Inspired by the powerful immediacy of actual combat footage and the emergence of Italian neorealism toward the end of the war, Hollywood feature films began absorbing the influence of documentary. Both The Naked City (Jules Dassin, 1948) and On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954), for example, used actual locations in New York City to enhance their dramatic realism, and independent filmmakers such as Morris Engel (1918–2005) with Little Fugitive (1953) and Weddings and Babies (1958), and John Cassavetes, (1929–1989) with Shadows (1959) and Faces (1968), made feature films with portable 35 mm equipment.
The development of portable 16mm cameras and synch-sound equipment brought significant changes to documentary film practice. Filmmakers now gained the ability to shoot with relative ease on location. The new light weight and portability of cameras that before had been bulky and heavy meant that they no longer had to be the center of profilmic events, but could follow events as they happened. Filmmakers could enter a situation directly, without having to alter events because of technological limitations, as had been the case with, for example, Flaherty's camera in igloos. The tripod was abandoned, and the camera gained a new mobility carried on the shoulder of the operator as filmmakers began to work in a mode Stephen Mamber has called an "uncontrolled cinema." As further improvements were perfected, the tape recorder and the camera, which before had been connected by a limiting cable, were able to operate entirely independently. The crew required to make a documentary was reduced to only two people—one to operate the camera, the other to record sound. In the case of Ross McElwee (b. 1947), whose films such as Sherman's March (1986) and Bright Leaves (2003) are documentaries of his own life, the crew is just himself, shooting with a video camera and attached microphone. With these technological advances, documentary film-making acquired a freshness and immediacy, both visually and aurally; by contrast, the Griersonian tradition, which the new style supplanted, typically used omniscient voice-over narration displaying ideological biases. As a result, documentary experienced a revitalization internationally, particularly in North America and Europe.
An entire generation of documentarians embraced the new observational style and valorized the technology. Most advocated an unproblematic view of cinematic realism whereby the camera could apprehend the world directly, penetrating even surface reality to reveal deeper truths. An American Family , a twelve-part series by Craig Gilbert broadcast on public television in 1973, sought to capture the unadorned life of one particular family and thus reveal the ordinary realities of middle-class American existence. In these observational documentaries, the presence of the camera was not thought to affect the profilmic event to any significant degree, and if it did, filmmakers could search for "privileged moments" that would reveal the real person hiding behind the social facade. Perhaps the most extreme example of this approach was Portrait of Jason (Shirley Clarke, 1967), a film consisting entirely of a series of talking-head closeups of an unsuccessful actor who, fueled by alcohol, marijuana, and prodding questions from behind the camera, lets down his smug intellectual persona and wallows in self-pity.
In Great Britain in the 1950s, filmmakers such as Tony Richardson (1928–1991), Lindsay Anderson (1923–1994), and Karel Reisz (1926–2002) began making observational films of everyday life as part of the movement known as Free Cinema, often focusing on common aspects of popular culture. The Free Cinema movement consisted of six programs of films shown at the National Film Theater in London from 1956 to 1959, including Anderson's O Dreamland (1953), about the Margate amusement park, and Every Day Except Christmas (1957), about activity in Covent Garden, and Reisz and Richardson's Momma Don't Allow (1955), a portrait of a jazz club. In France, anthropologist-filmmaker Jean Rouch (1917–2004) made a series of films about people and life in western Africa, often including their own voices on the soundtrack, as in Les Maîtres fous ( The Mad Masters , 1955), which records devotees of a religious cult speaking in tongues, and Jaguar (1967). Turning his camera closer to home, Rouch filmed a cross-section of Parisians in Chronique d'un été ( Chronicle of a Summer , 1961), co-directed with the sociologist Edgar Morin. Rather than being observant flies on the wall, the filmmakers appeared onscreen, functioning as catalysts by asking their subjects provocative questions and freely interacting with them. The film was subtitled "une experience de cinéma vérité," and Rouch's assertive approach developed into the cinema verité style of observational documentary. And in Canada in the early 1960s, both English- and French-speaking Canadian filmmakers working for the National Film Board, founded by Grierson in 1939, concentrated on making films about ordinary people and events in order to "interpret Canada to Canadians and the rest of the world." The Board's initial focus was the production of wartime propaganda films, but in the early 1960s it was a pioneer of observational documentary, both in its more passive direct cinema form in English Canada, with the films of Terence Macartney-Filgate, Roman Kriotor, and Wolf Koenig, and, in Quebec, of cinéma vérité. Michel Brault, who had photographed Chronique d'un été , co-directed with Gilles Groulx Les Raquetteurs ( The Snowshoers , 1958), a film about an annual snowshoe race that was a breakthrough in the representation of Quebecois life on the screen.
In New York in the 1960s, a group of young film-makers organized by Robert Drew (b. 1924) began making films for Time, Inc., in an attempt to do a more truthful "pictorial journalism," as Louis de Rochemont had said of The March of Time . Known as the Drew Associates, the group included many of the pioneering figures of American observational cinema, including D. A. Pennebaker (b. 1925), Albert Maysles (b. 1926), and Richard Leacock, who had been the cameraman on Flaherty's last film, Louisiana Story , in 1949. The Drew Associates sought to be invisible observers of events transpiring before the camera—ideally, in Leacock's famous phrase, like a "fly on the wall." Primary (1960), about the Wisconsin presidential campaigns of John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, showed the candidates both in public appearances and behind the scenes; and although it shows Kennedy as the more adept media personality, it avoids explicit political comment. A famous shot in the film follows Kennedy as he emerges from a car and enters a hall where he is about to speak, moving through a tightly packed crowd to the stage—all despite changing conditions of light, sound, and depth of field. Impressed by Primary , ABC contracted with Time, Inc., so that the Drew group became in effect a network unit. The Drew filmmakers made a series of nineteen pioneering films for television, beginning with Primary and ending with Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment in 1963.
Their films tended to favor famous and exciting figures as their subjects: a race car driver in Eddie (Leacock and Pennebaker, 1960), film producer Joseph E. Levine in Showman (Albert and David Maysles, 1963), and pop stars in What's Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. (Maysles brothers, 1964). The documentaries of their contemporary Frederick Wiseman (b. 1930) focus on institutions rather than individuals, but his films were exceptions. Because celebrities, particularly pop-music stars, possess inherent commercial appeal, when these and other filmmakers sought to make feature-length documentaries they gravitated toward them as subjects; thus was created the "rockumentary" genre, with such films as Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh, 1970) and The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, 1978). Perhaps the most notorious of these is Gimme Shelter (1970), by Albert and David Maysles (1931–1987) and Charlotte Zwerin, which focuses on the Rolling Stones' American tour. At the last concert of the tour, in Altamont, California, a man in the audience was stabbed to death by the Hell's Angels—a sensational event caught on camera. Because rockumentaries often purport to show the person behind the persona, they remain popular with audiences, as the publicity surrounding Living with Michael Jackson: A Tonight Special (2003), which aired on network television, demonstrates.
The documentary aesthetic also informed the New American Cinema movement of the 1950s and 1960s, much of it representing the seemingly antithetical traditions of experimental or avant-garde film, as in the "diary" style of Stan Brakhage (1933–2003) and the structural films of Michael Snow (b. 1929). A film such as Brakhage's The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes (1971) is at once an experimental film, employing a
b. Boston, Massachusetts, 1 January 1930
A major figure in American documentary, Frederick Wiseman began making his extraordinary series of award-winning films during the direct cinema movement in the 1960s. Over the course of three decades he produced more than thirty feature-length documentaries and garnered numerous awards. Unlike the rich and famous individuals chronicled in the films of his contemporaries Richard Leacock, D. A. Pennebaker, and the Maysles brothers, Wiseman's films focus less on particular individuals than on institutions of various kinds, ranging from those concentrated within individual buildings ( High School , 1968) to those of international scope ( Sinai Field Mission , 1978), and from institutions established and maintained by government ( Juvenile Court , 1973) to those less tangible ones organized by principles of ideology and culture ( Model , 1980). A former lawyer, Wiseman captures American life more fully than any other documentary filmmaker, and, taken together, his documentaries are a magnum opus about life in contemporary America.
Wiseman began his career in film producing Shirley Clarke's The Cool World (1964), a fiction film about teenage gangs shot on location in Harlem. In 1967 he began his institutional series with Titicut Follies (1967), about life in a prison for the criminally insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. The film quickly became mired in lengthy litigation with state authorities, and the ensuing controversy established Wiseman's somewhat inaccurate reputation as an uncompromising muckraker. Although the earlier films do seem to be exposés, Wiseman's later films are less didactic and more complex aesthetically. Meat (1976), for example, is composed of many short shots, the duration of the cutting analogous to the repetitive slicing by the butchers; Model is a reflexive examination of modeling as the manufacturing of advertising images—a process not very different from some forms of filmmaking—and relies more on long takes.
During shooting, Wiseman operates the tape recorder rather than the camera. He determines where the camera goes through a series of hand signals worked out in advance with his camera operator or by leading him with the microphone. This method gives him greater freedom to see what is around him than if he were looking at profilmic events through the viewfinder of the camera.
Wiseman encourages a reading of each institution as a metaphor of American society at large. Thus, though at first glance Wiseman's films may seem to be fly-on-the-wall observation, they often rely on elements of cinematic style, particularly editing, to express his subjective vision of how institutions operate and what their significance is culturally. If Wiseman's documentaries are news, they are also editorials, subjective accounts about the institutions on which he is reporting. More dialectical than didactic, Wiseman's films refuse to condescend to the viewer by assuming a position of authorial superiority.
Titicut Follies (1967), High School (1968), Essene (1972), Primate (1974), Meat (1976), Model (1980), Near Death (1989), Public Housing (1997), Belfast, Maine (1999), Domestic Violence (2001)
Anderson, Carolyn, and Thomas W. Benson. Documentary Dilemmas: Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies . Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.
Atkins, Thomas R., ed. Frederick Wiseman . New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976.
Benson, Thomas W., and Carolyn Anderson. Reality Fictions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman . Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989.
Grant, Barry Keith. Voyages of Discovery: The Cinema of Frederick Wiseman . Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
——, ed. Five Films by Frederick Wiseman: Titicut Follies, High School, Welfare, High School II, Public Housing . Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
Barry Keith Grant
variety of expressive cinematic techniques, and a documentary, showing the different steps in the autopsy process. In many experimental films the otherwise diverse documentary and avant-garde impulses come together in the shared aim of allowing the viewer to look at something in a new or different way.