A Documentary overview


Very Early Cinema...

...Was often used to document things.

The Lumiere bros. 1895.

The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight

Enoch J. Rector 1897

Science Films

“Science Films’ emerged from experiments and studies using the cinematograph. The

field developed blending technical innovation, scientific enquiry, education and

entertainment. For instance pioneers such as:

● Eadweard Muybridge (UK/USA) experiments in photographing motion began in 1872

● John Macintyre (Scotland) filmed the movement of a frog's leg in 1897

● Eugène-Louis Doyen (France) began filming several of his operations, among them

the spectacular separation of the Siamese twins Doodica and Radica. 1898

● Gheorghe Marinescu (Romania) first science films The walking troubles of organic

hemiplegy 1898

● Ludwig Braun (Vienna) made film recordings of the contractions of a living dog's

heart in 1898

● Francis Martin Duncan (England) produced an array of popular-scientific films for

Charles Urban: "The unseen world: A series of microscopic studies” 1903

● Lucien Bull (France) filmed a bullet entering a soap bubble in in slow motion in 1904

● Max Seddig and Victor Henri recorded Brownian motion with the help of a

cinematograph. 1907 and 1908, respectively.

● Julius Ries (Switzerland)was one of the first to film fertilization and cell division in

sea urchins in1909

(Wellmann, 2011)

Gheorghe Marinescu

Science films 1898 -1901


Essentially descriptions of journeys,

showing the wonders of far off places.

These started with painted majic lantern

shows as early as the 1740s and matured

into Travel Lectures with photographic

slides by the 1840s.


The most famous lecturer in the USA was

probably John L. Stoddard. Who gave about 3000

lectures between the 1870s and 1897.

I’m weary of the loin-cloth,

And tired of naked skins;

I’m sick of filthy, knavish priests

Who trade in human sins:

These millions of the great unwashed

Offend both eye and nose;

I long for legs in pantaloons

And feet concealed in hose.

Stoddard quoted in Barber (1993)


He was followed by E. Burton Holmes

who had started out as a majician,

travelling showman and then became a

travel lecturer.

He is credited with coining the term

‘Travelogue’ in 1904 and continued to

have a great career doing these lectures

and films until his death 1958.

(Barber, 1993)


"a film picture of sheer adventure, of veiled,

mysterious, unknown tribes, and hidden

robber cities."

A typical example of a British version of the

travelogue is Crossing the Great Sahara (1924)

“A filmed record of Angus Buchanan's

expedition to the Sahel region of the Sahara

in 1922-23. Full of adventure and sensational

footage of the places and people he


Although this was presented on one hand as

educational and scientific it also had huge

commercial success.

There is a clear division between the

'primitive' subjects on screen and the

'civilised' British viewer. Locals are paraded in

front of the camera, as the titles emphasise

their distinctive features ("Note the curious

decoration of Cowrie shells") and are

presented almost as animals, crawling on all

fours, dressed in feathers and employing their

'primitive instincts' to dig out anthills.”

(Rice, n.d.)

View and see more info on

BFI Screen Online


The French director

Marc Allégret set out to

challenge the cultural

imperialism, racial

stereotyping and

sensationalism that

pervaded much of the

news and travel films of

his time.

Marc Allégret and André Gide

He was inspired by his mentor and lover André Gide who said:

“ the less intelligent the white man is, the dumber he perceives

Blacks to be”

(Bowles, Brett, 2013)


He also wanted to

avoid the dramatised

narratives and

adventure stories that

were seen in other

‘ethnographic’ work.

Voyage au Congo, (1927) avoided the stories of the filmmakers,

tried to show the people on their own terms, and even used long

lenses to maintain objective distance. It is seen as a highly influential

work in the development of ethnographic filmmaking.

The terms ‘Actuality’ and 'Documentaire' were

already in use to describe films that act as

documents of records of real life.

‘Travelogues’ and ‘Ethnographic’ films show real life

and tell stories.

But is this documentary?

John Grierson

Is often given the title ‘The

Father of Documentary’ and

is credited with the first use

of the term ‘Documentary’ in

its modern sense when

writing about Roberty

Flaherty's film Moana (1926).

He also wrote:

(Grierson, 1932 pp651)


7. The Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier, in Paris, was founded in 1913 by playwright

and critic Jacques Copeau in an attempt to revitalize French theater and is now part

of la ComédieFrançaise.

8. Moana is the second film by Robert Flaherty (US, 1926), shot in Samoa; Earth,

by Alexander Dovzhenko (USSR, 1930) is about collectivization in the Ukraine; and

Turksib (1929) is a Soviet documentary directed by Victor A. Turin about the

construction of a train line through central Asia.

9. Voyage au Congo was a three-volume “journal” by French explorer Jean-

Baptiste Douville, published in 1832, which turned out to be a hoax travelogue. (ie

not the film by Allegret).

Notes from (Grierson, 1932 pp892)

It is hard to find any mention of Allegret by

Grierson at the time. But then there are the


From Surfdom

To Revolution

And industrialisation

In Just 20 years

(Oktober by Sergei Eisenstein, 1928.)



Dziga Vertov

Fiction film Drama and the Cine-Eye

A speech (15 July 1924)

" We are directly engaged in studying the

phenomenon of life around us. We place

the ability to show and interperet life as it

is significantly above the occasionally

amusing playing with dolls that people call

theatre, cinema etc."

" The fiction film drama

should occupy the

place in a film show

that is now occupied

by the newsreel film.

The remainder of the

programme should be

filled with the works of

the Cine-Eye in the

field of science,

education and

everyday life.

Kino-Pravda (Film-Truth)

The film drama

stimulates the nerves.

The Cine-Eye helps

people to see.

The film drama shrouds

the eyes and the brain

in a sickly fog. The

Cine-Eye opens the

eyes, clears the vision.

The film drama gives

people a sore throat."

Man with a Movie Camera

Dziga Vertov 1929

"I am Kino-eye. I am Builder. I have

placed you ...in an extraordinary

room which did not exist until just

now when I also created it. In this

room there are twelve walls, shot by

me in various parts of the world. In

bringing together shots of walls and

details, I've managed to arrange

them in an order that is pleasing."

Dziga Vertov

Bordwell and Thompson (2008 p227)

Soyuzkino was created in 1930 as the

central body to oversee film production.

Boris Shumiatsky was the head of

Soyuzkino from 1931-1938. 1

The NEP (New Economic Policy) 1921 -

1928, under which private businesses

had been permitted with a percentage

tax on produce, was replaced by direct

central planning.

Socialist Realism

Under Stalin the soviet art form of ‘Socialist Realism’ became

increasingly proscriptive. He asserted that it should serve a funtional

purpose: it should offer unambiguously positive images of life in

communist Russia, in a 'true-to-life' visual style which could be easily

appreciated by the masses.

Shumiatsky oversaw

the dominance of

Socialist Realism in


Fictionalised versions of

history gained favour

such as the

revolutionary epic


Chapayev - Sergei and Grigori Vasiliev - 1934

Under Shumatsky many early pioneers

such as Eisenstein and Vertov were


"The strength of Chapayev lies in

the profound vital truth of the film"

"Dziga Vertov's film Three Songs

of Lenin is good and significant

precisely because he has

renounced documentarism."

Shumyatsky in 'A Cinema for the Millions'


Shumiatsky was arrested and executed in 1937, accused of

‘collaborating with saboteurs within the film industry’.

Eisenstein’s seminal work ‘Battleship Potemkin’ was first screened in

Britain in 1929 alongside the premiere of ‘Drifters’ a film about Scotland’s

herring fishing fleet made by John Grierson

John Grierson (again)

In 'The First Principles of Documentary' (1932) Grierson

defines ‘Documentary’ further, differentiating between:

'shimmying exoticisms' and 'lower order' 'lecture films' which

have 'value in entertainment, education and propoganda'


'documentary proper, ...the only world in which documentary

can hope to achieve the ordinary virtues of an art. Here we

pass from the plain (or fancy) descriptions of natural material,

to arrangements, rearrangements, and creative shapings of it.'

(MacDonald, 1999)

He also went on to produce much

of the theoretical work which

underpinned the development of

the documentary form as well as

commissioning and producing

work in Britain and Canada.

He started out in the Empire Marketing

Board, which became the GPO film unit,

where he was influential in gathering the

other great names of the British

Documentary movement including Basil

Wright, Edgar Anstey, Stuart Legg, Paul

Rotha, Arthur Elton, Humphrey Jennings,

Harry Watt, and Alberto Cavalcanti.

He moved to Canada in 1938 and ran the National Film Board

there. (In Britain the GPO film unit became the Crown Film

Unit, producing propaganda during the war.)

Grierson’s influence on factual film-making was immense,

underpinned by a strong social commitment. Of this he said:

“The basic force behind [documentary] was

social and not æsthetic. It was a desire to

make a drama out of the ordinary, to set

against the prevailing drama of the

extraordinary: a desire to bring the citizen’s

eye in from the ends of the earth to the

story, his own story, of what was happening

under his nose.”

(“The Grierson Trust - John Grierson,” n.d.)

Cinema Verite, Direct Cinema, Free


Verite provokes and interacts, Direct cinema is more purely

observational, Free cinema is more personal.

All are about representing truth without an agenda.

Free cinema manifesto:

These films were not made together; nor with the idea of showing them together. But when they came

together, we felt they had an attitude in common. Implicit in this attitude is a belief in freedom, in the

importance of people and the significance of the everyday.

As filmmakers we believe that

No film can be too personal.

The image speaks. Sound amplifies and comments.

Size is irrelevant. Perfection is not an aim.

An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude.

Free Cinema - Original 1956 programme

Channel 4,

Film workshops established giving TV distribution to films from

Co-op movement,



Amber Film(Newcastle)

Chapter (Cardiff)

London Filmmakers Co-op (London)

Steel Bank Film Co-op (Sheffield)

Came to an end in the early 90's as C4 became more


The return of the Commercial

Feature documentary

Roger and Me (Moore,1989)$11,000,000

In Bed with Madonna (Keshishian 1991) $29,000,000

Manufacturing Consent (Achbar&Wintonick, 1992)

Baraka (Fricke 1993) $1,300,000 usa

Hoop Dreams (James 1994) $11,800,000

When We Were Kings (Gast 1996) $3,000,000 usa

Microcosmos (Nuridsany & Pérennou 1996) $1,500,000 usa

Little Dieter Needs to Fly Herzog 1997

Politics Returns

The 00’s sees the footage shot on domestic equipment becoming increasingly acceptable

and the tone of much mainstream feature documentary making becomes more ‘political’.

However this is a type of political analysis that is acceptable to major distributors and

arguably sustains the status quo, rather than genuinely challenging it. A concept explored in

this article: https://diigo.com/08xacn

Gleaners and I (Varna 2000)

Bowling For Columbine (moore, 2002)

The Fog of War (Morris, 2003)

Capturing the Friedmans (Jarecki, 2003)

Born into Brothels (Briski, 2004)

Super Size Me (Spurlock, 2004)

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room(Gibney, 2005)

An Inconvenient Truth (Guggenheim, 2006)

Food Inc. (kennar 2009)

Meanwhile on TV...

The rise and rise of Reality TV and ‘factual


The birth of Big brother in 1997 and it’s first UK

series on 2000

The Teenies….?

More diverse, more radical?

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