The History of Making Documentaries

Uploaded by videomaker on 30.03.2009

bjbj The documentary has a long-storied history and is the only genre that has been in existence
since the birth of the film camera in the late 1800s. The earliest moving pictures were actually
single shot moments captured on film, recorded by the Lumier brothers in the 1890s. These
were shots of a train entering a station, factory workers leaving the workplace, or
simply shots that examine the novelty of an actual real-life event. These were, by definition,
documentaries. In what is generally considered the first attempt to dramatize reality, photographer
Edward Curtis filmed In the Land of the War Canoes in 1914 using actors to portray Native
Americans. These scenes were staged but the story was presented as a truthful reenactment.
Laying the groundwork for things to come, Robert Flaherty's film, Nanook of the North,
released in 1922, is generally cited as the first feature-length documentary. The film
employs many of the conventions of later documentary and ethnographic filmmaking, including narration,
a subjective tone, staged shots and a focus on a character and his development as the
film's centerpiece. The term documentary wasn't actually associated with this genre until
1926, when filmmaker John Garrison coined the term in his review of the film Milana.
Although Great Britain and Russia were the first to create what became known as propaganda
films as early as 1920, it was the German backed 1935 film, Triumph of the Will, that
is generally considered a landmark film both in terms of documentary filmmaking and social
implication. The film was released around the world in multiple languages. German director
Lenny Riefenstahl's look at the annual Nazi party rally in 1934 showed the astonishingly
powerful movements in society reflected and represented through media. She pioneered the
tradition of films made with the explicit purpose of persuading an audience of a point.
1935 also saw the creation of the March of Times Newsreel Series, a new concept at the
time, which centered on informing the audience with picture journalism, using dramatic reenactments,
forceful narration and footage shot on location. Developed by Roy Edward Larson, a senior executive
of Time Life Fortune Incorporated, the 15 to 20 minute long newsreels would be shown
at theaters between feature films. It wasn't until the 1950s that newly developed 16 millimeter
lightweight cameras ushered in the era of the cinema verite style of documentary film
creation. A French term meaning real film, it was an attempt by a young generation of
filmmakers to create authentic, uninterrupted and unrehearsed documentaries in order to
bring the creators and the audience closer to the subject. Voiceovers and direct intervention
was pushed aside and scenes were generally shot on location to present a more realistic
environment and strive for reality rather than a film based in reality with staged shots.
Stylistically, cinema verite centered around following a subject during a crisis using
newer handheld cameras to capture close-ups and more personal reaction shots. There were
no sit-down interviews, and the amount of shooting time was longer than in other documentary
formats. The finished product is generally the result of the editors finding and sculpting
the shots into a story. The 1960 film Primary, Drew Associates' documentary on the Wisconsin
Democratic Presidential Primary, is generally regarded as the first American attempt at
cinema verite. One of the first documentaries to see success at the box office and have
a wide range of theatrical distribution was D. A. Pennebaker's account of a young Bob
Dillon in the 1967 film Don't Look Back. The '60s and '70s politically charged notions
brought forth a new movement of narrative and first-person accounts of documentary storytelling.
Moving away from the cinema verite format and more into the realm of social commentaries.
This laid the groundwork for many modern films, as well as developed the blueprints for what
commonly became known as the participatory documentary. The development of lighter, more
sophisticated video cameras throughout the 1980s led to the first groundbreaking reality
television series in 1989, as John Langley and Malcolm Barbour's Cops mixed elements
of cinema verite and commentary from on-duty police officers to carry its episodes. Falling
on the heels of Cops, MTV's Real World was the first hugely successful reality television
series. The show was the precursor to what we now know as the reality TV documentary
genre, which combines elements of cinema verite, scripts and staged shots. To capture real
on film is an elusive goal, and the popular genre of today's reality shows brought that
experimental discovery to the mainstream. From the Lumier brothers' curiosity to Michael
Moore's in-your-face exploration, documentaries are consistently evolving different strategies
to try and capture reality for their audience. [End of Audio] History of Documentary Page
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