Film is a medium that came with the wave of modernity in the early 20th century and people began to believe based on visuals of factorial evidence. If one sees a tree on film, then it is a tree, and if the tree is moving it means that there is wind causing the swaying. Here in this example lies the issue, most people have come to the agreement that documentary is supposed to portray at least some aspects of truth, but how much manipulation can a filmmaker put into their work and still call it a documentary? The trees could have been manipulated to sway by the production crew for that shot, but does that make it inaccurate? They very well could have been blown on their own, and I think that within certain parameters, the amount of manipulation allowed is to be determined by individuals.
In her book Documentary Film, Patricia Aufderheide discusses the main players in the eventual creation of “documentary” in the chapter “Founders”. Early on we have Louis and Auguste Lumière, two brothers from France who after attending an exhibition of Thomas Edison and William K.L. Dickson’s Kinetoscope, eventually created the Cinématographe, one of the first modern film cameras of the time. They filmed scenes of everyday life like the famous “Exiting the Factory” and “Arrival of a Train,” somewhat self-explanatory films. What was interesting about the figures Aufderheide introduces to the reader though, is their opinion on how real, ‘real’ is.
Robert Flaherty, explorer and director of Nanook of the North (1922) staged aspects of his film, he joined actualities and the art of storytelling. His expeditions to Port Harrison, Northern Quebec and his contact with the Inuit people were altered on film to represent a more nostalgic time versus a true reality of the current Inuit culture. It can be seen as a doc because it still represents reality though not all aspects of this new portrayal were true. John Grierson on the other hand who coined the word “documentary” made films that intertwined art with political and social reform, having no intention of giving a feel of nostalgia like many of Flaherty’s films. Grierson used a separatist strategy, he saw it as an educational duty rather than an fully artful appreciation of the form.
I could go on, and on, but whether you see a documentary as having a camera act as a fly on the wall filming life go by, using it docs as an educational representation, or as a tool for social change, it’s the most interactive and diverse film genre there is. Documentary can make a statement, it can teach, it can make change! But this isn’t class and I’ll rap it up. The many points of view of pioneer filmmakers around the world have helped influence the expectations and ideas about documentaries today, and without their experimentation we wouldn’t be as advanced in film technique as we are now. Go watch some docs!
Here is a link to Nanook of the North
Here is a link to the Lumière brother’s “Exiting the Factory” (1895)
--This one is brief and real a window into the past!