Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory (1895)
Nanook of the North (1922)
Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
Land Without Bread (1933)
Triumph of the Will (1935)
Listen to Britain (1942)
Night and Fog (1955)
Chronicle of a Summer (1961)
The Up Series (1964-present)
The War Game (1965)
Don’t Look Back (1967)
The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)
Gimme Shelter (1970)
Grey Gardens (1975)
F for Fake (1975)
Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)
This is Spinal Tap (1980)
Sans Soleil (1982)
The Thin Blue Line (1989)
Roger & Me (1989)
Hoop Dreams (1994)
Waiting for Guffman (1998)
The Gleaners and I (2000)
Grizzly Man (2005)
Man on wire (2007)
What comes to mind when you hear the word documentary? History Channel? Nature? Some British guy holding a microphone telling about science stuff? Let's face it, the one word most folks think of when it comes to documentary is "boring."
Docs have gotten a bad rap over the years, and yes a lot of them can be boring, especially if you're including the instructional video you have to watch at your first training meeting at McDonalds, or the video recording of that math class on channel 9. But there's also some pretty fantastic, engaging, mind-blowing stuff out there. If you really think that all documentaries are boring, then something is wrong. With you. Or you just haven't seen any of the good ones.
What is a documentary? The easy answer is a film concerned with facts and truth and actuality. It contains all sorts of stuff that you probably watch all the time--the news channel, the home movies of you blowing out the candle on your first birthday cake, your cousin's wedding video, The Food Network, America's Most Humiliating Home Videos, any sports broadcast, any of those "reality" shows, that commercial of Alan Thicke telling us about the great deal where you can get a free 3-night stay at that resort in Orlando. Non-fiction film is a huge part of our media consumption. A lot of it is forgettable, but there are some real gems out there. According to scholar Erik Barnouw, one "crucial aspect of the documentary film is its ability to open our eyes to worlds available to us but, for one reason or another, not perceived."
For example, check out this clip from Microcosmos. This film, by the director of March of the Penguins, is all about the daily life of insects. But rather than the typical nature documentary with some british guy telling us all about the lives and loves and deepest goals of each of the animals, this one has has only one paragraph of narration, which states "But to observe this world, we must fall silent now and listen to its murmurs." And then there's no more narration, just really cool footage of insects doing stuff.
Documentaries have a huge range of purposes. Some are informational or educational, the kind you'd watch in your science or history class, or on the Discovery Channel. Some are instructional and actually teach you how to do something, like "This Old House," or cooking shows, or an exercise video. Some promote awareness of social issues, like "Happy Valley," a documentary about meth addiction in Utah. Some are tributes to a person or institution, like what they show at the Oscars when Ingmar Bergman wins an honorary award, or a video to show at someone's 50th anniversary or funeral. Some try to convince us of a particular argument, like Super Size Me about how bad fast food is for you. Some try to promote change, like Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. Some are to preserve memories, like home movies or a concert video. And some are just entertaining and interesting, like Riding Giants about big wave surfing.
There are also three main styles of documentary making. The most common is the "omniscient documentary." This is when you have an unseen, yet all-knowing narrator (often with a low voice and a british accent) who tells us the way things are, and we are inclined to believe him (sometimes its a "her," but rarely). There are interviews with scholars or others in authority. These interviews are professionally done, with nice lighting and cameras on a tripod and everything in its ideal setting. The person asking the questions is edited out to sound like people are just talking on their own. There are often "reenactments" of historical events, with people dressed up in costumes.
Later came a movement known as "direct cinema" or "observational documentary." This style has no narrator and no interviews. It's just someone holding a camera filming things that happen as they happen. A good example would be a live concert video. Or that clip from Microcosmos. These filmmakers believed that it was most truthful to be as unobtrusive as possible and just catch things on tape as they happen.
Followers of the "Cinema Verite" movement thought the direct cinema stuff was a bunch of bunk. If you show up with a camera, people are going to act differently anyway. Plus, depending on your subject, sometimes the filmmaker needs to make things happen. Cinema Verite tends to be confrontational or at least interactive. The filmmaker is often part of the film. She's on camera talking to people.
Here are clips from some documentaries. You decide what their goal is, and what style of filmmaking they fit into. (They might be a combination!)
Nanook of the North
An Inconvenient Truth
A Short Film About Movies
Meeting People is Easy (a film about Radiohead)
Anvil, the Story of Anvil
Download: documentaries handout
To conclude our survey of documentaries, let’s focus on a few films made during or about World War II. First, we have Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl. She had made a few fiction films in Germany and impressed an up and coming political figure named Adolf Hitler, so he hired her to make a documentary about the Nazi party's convention in 1933. By this time, Hitler had been elected chancellor, and things were looking up for the German people. He was quite the public speaker and seemed to be leading them up out of poverty, building the labour force and boosting the economy. Little did they know.
Compare that to the British film Listen to Britain. Because he realised the British would scoff at overt propaganda, Humphrey Jennings tried to create a more subtle, poetic film with ambiguity, that would help rally the Allies to the cause.
Walt Disney also devoted a fair amount of resources to promote the war in America. He made an animated documentary called Victory by Air to convince the government to build up the air force.
Finally, we have one of the most difficult films ever made. Night and Fog, made by Alain Resnais in 1955 is composed of footage they found in germany shot by the Nazi soldiers inside the concentration camps, combined with color footage of the ruins of the camps shot by Resnais in '55. The narration was written by Jean Cayrol, who was imprisoned in a concentration camp. The footage of what went on inside the camps is horrifying and infuriating, but stands as a testimony and reminder of what can happen when a majority of a country's citizens can't be bothered to stand up for what's right. Even though by the 40's most germans didn't agree with what Hitler was doing, very few had the courage to say, "No, I won't be a part of this." Instead, as we see in the film, everyone gives the same answer: "I'm not responsible." "I'm not responsible." "I'm not responsible."