Documentary was crucial to the early development of the cinema. Film history conventionally begins in 1895, when Louis and Auguste Lumière publicly exhibited their first program of short films in the basement of the Grand Café in Paris. With titles such as Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895), Arrival of a Train (1895), and Le Repas de Bébé ( Feeding the Baby , 1895), the Lumières' films, or "actualités," were brief slices of life captured by the camera. According to the media historian Erik Barnouw, the Lumière programs were so popular that within two years they had approximately one hundred operators at work around the world, both showing their films and photographing new ones to add to a steadily increasing catalogue (p. 13). Many of the new enterprising film companies that sprang up at the turn of the century featured nonfiction titles, particularly travelogues. In an era before world travel was common and every tourist had a camera, scenes of foreign lands and life had considerable exotic appeal for film patrons, most of whom at this time were working class and could not afford travel.
As filmmakers such as Edwin S. Porter (1870–1941) and D. W. Griffith (1875–1948) perfected editing techniques for the purposes of advancing a story, nonfiction films were quickly eclipsed in popularity by narrative films, which exploited editing and other cinematic techniques such as framing and camera movement to involve spectators emotionally. As a result, nonfiction film assumed a subsidiary position, ultimately institutionalized in movie theaters as the newsreels or travelogues, one of a series of shorts shown before the feature attraction. Thus documentary has remained on the margins of mainstream cinema, only periodically producing a feature-length work that has managed to find distribution in commercial theaters.
In commercial motion pictures programming, documentary found a niche in the form of newsreels, which became a regular part of commercial film exhibition, along with previews and cartoons, all in support of the narrative feature films. Even though newsreels could only report on news after the fact, when the stories covered were already known, they appealed to audiences because they provided an experiential immediacy that surpassed the temporal immediacy of the daily newspaper. Each newsreel contained coverage of several stories and, after the introduction of sound, authoritative voice-over narration. Pathé News, which was begun in the United States by the Frenchman Charles Pathé (1863–1957) in 1910, proved so popular that by 1912 several other companies and studios, including Hearst, Universal, Paramount, and Fox, entered the newsreel field. Orson Welles's renowned first film, Citizen Kane (1941), assumes that newsreel conventions were familiar enough to movie audiences to begin with a mock newsreel ("News on the March"), which is at once a clever expository device and a parody of such newsreels, specifically of Louis de Rochemont's The March of Time . Newsreels lasted through the 1950s, until the disappearance of the double bill and the rise of television, with its nightly news broadcasts providing an even greater sense of immediacy and intimacy than did newsreels.
In 1922 Robert Flaherty (1884–1951), a former explorer and prospector with little prior training in cinematography, made Nanook of the North , a film about Inuit life in the Canadian far north, which demonstrated that documentary could be both art and entertainment. Flaherty deftly employed fictional techniques such as the use of close-ups and parallel editing to involve viewers in Nanook's world. The film moved beyond the picturesque detachment of the conventional travelogue to offer a poetic vision of human endurance against the natural elements. The film shows the hardships Nanook faces in finding food for his family in the icy Arctic, while at the same time creating an intimate sense of them as individuals about whom viewers might care (even if on occasion it might lapse into condescension, such as when Nanook is described in one of the insert titles as a "happy-go-lucky Eskimo"). A commercial success, Nanook of the North had a lengthy run on Broadway (as the second feature with a Harold Lloyd comedy, Grandma's Boy ), and its distributor, Paramount Studios, commissioned Flaherty to go to the South Pacific to "make another Nanook "(Barnouw, p. 43). The film that resulted was the aforementioned Moana .
Despite the artistry of Nanook , Flaherty did take liberties with his subjects. Some were necessary because of technological limitations: the scenes of Nanook and his family in igloos, for example, actually were shot in cutaway igloos constructed for the purpose of filming, since the camera was too big to get inside a real igloo and they did not provide sufficient light for filming. Other manipulations are more troubling. The Inuit were already acquainted with modern weapons and tools, but Flaherty chose to film Nanook without them, falsifying their actual lifestyle in order to present a more traditional view of their culture. When Nanook was being filmed seal hunting, he was unable to catch one, so a dead one was tied onto the end of his fishing line and he enacted his "struggle" with it. In response to criticism that he manipulated his subjects, Flaherty replied, "One often has to distort a thing in order to catch its true spirit." The comment has significant implications for documentary practice, for it opens up the possibility that documentary films may legitimately seek to document more spiritual or intangible aspects of life beneath the physical and visible world.
Grierson's approach to documentary is often seen as antithetical to Flaherty's more romantic vision. For Grierson, the documentary was first and foremost a tool of social propaganda, in the sense of the medium's potential to reach and educate the masses. Thus he attacked Flaherty's lyricism and preference for documenting isolated, pre-industrial cultures rather than to grapple with specific and immediate social issues of modern industrial society—in other words, the problems and issues facing audiences who would be seeing the films. Grierson emphasized the social utility of documentary, proclaiming the desire "to make drama from the ordinary" in films that emphasized social rather than
The only documentary filmmaker to be included in Andrew Sarris's notorious auteurist "pantheon," Robert Flaherty brought to the documentary form his personal vision of humankind's ceaseless struggle against nature, finding this theme in a variety of cultures. A mineralogist and explorer by profession, with only rudimentary training in filmmaking, Flaherty was interested in using film as a means to capture the passing existence of traditional societies, which he saw as both noble and untainted by modern values.
Flaherty's first film, the landmark Nanook of the North (1922), for which he obtained funding from Revillon Frères fur company, was a travelogue about Inuit life in the Canadian Arctic that made use of cinematic techniques until then associated more with fiction films than documentary. By frequently weaving together close-ups of Nanook and his family with artfully composed long shots of them in the vast frozen landscape, Flaherty encourages the viewer both to identify with the hunter and his family and to understand the awesome natural power of their environment. In the brutal snowstorm that constitutes Nanook 's dramatic climax, Flaherty used crosscutting between the Inuit family huddling inside their igloo and their dogs outside in the fierce wind to suggest the difference between humans and other animals and to emphasize his theme of romantic survival against the crucible of nature.
Moving beyond the picturesque detachment of the conventional travelogue, Nanook was a surprising commercial hit. Flaherty went on to make Moana (1926) in the South Pacific, where he also worked uncredited on fiction films with W. S. Van Dyke and with F. W. Murnau. In 1931 Flaherty moved to England, where he influenced the British documentary school led by John Grierson. Man of Aran (1934), set on the rugged island off the western coast of Ireland, contains thrilling scenes of the islanders hunting basking sharks—a skill that had been largely forgotten and had to be retaught to the islanders so that the sequences could be filmed. His final film, Louisiana Story (1948), photographed by Richard Leacock, shows almost no sign of modern technology except for a glimpse of a derrick belonging to Standard Oil (the company that sponsored the film) in the background, apparently functioning in harmony with the environment.
At one time Flaherty's films received much critical praise, although anthropologists complained that they were inaccurate because of the director's manipulation of his subjects. Where once Flaherty was celebrated for his sensuous imagery and compelling footage, today his documentaries are more often considered a prime example of the exoticized, colonial gaze.
Nanook of the North (1922), Moana (1926), Tabu (1931), Man of Aran (1934), The Land (1942), Louisiana Story (1948)
Barsam, Richard. The Vision of Robert Flaherty: The Artist as Myth and Filmmaker . Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988.
Calder-Marshall, Arthur. The Innocent Eye: The Life of Robert J. Flaherty . New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1966.
Danzker, Jo-Anne Birnie, ed. Robert Flaherty: Photographer/Filmmaker, the Inuit, 1910–1922 . Vancouver, BC: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1980.
Rotha, Paul. Robert J. Flaherty: A Biography , edited by Jay Ruby. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.
Rothman, William. "The Filmmaker as Hunter: Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North ." In Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video , edited by Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski, 23–39. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1998.
Barry Keith Grant
aesthetic issues. Influenced by the ideas of his contemporary, the social philosopher Walter Lippmann (1889–1974), Grierson felt that the individual citizen was becoming less informed and consequently less able to participate responsibly in the democratic process; the cinema, however, had the potential to solve the problem through mass education.
Grierson's only film as director, Drifters (1929), about the British herring fishing industry, reveals the influence of the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, not only in its editing but also in its comprehensive coverage of its subject, from the stalwart fishermen who bring the fish to port to the packaged goods ready for distribution across the nation. Although Grierson is credited with directing only this one film, more important was his contribution as producer and advocate for state-sponsored documentary. He became the shaping influence of the British documentary movement in the late 1920s through the 1930s, building a film unit under the aegis of the government's Empire Marketing Board, with its mandate of marketing the British Empire, from 1928 to 1933; he brought together such talented filmmakers as Basil Wright (1907–1987), Arthur Elton (1906–1973), Harry Watt (1906–1987), Paul Rotha (1907–1984), and Edgar Anstey (1907–1987). The EMB Film Unit produced almost one hundred films in the five years of its existence, including Drifters and Flaherty's Industrial Britain (1932). When the EMB was shut down in 1933, its public relations chief, Sir Stephen Tallents, moved to the General Post Office, taking with him the Board's film unit. Among the most well known of the documentaries to come out of Grierson's unit were Night Mail (Harry Wright and Basil Wright, 1934), Song of Ceylon (Wright, 1934), and Coal Face (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1935), about coal mining in northern England.
Despite Grierson's insistence on the social utility of documentary, the documentary films made under his leadership, both in Great Britain and later in Canada, display a considerable degree of formal experimentation. Leading figures in the arts such as the composer Benjamin Britten and the poet W. H. Auden contributed to EMB documentaries. By the early 1930s the approach to montage included not just images but also sound, especially after Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti joined the Unit in 1934, as evidenced in his film Coal Face . Night Mail attempts to synchronize the poetic rhythms of Auden's voice-over verse with the film's pace of the editing to suggest the rhythm of the mail train that climbs steadily upward from London to Scotland. Despite such formal adventurousness, however, the Griersonian style was typically exhortatory, often including an omniscient patriarchal narrator and sharing implicit ideological assumptions about the benefits of capitalism, industrial progress, and colonial paternalism.