A Short History of Documentary

Erik Barnouw’s Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film is a satisfying read. The book begins with French astronomer Pierre Jules Cesar Jansen’s experiments to record the passage of Venus around the sun, the more well-known attempts of photographer Eadward Muybridge to examine the movement of race horses as precisely as possible, and the young Louis Lumiere’s invention of the cinematographe and its subsequent world domination as it showed themselves and the world to audiences around the globe. We meet Robert and Frances Flaherty, John Grierson, Dziga Vertov, Esfir Shub, Alberto Cavalcanti, Joris Ivens, Leni Riefenstahl, Humphrey Jennings and so many more …

The stories of social, technical and economic developments are integral to how these filmmakers came to and influenced documentary filmmaking. I was especially intrigued to learn how the changes over the years, influenced by the political climate around the world, affected the craft and how we have inherited that history in South Africa.

Working in television and video production for the past eleven years I am aware that documentary has a secondary status to that of fiction, or drama in South Africa. It is often said that documentary is the training ground for filmmakers with an allusion to filmmakers moving on to make films that demand more of the filmmaker, like dramas. There is also the suggestion that filmmakers can make mistakes and more glaring mistakes in their documentary forays than they  would be allowed to when making drama.

Reading Barnouw’s history, however, it becomes clear that documentary filmmakers were at the forefront of the history and development of filmmaking from the beginning. The first filmmakers were documentary filmmakers, who, in a sense, laid the foundations for all kinds of filmmaking. This does not mean that these early filmmakers were less sophisticated than those who came later; instead, it means to me, that these filmmakers had to work harder than those who came later in order to understand the medium and to use it to say what they wanted to say.

The documentary filmmakers who were fortunate and privileged enough to be making films in the early twentieth Century, were making films that still inspire and intrigue us today. Not only in terms of the stories they were telling, but also in how they used the camera and co-ordinated the technical teams they worked with. With bulkier equipment and often larger crews than we work with on documentary films today, the pioneering filmmakers were able to capture magical shots, scenes and sequences that we learn from today. These achievements wrought out of the demands of the times suggest that documentary filmmaking is a craft that requires patience, focus and a technical intuitiveness. More a bootcamp than a  nursery school where you learn your ABCs. The point being that even though you could throw someone in the deep end on a documentary film, this is not because it is easier to make a documentary film than it is to make a drama, but perhaps because our society values documentary films less than fiction. The ability to “never to stop looking, never to stop responding to the world around one,” the trait Richard Leacock admired in Robert Flaherty and thought the most difficult discipline, is one of the hardest for a first time filmmaker to get to grips with. As the story changes, the filmmaker needs to be thinking about how the changes may be worked into the film and needs to ensure that the footage will make sense of all the unscripted real life drama, while the first time fiction filmmaker does not have this challenge.

The second idea popularly held about documentary films in South Africa that the book made me revisit is the one that tells us that documentary films don’t make money. The story of documentary from 1895 through to the Second World War is one of a receptive audience and willing sponsors. People were fascinated by the faces and images from the world around them. Documentaries had cinema releases, which were sold out and during World War II, documentary was more popular than fiction. In fact, throughout these heady first fifty years, documentary was more popular than fiction. First of all documentary led the way in technical developments and secondly, it was able to show people themselves, it was able to take them around the world, and it was able to place them at world events as they happened. Documentary was not for a niche market, it was for the world.

From my reading of the book it seems that a growing concern amongst governments (notably American and Russian) and corporations of how they may be portrayed and then perceived by the audience led to a reluctance to sanction and support documentary films.

In the postwar years, as multi-national corporations – largely under American control – expanded abroad at an unprecendented rate, the drive to control markets, resources, and media went with them.

The beginnings of the cold war were related to this development. Starting shortly after World War II, this confrontation between capitalist and socialist powers involved struggles for markets and resources, but proclaimed itself in ideological terms. On both sides it brought a stiffening of controls over mass media – with drastic impact on documentary content and style. DOCUMENTARY A History of the Non-Fiction Film by Erik Barnouw, p.221

This period of media control in the US we tend to lump under the banner of McCarthyism, even though McCarthy only started his attack on the Office of War Information in early 1950. The earlier suppression of “un-American activities” began in 1947 by the US House of  Representatives included the rooting out of “communism in the film industry.” Tactics included the blacklisting of uncooperative artists we have seen in films of the period. McCarthy’s attack followed this, along with the FBI’s purge of subversive elements within the film industry. Many of these so called subversives were documentary and news filmmakers, who had travelled and reported on the war and on the world. These travels and the reporting meant that these filmmakers had been in contact with the new enemy – the Russians, the communists.

The changes in the way documentary film was viewed sixty years ago has clearly affected our view of documentary film today. As documentary fell out of favour, distribution channels closed down and there was less money and less support in the form of funding for marketing.  This was the result of concerted efforts and official policies. What we need today is concerted effort and official policy to reverse this legacy.

Maybe documentary film does not have to be the training ground for filmmakers. Maybe if more money were pumped into documentary films, they would actually make money for the investors.


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