Documentaries are often cited as a form of education. The most popular documentaries are the kind we tend to see on television, often they will be dealing with a very specific subject (such as investigating the causes and effects of certain issues, exploring a certain moment in history or discussing a subject in greater depth, with experts in that field offering up their opinions). The idea of documentaries as education isn’t one that has come from nowhere, and indeed it is quite often the case that a documentary can be used for furthering the audience’s knowledge of a given subject, but there is a danger in the misconception that all documentaries are somehow representing a truth. After all, a documentary about how the Earth is flat is still a documentary, despite the theory being inaccurate. So, just what is a documentary then?
Well, the definition of the documentary in moving image terms is simply something that provides a factual documentation of a subject. The term documentary was, reportedly, coined by Scottish documentary filmmaker named John Grierson, who used it describe the 1926 film Moana. Grierson believed that the representation of truth in film was better served by capturing the original event than it was any fictional counterpart.
The first documentaries were born almost out of necessity. When the Lumiere brothers invented the Cinematograph in 1895 the device was used to capture unedited footage of life, some of the most famous of these are still cited today, such as the Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat and the Exit from the Lumiere Factory in Lyon. While these may not be what modern audience most often identify as documentaries, they technically fall into the category, and for a short while during the early days of cinema this was the most prominent “genre” audiences would find.
Travelogues, or “scenics” as the distributors preferred to call them, quickly became the audiences favourite type of documentary. Between 1900 to 1920 these “scenics” were the most popular movies of the time, and a great many were produced to meet demand for them. They would showcase exotic new worlds and the people and wildlife indigenous to them, such as Joseph-Louis Mundwiller’s 1909 film Moscow Clad in Snow. The audience would flock to see what wonders the world had to offer, with overseas travel being far less readily available than it is today. Colour processing houses such as Kinemacolor used travelogues to promote their new colour processes. Travelogues remain popular now, but often take a more investigative and entertaining approach to the places they showcase, such as Michael Palin’s successful Around the World in 80 Days or Ricky Gervais’ Karl Pilkington: An Idiot Abroad.
As narrative film began to become more commonplace so too did the narrative documentary, and during the early 1900s the biographical documentary became more and more popular. These films would focus heavily on a particular person and their life or a specific event within their life.
In 1922 documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty released his film Nanook of the North, which documents the struggles of an Inuk man named Nanook and his family living in the Canadian Arctic. It’s a film most notable for combining elements of drama with the documentary and embracing romanticism, with a focus on emotional connection over a straight documentation of facts. The film has been the subject of much controversy over the staging of certain scenes (several scenes that take place inside the family’s igloo, for example, were in fact filmed in a custom built three-walled igloo in order to accommodate for the large camera and the lack of lighting). The film was a success, and Flaherty’s follow-up, 1926’s Moana, continues this trend for “docufiction”. After the release of Moana studios began to attempt to repeat the success of Flaherty’s work.
Flaherty wasn’t the only filmmaker experimenting with the idea of documentary as a way to capture emotion and mood, though, and through the 1920s and 30s several experimental filmmakers began to develop the “poetic” documentary film. This new wave of documentary most prominently took the form of the City Symphonies, and were influenced by Cubism, Constructivism and Impressionism. They include films such as 1921’s Manhatta, 1926’s Paris Nothing but the Hours, and 1929’s Rain. Perhaps the most famous of the City Symphonies is 1927’s Berlin, Symphony of a Great City. These films are normally based around a major metropolitan city and are constructed much like symphonies, they tend to focus on people as products of their environment.
During the decade following 1910 the newsreel began to feature as an important part of the cinema going experience, using film to update the public on the goings on in the world. Newsreels utilised interview techniques where possible, but often showcased reconstructions, with events often staged but based true accounts. The cameramen would arrive at the scene of a battle after the battle had taken place and re-enacting them.
As the newsreel grew more and more popular so too do the idea of using the documentary as a form of propaganda. Perhaps the most famous piece of propaganda is Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will, which chronicled the Nazi Party Congress and was commissioned by Hitler himself. Soon Governments across the world began commissioning filmmakers to produce works of propaganda. In the US the Government commissioned Frank Capra to create a series of documentaries entitled Why We Fight, in an effort to convince the public that it was time for America to go to war.
As equipment grew more portable and advanced, so too did the documentary format evolve and change. The 1950s saw an explosion in Cinema-verité, sometimes referred to as “observational cinema”, in a direct reaction to the studio output of the time. These films were often shot on location and utilised natural light, with filmmakers utilising the smaller, handheld cameras and portable sound equipment now available to them. This new wave of documentary led to several different techniques being adopted, from the observational approach of Barbara Kopple and D. A. Pennebaker to the more interactive involvement of filmmakers such as Pierre Perrault and Jean Rouch. Often these films would move away from the more tradition sit-down interviews seen in earlier documentary styles and adopt a faster paced, moving camera in an effort to capture more personal reactions and a truer representation of reality.
In more recent years the advent of digital technology has enabled documentary filmmakers to build upon the Cinema-verité style, and there has been a particular emphasis on social and political issues, most prominently environmentalism and mankind’s impact on the natural world. The historical documentary has also proved popular, and often these films will utilise re-enactments or stock footage with the use of voice-over narration to tell their story. The use of animated graphics has also become a staple of the modern documentary, often these graphics will be used to quickly and concisely illustrate a point to the audience in a visually appealing manner.
The purpose of documentary films remains as elusive and evolving as the purpose of any other genre, although most commonly the main purposes of documentary films are to educate as well as entertain. We see this constantly, whether the topic of the film be wildlife (such as the BBC’s ever-popular Planet Earth series) or historical or political. The tendency for documentaries to present themselves as truthful, regardless of the creative involvement of the filmmakers, is what has, perhaps, lead to audiences misinterpreting all documentary films as fact outright.
The rise of so-called “reality television” has only furthered this confusion, with many television shows adopting a documentary format despite their often fictional or staged execution. Advertisement has also adopted the documentary format in many ways, with “making-of” documentaries often serving as a commercial for the movie or television show they are documenting.
Audiences often expect a certain level of authenticity and honesty from documentaries, especially those most easily accessible via television or cinema. In this regard documentary filmmakers are often forced to walk a fine-line between their creative vision and an unbiased and balanced approach to their subject. Filmmakers such as Michael Moore and Kevin MacDonald, who’s outputs are often heavily politicised and, in some cases, deliberately designed to push their own political agendas, have come under fire by critics and audiences in the past for their lack of impartiality and accuracy.
Ultimately the documentary genre, like all other forms of cinema, is an expression of creativity and, often, the vision of a single filmmaker. To this end documentaries are no more or less truthful that their fictional counterparts. It is there presentation as truth that the confusion arises. People often watch documentaries with the expectation of learning more about the subject they are covering, and while this isn’t strictly untrue, there needs to be more awareness made about the artistic side of documentary production. To use my earlier example; a documentary about the flat Earth theory is probably going to be a truthful representation of that theory, but that doesn’t mean the theory itself is accurate.