Thus he attacked Flaherty's lyricism and preference for documenting isolated, pre-industrial cultures rather than to grapple with specific and immediate social issues of modern industrial society—in other words, the problems and issues facing audiences who would be seeing the films. Grierson emphasized the social utility of documentary, proclaiming the desire "to make drama from the ordinary" in films that emphasized social rather than

b. Iron Mountain, Michigan, 16 February 1884, d. 23 July 1951

The only documentary filmmaker to be included in Andrew Sarris's notorious auteurist "pantheon," Robert Flaherty brought to the documentary form his personal vision of humankind's ceaseless struggle against nature, finding this theme in a variety of cultures. A mineralogist and explorer by profession, with only rudimentary training in filmmaking, Flaherty was interested in using film as a means to capture the passing existence of traditional societies, which he saw as both noble and untainted by modern values.

Flaherty's first film, the landmark Nanook of the North (1922), for which he obtained funding from Revillon Frères fur company, was a travelogue about Inuit life in the Canadian Arctic that made use of cinematic techniques until then associated more with fiction films than documentary. By frequently weaving together close-ups of Nanook and his family with artfully composed long shots of them in the vast frozen landscape, Flaherty encourages the viewer both to identify with the hunter and his family and to understand the awesome natural power of their environment. In the brutal snowstorm that constitutes Nanook's dramatic climax, Flaherty used crosscutting between the Inuit family huddling inside their igloo and their dogs outside in the fierce wind to suggest the difference between humans and other animals and to emphasize his theme of romantic survival against the crucible of nature.

Moving beyond the picturesque detachment of the conventional travelogue, Nanook was a surprising commercial hit. Flaherty went on to make Moana (1926) in the South Pacific, where he also worked uncredited on fiction films with W. S. Van Dyke and with F. W. Murnau. In 1931 Flaherty moved to England, where he influenced the British documentary school led by John Grierson. Man of Aran (1934), set on the rugged island off the western coast of Ireland, contains thrilling scenes of the islanders hunting basking sharks—a skill that had been largely forgotten and had to be retaught to the islanders so that the sequences could be filmed. His final film, Louisiana Story (1948), photographed by Richard Leacock, shows almost no sign of modern technology except for a glimpse of a derrick belonging to Standard Oil (the company that sponsored the film) in the background, apparently functioning in harmony with the environment.

At one time Flaherty's films received much critical praise, although anthropologists complained that they were inaccurate because of the director's manipulation of his subjects. Where once Flaherty was celebrated for his sensuous imagery and compelling footage, today his documentaries are more often considered a prime example of the exoticized, colonial gaze.


Nanook of the North (1922), Moana (1926), Tabu (1931), Man of Aran (1934), The Land (1942), Louisiana Story (1948)


Barsam, Richard. The Vision of Robert Flaherty: The Artist as Myth and Filmmaker. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Calder-Marshall, Arthur. The Innocent Eye: The Life of Robert J. Flaherty. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1966.

Danzker, Jo-Anne Birnie, ed. Robert Flaherty: Photographer/Filmmaker, the Inuit, 1910–1922. Vancouver, BC: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1980.

Rotha, Paul. Robert J. Flaherty: A Biography, edited by Jay Ruby. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

Rothman, William. "The Filmmaker as Hunter: Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North." In Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video, edited by Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski, 23–39. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1998.

Barry Keith Grant

aesthetic issues. Influenced by the ideas of his contemporary, the social philosopher Walter Lippmann (1889–1974), Grierson felt that the individual citizen was becoming less informed and consequently less able to participate responsibly in the democratic process; the cinema, however, had the potential to solve the problem through mass education.

Grierson's only film as director, Drifters (1929), about the British herring fishing industry, reveals the influence of the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, not only in its editing but also in its comprehensive coverage of its subject, from the stalwart fishermen who bring the fish to port to the packaged goods ready for distribution across the nation. Although Grierson is credited with directing only this one film, more important was his contribution as producer and advocate for state-sponsored documentary. He became the shaping influence of the British documentary movement in the late 1920s through the 1930s, building a film unit under the aegis of the government's Empire Marketing Board, with its mandate of marketing the British Empire, from 1928 to 1933; he brought together such talented filmmakers as Basil Wright (1907–1987), Arthur Elton (1906–1973), Harry Watt (1906–1987), Paul Rotha (1907–1984), and Edgar Anstey (1907–1987). The EMB Film Unit produced almost one hundred films in the five years of its existence, including Drifters and Flaherty's Industrial Britain (1932). When the EMB was shut down in 1933, its public relations chief, Sir Stephen Tallents, moved to the General Post Office, taking with him the Board's film unit. Among the most well known of the documentaries to come out of Grierson's unit were Night Mail (Harry Wright and Basil Wright, 1934), Song of Ceylon (Wright, 1934), and Coal Face (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1935), about coal mining in northern England.

Despite Grierson's insistence on the social utility of documentary, the documentary films made under his leadership, both in Great Britain and later in Canada, display a considerable degree of formal experimentation. Leading figures in the arts such as the composer Benjamin Britten and the poet W. H. Auden contributed to EMB documentaries. By the early 1930s the approach to montage included not just images but also sound, especially after Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti joined the Unit in 1934, as evidenced in his film Coal Face. Night Mail attempts to synchronize the poetic rhythms of Auden's voice-over verse with the film's pace of the editing to suggest the rhythm of the mail train that climbs steadily upward from London to Scotland. Despite such formal adventurousness, however, the Griersonian style was typically exhortatory, often including an omniscient patriarchal narrator and sharing implicit ideological assumptions about the benefits of capitalism, industrial progress, and colonial paternalism.


Grierson understood the potential of documentary cinema to affect the political views of the nation and its people, a view shared by other film-producing nations such as Germany and post-Revolutionary Russia. During World War II many governments relied on the propaganda value of documentary film. Already by the late 1930s, filmmaking in both Japan and Germany had come under government control. In Great Britain, where Grierson's Film Unit had evolved into the Crown Film Unit, documentaries helped boost morale on the home front, particularly with the poetic approach of Humphrey Jennings (1907–1950) in such films as Fires Were Started (1943) and A Diary for Timothy (1945), which presented rich humanist tapestries of the British people during wartime.

In the Soviet Union, Communist Party leader Vladimir Lenin famously proclaimed that for the new Communist state cinema was the most important of the arts. Traveling trains that made and screened newsreels were a means of connecting the many republics of the vast Soviet Union, and even feature films such as Sergei Eisenstein's Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925), based on an actual historical event, incorporated elements of documentary. Dziga Vertov (1896–1954) brought a more formalist, experimental approach to the newsreel, and with the feature-length Chelovek s kinoapparatom (The Man with a Movie Camera, 1929), which presents a "day-in-the-life" of a modern Soviet city, created a reflexive documentary masterpiece that, along with Walter Ruttmann's Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, 1927), established the "city-symphony" form.

Later in Germany, after Hitler's rise to power, his National Socialist Party quickly nationalized the film industry under the leadership of Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, which produced films promulgating Nazi ideology. The most prominent documentary filmmaker of the Nazi era was Leni Riefenstahl, a former star actress, who made Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1935), about the 1934 Party rally in Nuremberg, and the two-part Olympia (1938), about the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Triumph of the Will is widely considered a powerful expression of fascist ideology and aesthetics. Although sources vary on the exact number, Riefenstahl clearly had many cameras at her disposal (on occasion in the film camera operators may be glimpsed on tall elevators constructed on site). Triumph of the Will celebrates the rally's mass spectacle of fascist unity, which was staged in part precisely to be filmed, successfully turning history into theater and overwhelming viewers just as party rallies were intended to do to participants.

In the United States in the 1930s, documentary emerged as a dominant form of cultural expression in America, informing the aesthetics of all the arts, including painting, theater, literature, and the popular media. The documentary impulse also animated many Works Progress Administration (WPA) arts projects and important books of the period, like Let Us Now Praise FamousMen (begun in 1936 but not published until 1941), by James Agee (1909–1955) with photographs by Walker Evans (1903–1975). In film, beginning in 1930 a network of local Film and Photo Leagues developed in major American cities as a response to the avoidance of controversial material by mainstream theatrical newsreels.

b. Denis Abramovich Kaufman, Bialystok, Poland, 2 January 1896, d. 12 February 1954

Dziga Vertov was instrumental in using the cinema for the purposes of social education after the Russian Revolution. He not only chronicled the revolution as it happened, but approached the production of newsreels in terms of interaction with the proletariat. His brother Mikhail also became an important documentary filmmaker, while a third brother, Boris, became an important cinematographer for Jean Vigo and others.

At the outbreak of World War I, the Kaufmans, an educated Jewish family, moved to Moscow. In 1916 Vertov enrolled in the Petrograd Psychoneurological Institute, where he studied human perception, particularly sound, editing bits of recorded sound in novel ways in his "Laboratory of Hearing." These experiments would influence Vertov's experiments with sound film over a decade later in Entuziazm: Simfoniya Donbassa (Enthusiasm: The Donbass Symphony, 1931)and Tri pesni o Lenine (Three Songs of Lenin, 1934). Changing his name to Dziga Vertov, which loosely translates as "spinning top," he began editing newsreel footage after the revolution, exploring the possibilities of montage in the context of documentary film.

In 1919 Vertov, along with his future wife, the film editor Elisaveta Svilova, and later his brother Mikhail and several other young filmmakers, established the Kinoks (from kinoki, or cinema-eyes), a group that argued for the value and superiority of documentary filmmaking. They issued an artistic manifestos and published journal articles in which they rejected fiction filmmaking, with its stars, studio shooting, and predetermined scripts, in favor of what Vertov celebrated as "life caught unawares." The camera lens (or kino eye), Vertov proclaimed, had the power to penetrate and record visible reality better than could the human eye, making documentary the preferred practice for a Marxist society based on rational and scientific principles of organization. From 1922 to 1925 Vertov directed a series of twenty-three newsreels entitled Kino-Pravda; pravda, meaning truth, was also the name of the official Soviet party newspaper.

Vertov's masterpiece, Chelovek s kino-apparatom (The Man with a Movie Camera, 1929), was a visionary "city symphony" documentary that reflected on its own status as both document and illusion. It presented a lyrical view of an idealized Soviet city (a combination of Moscow, Odessa, and Kiev), utilizing virtually every special effect and cinematic technique available to show life in Soviet society while encouraging viewers to consider the nature of cinematic construction and the relation between film and reality. Vertov's reflexive practice was later continued in Jean Rouch's cinéma verité (the French term deriving from Vertov's kino-pravda) and Jean-Luc Godard's experiments in collective political filmmaking with the Dziga Vertov Group in the early 1970s. Vertov's avant-garde style challenged the constraints of official doctrine, and by the end of the 1930s Vertov found himself unable to secure funding for further projects. He spent the last two decades of his life editing newsreels, as he had begun.


Chelovek s kino-apparatom (The Man with a Movie Camera, 1929), Entuziazm: Symfonia Donbassa (Enthusiasm: The Donbass Symphony, 1931), Tri pesni o Lenine (Three Songs of Lenin, 1934)


Feldman, Seth. Dziga Vertov: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979.

——. "'Peace Between Man and Machine': Dziga Vertov's The Man with a Movie Camera." In Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video, edited by Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski, 40–54. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1998.

Petrić, Vlada. Constructivism in Film: The Man with the Movie Camera, A Cinematic Analysis. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Vertov, Dziga. Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov. Edited by Annette Michelson, translated by Kevin O'Brien. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Barry Keith Grant

Together the leagues produced a Worker's Newsreel that concentrated on documenting the intense labor activities of the early Depression period. Many important documentary filmmakers of the time were associated with the particularly active New York Film and Photo League, and later with Frontier Films, a socially committed production company that produced a series of important films about international politics beginning in 1936.

Under Franklin Roosevelt's presidency (1933–1945), the Resettlement Administration (RA) sponsored a photographic unit that included Evans, Dorothea Lange, and others. It moved into documentary film with The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938), both by Pare Lorentz (1905–1992), about the dust bowl and the Tennessee Valley Authority, respectively. Both films effectively endorsed government policy by combining Griersonian authority with American colloquialism, reinforced by fine scores by the American composer Virgil Thomson that wove folk themes throughout. Although various government agencies had previously sponsored documentaries, Lorentz's films were the first to garner serious attention and considerable theatrical distribution. Roosevelt established the US Film Service in 1938, but it died by 1940 because Congress refused to appropriate the necessary funds, largely as a result of pressure from Hollywood studios that viewed the initiative as unfair competition and not in the spirit of free enterprise.

The popular Hollywood director Frank Capra (1897–1991) oversaw for the military the production of Why We Fight (1942–1944), a series of seven documentaries designed to provide background information about the global conflict so as to help shake Americans from their strong isolationist position. These films were widely screened at home and as part of military training for troops sent overseas. Many Hollywood professionals were involved in the various aspects of their production. The films effectively simplified the political complexities leading to the war by cleverly employing patriotic mythology and national iconography. Other important Hollywood directors who accepted military commissions and lent their filmmaking talents to documenting the war effort included John Ford (1894–1973), who made The Battle of Midway (1942), William Wyler (1902–1981), maker of The Memphis Belle (1944), and John Huston (1906–1987), who produced The Battle of San Pietro (1945) and the controversial Let There Be Light (1946), initially banned by the Armed Forces because of its candid footage of soldiers who had been traumatized by combat.

With the domestic prosperity of the postwar years, government sponsorship of documentary in the United States disappeared. In this period documentary production was sponsored largely by industry, often with pronounced ties to government interests, and so the films tended to be conventional in both style and content. Cold War paranoia also served as a strong disincentive to originality. Through the 1950s the various newsreel series ceased production, as their function was increasingly taken over by television.

The most notable exception to the new conservatism in documentary was the CBS-TV series See It Now, started in 1951 by the journalist Edward R. Murrow (1908–1965) and the producer Fred Friendly (1915–1998). Murrow's stature as a war correspondent and his high administrative position at CBS enabled him to produce the show with relative freedom. In 1953–1954 he successfully exposed the demagoguery of Senator Joseph McCarthy, a prime mover behind the Cold War blacklists and witch hunts (a historical moment vividly captured in George Clooney's feature film Good Night and Good Luck [2005]). Nevertheless, as a result of continued political pressure, by 1959 network policy declared that documentaries were the responsibility of network news departments; "independents" no longer were to be employed because their authenticity might not be verifiable. Even today, there are very few documentary filmmakers whose work is broadcast on network television; documentaries are more likely to be found on specialty cable channels such as the Documentary Channel or Biography on A&E. However, some regard so-called "reality TV" as a form of televisual documentary; and although shows such as Survivor (beginning in 2000), Fear Factor (beginning in 2001), and Trading Spaces (beginning in 2000) are highly structured and carefully edited, they do use nonprofessional actors and observe profilmic events as they unfold.


Inspired by the powerful immediacy of actual combat footage and the emergence of Italian neorealism toward the end of the war, Hollywood feature films began absorbing the influence of documentary. Both The Naked City (Jules Dassin, 1948) and On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954), for example, used actual locations in New York City to enhance their dramatic realism, and independent filmmakers such as Morris Engel (1918–2005) with Little Fugitive (1953) and Weddings and Babies (1958), and John Cassavetes, (1929–1989) with Shadows (1959) and Faces (1968), made feature films with portable 35 mm equipment.

The development of portable 16mm cameras and synch-sound equipment brought significant changes to documentary film practice. Filmmakers now gained the ability to shoot with relative ease on location. The new light weight and portability of cameras that before had been bulky and heavy meant that they no longer had to be the center of profilmic events, but could follow events as they happened. Filmmakers could enter a situation directly, without having to alter events because of technological limitations, as had been the case with, for example, Flaherty's camera in igloos. The tripod was abandoned, and the camera gained a new mobility carried on the shoulder of the operator as filmmakers began to work in a mode Stephen Mamber has called an "uncontrolled cinema." As further improvements were perfected, the tape recorder and the camera, which before had been connected by a limiting cable, were able to operate entirely independently. The crew required to make a documentary was reduced to only two people—one to operate the camera, the other to record sound. In the case of Ross McElwee (b. 1947), whose films such as Sherman's March (1986) and Bright Leaves (2003) are documentaries of his own life, the crew is just himself, shooting with a video camera and attached microphone. With these technological advances, documentary film-making acquired a freshness and immediacy, both visually and aurally; by contrast, the Griersonian tradition, which the new style supplanted, typically used omniscient voice-over narration displaying ideological biases. As a result, documentary experienced a revitalization internationally, particularly in North America and Europe.

An entire generation of documentarians embraced the new observational style and valorized the technology. Most advocated an unproblematic view of cinematic realism whereby the camera could apprehend the world directly, penetrating even surface reality to reveal deeper truths. An American Family, a twelve-part series by Craig Gilbert broadcast on public television in 1973, sought to capture the unadorned life of one particular family and thus reveal the ordinary realities of middle-class American existence. In these observational documentaries, the presence of the camera was not thought to affect the profilmic event to any significant degree, and if it did, filmmakers could search for "privileged moments" that would reveal the real person hiding behind the social facade. Perhaps the most extreme example of this approach was Portrait of Jason (Shirley Clarke, 1967), a film consisting entirely of a series of talking-head closeups of an unsuccessful actor who, fueled by alcohol, marijuana, and prodding questions from behind the camera, lets down his smug intellectual persona and wallows in self-pity.

In Great Britain in the 1950s, filmmakers such as Tony Richardson (1928–1991), Lindsay Anderson (1923–1994), and Karel Reisz (1926–2002) began making observational films of everyday life as part of the movement known as Free Cinema, often focusing on common aspects of popular culture. The Free Cinema movement consisted of six programs of films shown at the National Film Theater in London from 1956 to 1959, including Anderson's O Dreamland (1953), about the Margate amusement park, and Every Day Except Christmas (1957), about activity in Covent Garden, and Reisz and Richardson's Momma Don't Allow (1955), a portrait of a jazz club. In France, anthropologist-filmmaker Jean Rouch (1917–2004) made a series of films about people and life in western Africa, often including their own voices on the soundtrack, as in Les Maîtres fous (The Mad Masters, 1955), which records devotees of a religious cult speaking in tongues, and Jaguar (1967). Turning his camera closer to home, Rouch filmed a cross-section of Parisians in Chronique d'un été (Chronicle of a Summer, 1961), co-directed with the sociologist Edgar Morin. Rather than being observant flies on the wall, the filmmakers appeared onscreen, functioning as catalysts by asking their subjects provocative questions and freely interacting with them. The film was subtitled "une experience de cinéma vérité," and Rouch's assertive approach developed into the cinema verité style of observational documentary. And in Canada in the early 1960s, both English- and French-speaking Canadian filmmakers working for the National Film Board, founded by Grierson in 1939, concentrated on making films about ordinary people and events in order to "interpret Canada to Canadians and the rest of the world." The Board's initial focus was the production of wartime propaganda films, but in the early 1960s it was a pioneer of observational documentary, both in its more passive direct cinema form in English Canada, with the films of Terence Macartney-Filgate, Roman Kriotor, and Wolf Koenig, and, in Quebec, of cinéma vérité. Michel Brault, who had photographed Chronique d'un été, co-directed with Gilles Groulx Les Raquetteurs (The Snowshoers, 1958), a film about an annual snowshoe race that was a breakthrough in the representation of Quebecois life on the screen.

In New York in the 1960s, a group of young film-makers organized by Robert Drew (b. 1924) began making films for Time, Inc., in an attempt to do a more truthful "pictorial journalism," as Louis de Rochemont had said of The March of Time. Known as the Drew Associates, the group included many of the pioneering figures of American observational cinema, including D. A. Pennebaker (b. 1925), Albert Maysles (b. 1926), and Richard Leacock, who had been the cameraman on Flaherty's last film, Louisiana Story, in 1949. The Drew Associates sought to be invisible observers of events transpiring before the camera—ideally, in Leacock's famous phrase, like a "fly on the wall." Primary (1960), about the Wisconsin presidential campaigns of John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, showed the candidates both in public appearances and behind the scenes; and although it shows Kennedy as the more adept media personality, it avoids explicit political comment. A famous shot in the film follows Kennedy as he emerges from a car and enters a hall where he is about to speak, moving through a tightly packed crowd to the stage—all despite changing conditions of light, sound, and depth of field. Impressed by Primary, ABC contracted with Time, Inc., so that the Drew group became in effect a network unit. The Drew filmmakers made a series of nineteen pioneering films for television, beginning with Primary and ending with Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment in 1963.

Their films tended to favor famous and exciting figures as their subjects: a race car driver in Eddie (Leacock and Pennebaker, 1960), film producer Joseph E. Levine in Showman (Albert and David Maysles, 1963), and pop stars in What's Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. (Maysles brothers, 1964). The documentaries of their contemporary Frederick Wiseman (b. 1930) focus on institutions rather than individuals, but his films were exceptions. Because celebrities, particularly pop-music stars, possess inherent commercial appeal, when these and other filmmakers sought to make feature-length documentaries they gravitated toward them as subjects; thus was created the "rockumentary" genre, with such films as Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh, 1970) and The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, 1978). Perhaps the most notorious of these is Gimme Shelter (1970), by Albert and David Maysles (1931–1987) and Charlotte Zwerin, which focuses on the Rolling Stones' American tour. At the last concert of the tour, in Altamont, California, a man in the audience was stabbed to death by the Hell's Angels—a sensational event caught on camera. Because rockumentaries often purport to show the person behind the persona, they remain popular with audiences, as the publicity surrounding Living with Michael Jackson: A Tonight Special (2003), which aired on network television, demonstrates.

The documentary aesthetic also informed the New American Cinema movement of the 1950s and 1960s, much of it representing the seemingly antithetical traditions of experimental or avant-garde film, as in the "diary" style of Stan Brakhage (1933–2003) and the structural films of Michael Snow (b. 1929). A film such as Brakhage's The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes (1971) is at once an experimental film, employing a

b. Boston, Massachusetts, 1 January 1930

A major figure in American documentary, Frederick Wiseman began making his extraordinary series of award-winning films during the direct cinema movement in the 1960s. Over the course of three decades he produced more than thirty feature-length documentaries and garnered numerous awards. Unlike the rich and famous individuals chronicled in the films of his contemporaries Richard Leacock, D. A. Pennebaker, and the Maysles brothers, Wiseman's films focus less on particular individuals than on institutions of various kinds, ranging from those concentrated within individual buildings (High School, 1968) to those of international scope (Sinai Field Mission, 1978), and from institutions established and maintained by government (Juvenile Court, 1973) to those less tangible ones organized by principles of ideology and culture (Model, 1980). A former lawyer, Wiseman captures American life more fully than any other documentary filmmaker, and, taken together, his documentaries are a magnum opus about life in contemporary America.

Wiseman began his career in film producing Shirley Clarke's The Cool World (1964), a fiction film about teenage gangs shot on location in Harlem. In 1967 he began his institutional series with Titicut Follies (1967), about life in a prison for the criminally insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. The film quickly became mired in lengthy litigation with state authorities, and the ensuing controversy established Wiseman's somewhat inaccurate reputation as an uncompromising muckraker. Although the earlier films do seem to be exposés, Wiseman's later films are less didactic and more complex aesthetically. Meat (1976), for example, is composed of many short shots, the duration of the cutting analogous to the repetitive slicing by the butchers; Model is a reflexive examination of modeling as the manufacturing of advertising images—a process not very different from some forms of filmmaking—and relies more on long takes.

During shooting, Wiseman operates the tape recorder rather than the camera. He determines where the camera goes through a series of hand signals worked out in advance with his camera operator or by leading him with the microphone. This method gives him greater freedom to see what is around him than if he were looking at profilmic events through the viewfinder of the camera.

Wiseman encourages a reading of each institution as a metaphor of American society at large. Thus, though at first glance Wiseman's films may seem to be fly-on-the-wall observation, they often rely on elements of cinematic style, particularly editing, to express his subjective vision of how institutions operate and what their significance is culturally. If Wiseman's documentaries are news, they are also editorials, subjective accounts about the institutions on which he is reporting. More dialectical than didactic, Wiseman's films refuse to condescend to the viewer by assuming a position of authorial superiority.


Titicut Follies (1967), High School (1968), Essene (1972), Primate (1974), Meat (1976), Model (1980), Near Death (1989), Public Housing (1997), Belfast, Maine (1999), Domestic Violence (2001)


Anderson, Carolyn, and Thomas W. Benson. Documentary Dilemmas: Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.

Atkins, Thomas R., ed. Frederick Wiseman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976.

Benson, Thomas W., and Carolyn Anderson. Reality Fictions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989.

Grant, Barry Keith. Voyages of Discovery: The Cinema of Frederick Wiseman. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

——, ed. Five Films by Frederick Wiseman: Titicut Follies, High School, Welfare, High School II, Public Housing. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Barry Keith Grant

variety of expressive cinematic techniques, and a documentary, showing the different steps in the autopsy process. In many experimental films the otherwise diverse documentary and avant-garde impulses come together in the shared aim of allowing the viewer to look at something in a new or different way.


Observational films seemed more truthful in large part because they were not constrained by earlier technological limitations that often required more overt manipulation. "Dramatic reconstruction" was conventional in documentaries concerning people and events before the invention of the camera. Early documentaries, like Biograph's Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius (1905), often used scale-model replicas in place of actuality footage in films. The March of Time, which began in 1935, freely combined actuality footage with dramatized sequences in a style that Henry Luce, head of Time, called "fakery in allegiance to the truth" (Barnouw, p. 121). The ideology of observational documentary has become so standard that its stylistic conventions, such as the jerky movements of the handheld camera, noticeable changes in focus, and the graininess of fast film stock, have become the common techniques for representing a "reality effect" in fiction film and on commercial television in both dramatic shows and commercials.

Nevertheless, questions concerning the camera's physical presence, along with the issue of whether and to what extent the camera exploits or documents its social actors, have been hotly debated issues concerning both Griersonian-style and observational documentary. Films such as Portrait of Jason and the Maysles brothers' Grey Gardens (1975), about an eccentric mother and daughter who live as recluses in a decaying mansion, foreground these ethical issues because of the filmmakers' apparent encouragement of their social actors to display themselves for the camera. But in fact ethical questions have surrounded the making of documentaries since the genre's beginnings.

Although the immediacy of observational cinema made the stylistic conventions associated with the Griersonian tradition seem outmoded and ideologically suspect, manipulation in documentary inevitably is a matter of degree. For although documentaries are factual, they are never objective or ideologically neutral. Aesthetic choices such as the selection of camera position, angles, and movement; lighting; and editing make the expression of point of view or perspective unavoidable, even if unintentional. Just as the "fly on the wall" aesthetic of the Drew filmmakers was compromised to some extent by the commercial imperatives of television, so the nature of the film medium ensures that the hand of the maker must always work over the raw material on the editing table. Dead Birds (Robert Gardner, 1965), which aimed at being an ethnographic study of the Dugum Dani culture in New Guinea, is almost embarrassing today for the degree to which it presumes to attribute values and thoughts to the people it presents as characters in a narrative.

The debate around documentary film's moral obligation to be objective, or at least fair, has been rekindled by the recent and commercially successful films of Michael Moore, who makes no secret of his political views but rather speaks out on political issues. His first film, Roger & Me (1989), the most commercially successful documentary to date, established Moore's trademark approach, a combination of an unabashedly personal tone, his own provocative verité presence, and a strong sense of humor. He has been attacked for manipulating facts and for violating ethical proprieties, as when in Bowling for Columbine (2002) he ambushes the actor Charlton Heston, then president of the National Rifle Association, questioning him about his culpability in the accidental death of a child by gunfire.

Although for many viewers documentary still means objectivity, today it is much more commonly accepted that documentaries are inevitably biased. This is probably less a postmodern crisis in signification than the result of the proliferation of camcorders and a greater increase in basic visual literacy. Yet it is symptomatic that many documentaries of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, such as The Thin Blue Line (1988), seek to uncover ambiguities of truth rather than a unified, singular Truth. Stylistically, nonfiction films are now employing a more pronounced mixing of modes, combining elements of fiction and documentary, or creating an ambiguity concerning their documentary status, as in Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991). British documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield places himself squarely within his films as a character seeking the truth about his subject, whether about the murder of grunge rock icon Kurt Cobain in Kurt & Courtney (1998) or the female serial killer Aileen Wournos in Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003), but never quite finding it. Broomfield's quandary as a documentary filmmaker bespeaks contemporary viewers' loss of faith in the ability of documentary film to provide unequivocal truths.

Documentary film also has been critiqued from postcolonial and feminist perspectives. Robert Flaherty's films have come to be seen as examples of a white Eurocentric perspective imposed on other cultures. This colonizing gaze informs much of the history of travelogues and other documentary filmmaking; it is particularly egregious in the films of Martin E. Johnson (1884–1937) and Osa Johnson (1894–1953), such as Simba: The King of the Beasts (1928) and Congorilla (1932), which paraded "primitive" natives in front of the camera for comic relief along with local fauna. Luis Buñuel's Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread, 1933), an audacious documentary about an impoverished region of Spain and its inhabitants, is regarded as one of the first films to be aware of the imbalance of power between First World filmmakers and their less wealthy subjects. T. Minh-ha Trinh, a teacher and theorist as well as a practicing filmmaker, has employed a variety of expressive techniques in documentaries such as Naked Spaces: Living Is Round (1985) and Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) to give voice to women in other cultures.

Documentary filmmakers have sought to use documentary politically to help create a sense of shared purpose, to offer the legitimation of subcultures through the presentation of recognizable images that have been marginalized by mainstream or dominant culture. In the 1950s Quebecois filmmakers discovered that training the camera on themselves facilitated the Quiet Revolution, the province's discovery of itself as a new and distinct culture within Canada. The heightened political polarization of the Vietnam era influenced the pronounced partisanship of many documentaries, as in the work of Peter Davis (The Selling of the Pentagon, 1971; Hearts and Minds, 1974). The introduction in the 1960s of video porta-paks and public access of local cable TV allowed for grassroots concerns to be heard. Some filmmakers, such as Emile de Antonio (1920–1989), established themselves as counter-culture heroes by making documentaries that exposed government corruption (Point of Order, 1964, about the 1954 Army-McCarthy Senate hearings) or challenged official policies (Rush to Judgment, 1967, about the report of the Warren Commission).

Much contemporary documentary practice continues to be politically engaged, and some films—Harlan County, U.S.A. (Barbara Kopple, 1976), The Panama Deception (Barbara Trent, 1992), The Fog of War (Errol Morris, 2003)—are able to find limited commercial distribution. Documentary film's appeal has filtered down to mainstream popular culture in the television exposé form, in such shows as 60 Minutes, the most successful nonfiction series in television history, and on reality-TV. Subcultures and various interest groups have used the documentary successfully to help develop a sense of identity and solidarity. In the 1970s feminist documentary filmmakers developed a distinctively intimate, "talking-head" style that promoted the shared rediscovery of mutual experience with the viewer, as in With Babies and Banners (Lorraine Gray, 1978) and The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (Connie Field, 1980). Documentaries about gay sexuality, such as Word Is Out (Rob Epstein, 1978) and The Times of Harvey Milk (Epstein, 1984), appeared with the emergence of the gay movement in the 1980s. In Tongues Untied (1990) Marlon Riggs (1957–1994) explored issues of gay black identity. Since the 1980s many documentaries have addressed AIDS, chronicling the struggles of its victims and promoting awareness.

SEE ALSO Camera;Ideology;Propaganda;Russia and Soviet Union;Technology;World War II


Barnouw, Erik. Documentary: A History of the Nonfiction Film. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Barsam, Richard Meran. Nonfiction Film: A Critical History. New York: Dutton, 1973.

——, ed. Nonfiction Film: Theory and Criticism. New York: Dutton, 1976.

Ellis, Jack C. The Documentary Idea: A Critical History of English-Language Documentary Film and Video. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1989.

Grant, Barry Keith, and Jeannette Sloniowski. Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1998.

Hardy, Forsyth. Grierson on Documentary. London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1979.

Jacobs, Lewis, ed. The Documentary Tradition, 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1979.

Kracauer, Siegfried. Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Mamber, Stephen. Cinema Verite in America: Studies in Uncontrolled Documentary. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1974.

Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Renov, Michael. Theorizing Documentary. New York and London: Routledge, 1993.

Rothman, William. Documentary Film Classics. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Stott, William. Documentary Expression and Thirties America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Trinh, T. Minh-ha. Framer Framed. New York and London: Routledge, 1992.

Waugh, Thomas, ed. "Show Us Life": Toward a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary. Metuchen, NJ, and London: Scarecrow Press, 1984.

Barry Keith Grant


views updated May 21 2018

doc·u·men·ta·ry / ˌdäkyəˈmentərē/ • adj. consisting of official pieces of written, printed, or other matter: his book is based on documentary sources. ∎  (of a movie, a television or radio program, or photography) using pictures or interviews with people involved in real events to provide a factual record or report: he has directed documentary shorts and feature films.• n. (pl. -ries) a movie or a television or radio program that provides a factual record or report.


views updated Jun 11 2018

documentary Factual film. The term was first applied to Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1921), a first-hand account of life among the Inuit. Documentaries soon rivalled newspapers and became a major means of television news, current affairs and science presentation. Other ground-breaking documentaries include D. A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back (1967) and Marcel Ophüls' A Sense of Loss (1972).