Documentary Film’s History — Text Used in my Final Term Paper

Pioneering Scottish documentary maker John Grierson was born on Apr. 26, 1898. Grierson is still to this day considered the father of British and Canadian documentary film.

According to colloquial myth, the word documentary was coined by Scottish documentarian John Grierson in his review of Robert Flaherty’s film Moana from 1926, published in the New York Sun on Feb. 8, 1926, and published under Grierson’s pen name of “The Moviegoer.” He, Grierson, had documentary filmmaking principles that cinema’s potential for observing real life could be exploited in a new art form, that the “original” scene and that the “original” actor were better guides than their fiction counterparts to interpret the modern world. However, Grierson’s definition of documentary filmmaking as “creative treatment of actuality” has gotten some positive feedback and acceptance.

Robert Joseph Flaherty was born on Feb. 19, 1884, and was an American filmmaker who directed and produced the worlds first feature-length documentary film, Nanook of the North from 1922.

Pare Lorentz, and American film critic, defines a documentary film as “a factual film which is dramatic.” Others still state that a documentary stand out from the other types of nonfiction films for providing a specific message, opinions and the facts it’s presenting.
Eadweard Muybridge was born on Apr. 9, 1830, and he was an English photographer and pioneer in photographic studies of motion, and some of the earliest works in motion-picture.

In 1877 Muybridge developed sequential photographs of horses in motion. Later on, in 1879, he subsequently invented the zoöpraxiscope. This was a device he created specifically for projecting and “animating” his photographic images.

Étienne-Jules Marey was born on Mar. 5,1830. He was a French scientist, physiologist and chronophotographer.

In 1883 Marey experimented with chronophotography, which is photography of people in movement. His work was a great significance in  cinematography and the science of laboratory photography. He is widely considered one of the great and influential pioneers of photography and of the history of cinema.

Auguste Marie Louis Nicolas was born on Oct. 9, 1862, and his brother Louis Jean was born on Oct. 5, 1864, and together The Lumière brothers were the first filmmakers in history.

Auguste and Louis Lumière, staged in 1895 the world’s first ever public film screening on Dec. 28, of the same year with their first ever film Sortie de L’usine Lumière de Lyon. The screening took place in the basement lounge of the Grand Cafe on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris, France. They patented the cinematograph in the 1890s, a motion picture film camera, which also served as a film projector and printer.
The invention could in contrast to Thomas Edison’s “peepshow” kinetoscope show simultaneous viewing by multiple parties.

Felix-Louis Regnault was born on Jun. 17, 1863. He was a French physician, prehistorian and anthropologist.

In 1895 Regnault filmed a Senegalese woman during Paris Exposition Ethnographique de L’Afrique Occidentale— this was the beginning of the use of the camera for ethnographic research footage.

Edward Sheriff Curtis was born on Feb. 16, 1868 and was an American ethnologist and photographer of Native American population and the American West.

Curtis filmed In the Land of the Head Hunters in 1914, a narrative dramatization that used Kwakiutl actors that Curtis chose from the Queen Charlotte Strait region tribe. This film was the world’s first feature-length film whose cast was composed entirely of Native Americans.

David Abelevich Kaufman, also known as Denis Kaufman or his famous pseudonym Dziga Vertov was a Russian pioneer documentary film and newsreel director, he was born on Jan. 2, 1896.

Vertov issued in 1919 a manifesto, Kinoks-Revolution Manifesto, calling for a new style of film that would document real life. He criticized the Soviet film industry for putting its trust on the same fictional techniques employed by literature and theater. Vertov’s filming practices, theories and methods influenced the cinéma vérité style of documentary filmmaking and the Dziga Vertov Group, a radical filmmaking cooperative which was active in the 1960s.

In the 1920’s various European filmmakers where doing experimental jobs with films, beginning to work in styles that incorporated avant-garde cinéma tic filming and editing techniques (such as more fluid camera work and montage) and abstract narratives for creating impressionistic, totally poetic quasi-documentary works. These works included various “city films,” films like Walther Ruttmann’s Berlin: A Symphony of a Great City (Berlin, die Symphonie der Grosstadt) from 1927 and Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien que les Heures from 1926.

American filmmaker Robert Flaherty’s Nanook Of The North, which he filmed in 1922, is generally cited as the first feature-length documentary or non-fiction narrative film. The film is an ethnographic look into the harsh life of Canadian Inuit Eskimos living in the Arctic.  The film employs many of the conventions of later documentary and ethnographic filmmaking, including use of third-person narration and subjective tone, and a focus on an indigenous person as the film’s hero.

Sergei Eisenstein was a Soviet film director and film theorist, born on Jan. 22, 1898. He was a pioneer in the theory and practice of montage.

Eisenstein’s filmed Battleship Potemkin, a fictional retelling of an abortive uprising again the Czar that combines documentary elements with experimental editing and narrative techniques. The film presents a dramatized format of the mutiny that occurred in 1905 when the crew of a ship, Russian battleship Potemkin, rebelled against their officers. Battleship Potemkin was awarded as the greatest film of all time at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958.

Dziga Vertov films The Man With The Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom) in 1928. Vertov uses experimental editing techniques in this film, as well as cinéma tic innovations to present and portray a typical day in Moscow from day to night. Vert’s stated aim was that he wanted to capture “life caught unawares.” Rather than simply recording real life realities, however, his attempts to transform and enlighten it through the power of the lens “kino-glaz” (cinéma eye).

In 1928 John Grierson joins the British Empire Marketing Board (EMB), a governmental agency, and soon organizes the E.M.B Film Unit. In the EMB, and also later in his work with the film unit of the British General Post Office, Grierson gathered around himself a group of talented and enthusiastic filmmakers. This was a group of british filmmakers, they were influential in British film culture in the 30’s and 40’s. The filmmaker’s group founding principles were based on Grierson’s views on doc. film. Grierson wanted to use film to educate the population in an understanding of democratic society. Grierson appointed apprentices such as Basil Wright, Arthur Elton, Stuart Legg, Paul Rotha and Harry Watt. They were all mostly young, middle-class, educated males with liberal political views.

During the years between 1930 and 1937 the Worker’s Film and Photo League is formed in the US (subsequently transformed into Nykino in 1934, and into Frontier Films in 1937) with the purpose of making independent documentaries with a politically and socially progressive viewpoint. Members included Paul Strand, Leo Hurwitz, Willard Van Dyke, Ralph Steiner, and Joris Ivens.

During the second half of the 1930’s the United States Government went on an ambitious public relations campaign to keep the American people informed about the New Deal and the necessity of its programs. The Resettlement Administration, an agency established to provide aid to farmers and other rural populations, decided to produce films in 1935 as a method of getting its message to a wider segment of the public. These films created a new direction for American documentary filmmaking in terms of cinema tic style and technical sophistication. Pare Lorentz’ The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) documented the deprivations and suffering of the Depression-Era farmers.

Documentaries during the Great War and During WWII were often propagandistic, an example of this is German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, released in 1935 Germany. The film was explicitly propagandistic, but at the same time historical in its horrifying documentation of the Nazi Party Congress rally in Nuremberg in 1934. The documentary film consists of no narration and follows attributes of observational and poetic mode visually. It was a revolutionary film in its time combining brilliant cinematography and editing of Nazi Propaganda.

In 1935, the March Of Time newsreel series is inaugurated, the mastermind that was Roy Edward Larsen, a senior executive of Time-Life-Fortune, Inc. In the midst of the competitive newsreel feuds of the time, Larsen and his backers saw the need for an approach that would grab the attention of public imagination. March Of Time were successful and accomplished it by mixing dramatic reenactments, high-quality location footage and hard narration (provided by Westbrook Van Voorhis). The goal was to inform, capture and dazzle the audience with “pictorial journalism”— all in organized, 15-20 minute installments shown between feature-length films in theaters, the series ran until 1951.

In 1938, on the invitation of the Canadian Government, John Grierson visits Canada to consult on possibilities of a national Canadian film organization. One year later, on October of 1939 Grierson is appointed Government Film Commissioner. Within six years of accepting to head the organization called National Film Board, Grierson gathers a team of more than 800 filmmakers.

Frank Russell Capra was an Italian-American film director, director and producer, born on May 18, 1897. Capra became one of America’s most influential directors during the late 1930’s, and he won three Oscars as Best Director.

Between 1942 and 1945, Hollywood film director Capra enlisted as a major in the US Army Signal Corps. During this commission, he oversaw the production of the documentary and propaganda series Why We Fight. The series was intended to tell and explain the Government’s policy and war goals to America’s hastily assembled armed troops. Capra enlisted notables from the film industry on the project, these included Flaherty, Carl Foreman, James Hilton, John and Walter Huston, Lloyd Nolan, George Stevens, and William Wyler. Other were composers such as Dmitri Tiomkin and Alfred Newman. Walt Disney and his crew were responsible for the animated map sequences.

From 1950 and into the 1960’s using newly developed, lightweight and hand-held cameras with synchronized sound, a new generation of young filmmakers in the US and Europe attempts to redefine the nature of the documentary film. It had many and various names throughout the planet, Direct Cinema (US), Cinéma Vérité (France), and Free Cinema (Canada and England), these films created by these filmmakers strived for immediacy, spontaneity and authenticity— a real attempt to bring the filmmaker and the audience closer to the subject in hand. These films were and are characterized by the use of real people in unrehearsed real life situations, as opposed to actors with written scripts, directorial intervention was kept to a minimum and voice-over editing were avoided.


One thought on “Documentary Film’s History — Text Used in my Final Term Paper

  1. I really enjoyed learning about documentaries. I love watching them because they always offer so much information on the topic. I believe that is part of the reason I loved learning about the history and making of them.


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