Documentaries, Motion Picture

Sarah R Stein & Shaun Cashman. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publications. 2009.

Documentary films (and more recently videos) occupy an integral role in journalistic history both here and abroad. The history of documentary films also reflects development of cinematic technology, as technological advances have had a significant impact on both the production and delivery of film.


Documentary filmmaking is primarily an act of reporting rather than invention: real people and real events are its subject matter, rather than the imaginary characters and stories of fiction. The word documentary is derived from the Latin docere, which means to teach. Documentary entered the English language even before film to describe a lesson, an admonition, or a warning. The first nonfiction films were given many titles, including actualités, topicals, interest films, educationals, travelogues, and documentaires. The earliest filmmakers, such as Auguste Lumière (1862-1954) and Louis Lumière (1864-1948) in the 1890s, sought to document scientific and cultural phenomena. However, it was primarily through the work of John Grierson (1898-1972) in Britain that documentary came to define a specific genre of nonfiction film.

Grierson was the driving force behind the emerging British documentary movement of the 1930s; he saw documentary film as an important means of informing citizenry of social issues that demanded social change. Grierson defined documentary as the “creative treatment of actuality” (Rotha 1968, 70), emphasizing that interpretation of events shapes the story told in a documentary and distinguishes it from newsreels and other nonfiction productions, such as those created by the experimental avant-garde. As a filmmaker and a theorist, Grierson had a profound influence on generations of filmmakers around the world. “Classic documentary” refers to Griersonian style, in which the film tells the viewer about social, political, and economic conditions that need improvement, utilizing the (usually) disembodied perspective of a commentator, referred to in filmmaking as “voice of God” narration.

Documentary filmmakers have always used a variety of styles and modes of technique and address within a single film. Film scholar Bill Nichols (1991) offers four modes or organizational structures of documentary—expository, observational, interactive, and reflexive—to help viewers appreciate the variations of form and content that abound, keeping in mind that these categorizations are understood to be flexible rather than rigid.

Expository documentary style addresses the viewer directly, emphasizes objectivity and logical narration. Observational documentary, or direct cinema, attempts to make the camera invisible and treats the filmmakers and viewers like the proverbial “fly on the wall.” Generally, little or no commentary is provided, and the film’s story is told by actions of and interviews with the subjects of the film, leaving to the viewer the responsibility of determining the meaning of the events observed.

Interactive or participatory documentary stresses verbal exchanges both as monologues and dialogues between the subjects and the filmmaker, who may appear visually and is a prominent player in the film. In the reflexive documentary, the filmmaker engages in meta-commentary and addresses the question about how we represent the historic world and how we talk about knowledge of it. These films, then, render the practice of filmmaking and the filmmaker visible in an attempt to lead viewers to question notions of objectivity and authenticity in representational practices.

Documentary Techniques and Theoretical Debates

Documentaries vary widely. Some use narration, some do not. Some are designed for education, some are expressions of beauty and art, while others are used to evoke social action. Some use more artistic license than others. Some documentaries use reenactments and studio-created environments, yet staying true to basic tenets of the documentary genre by using such techniques to evoke the presence of historical subjects.

Formal conventions such as camera angles and movements, editing styles, sound and music, and voiceovers or dialogue, are shared by documentary and dramatic films. Both styles borrow from each other: documentaries use music scoring or artistically rendered titles resonant with fiction films. Styles most commonly identified with documentary-style footage, such as the shaky camera visuals that often result from handheld camera work, can be used to evoke the feeling of reality in a fictional narrative. As is evident in an historical look at a hundred years of documentary films, improvement of cameras, tripods, sound recording and editing equipment have had far greater impact on documentary presentation than any particular set of stylistic conventions.

Questions about representation itself have occupied filmmakers and critics since the advent of documentaries. The power of the documentary filmmaker to present the filmed world as “reality” has been subject to struggles over who can legitimately claim to speak for peoples and environments not given the means to represent themselves. Particularly since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, with the emergence of race, gender, and class-related struggles for equality as well as those who strive to give voice to the developing world’s people, filmmakers and critics have sought to understand the interactions of the film, the film’s producer, its subjects, and viewers in creating a sense of reality. Nichols’s framing of questions to guide theoretical considerations of documentary representation are helpful:

Images are always of concrete, material things recorded at specific moments in time, but these images can be made to point toward more general truths or issues. To what extent can the particular serve as illustration for the general? Not only what general principle but whose general principle does the particular illustrate? To what extent are generalizations misunderstandings of the nature of the particular, the concrete, the everyday and what does this mean for historically located individuals? The body is a particularly acute reminder of specificity and the body of the filmmaker even more so. Where do filmmakers stand and how do they represent their stance? To what extent should they question their right to represent their own knowledge as situated [specific to their gender, race, class, and ethnicity] or omniscient? What are the consequences of those choices? (Nichols 1993, 176)

A chronological presentation of documentary history can suggest that documentary filmmaking has progressively evolved in a sequential fashion. This is misleading as modes of documentary filmmaking have been evident since film came into being. The sections below place documentary films in contemporary periods to suggest some of the notable films representative of diverse objectives and techniques.

Early Years (1895-1928)

Introduced in 1895, the first portable camera weighed only 11 pounds. The Louis Lumière camera was used to film short scenes of everyday life such as a train arriving at a station. While Lumière preferred to leave dramatic production for the stage, drama soon became the main staple of the film industry. The first film that moved beyond simple travelogues or narrative plots was produced by Robert Flaherty (1884-1951) over a period of nine years. Filming with a 35mm Akeley camera that was reasonably lightweight, Flaherty’s groundbreaking film Nanook of the North (1922) followed an Eskimo hunter of the Itivimuit tribe in the frozen wastes of Hudson Bay. The film chronicled Nanook and his family as they struggled to survive in a dangerous and merciless environment. Flaherty was interested in sharing with viewers the experiences of lives lived in different cultures, and chose poetic scenes such as a walrus hunt and the building of an igloo rather than polemical scenes of the indigenous people’s means of production and commerce. The film combined dramatic tension (man against nature) with people just being themselves in what some consider to be the first documentary. Yet, five major studios turned down distribution of the film, insisting that such reality projects were doomed to failure. A small French arts company, Pathé, eventually distributed Nanook and the film quickly became a box-office success. The next major influence on documentary was the work of Soviet artist Dziga Vertov (1895-1954). An experienced newsreel filmmaker, Vertov expressed the conviction that dramatic fictional films were oppressive tools like religion and theater, used to keep the proletariat preoccupied and sedated. He began a project called Film Truth (Kino-Pravda), and created a series of films that blended newsreel style with dramatic production. Perhaps the most influential and widely recognized of these films was The Man with the Movie Camera (1929). The film presents a kaleidoscope of daily life in the Soviet Union with people sleeping, waking, going to work, and playing, using a range of cinematic techniques such as freeze frames, slow motion, animation, jump cuts, and split screens. Among the fast montage of images appears the camera man repeatedly reminding the viewer that they are watching film through the cameraman’s eye, a device that encourages reflection on filmmaking itself and representative of Nichols category of reflective documentary mode. Vertov wrote out a long manifesto detailing his aims with Film Truth. While primarily artistic, Vertov’s work was to have lasting influence, particularly on the later French movement of cinema verité.

The Documentary Takes Shape (1929-1939)

The 1930s brought the use of sound, but documentaries continued to avoid synchronous sound recording in the filming process because of the cumbersome nature of the equipment. Sound effects and music were added to silent footage during final editing, without the filmed subjects speaking for themselves.

Inspired by the work of Flaherty and Vertov, British filmmaker John Grierson proposed a project to the British Empire Marketing Board (EMB) for a film about the herring fishing industry. Rather than a publicity film, which is what the producers wanted, Grierson directed Drifters (1929), which offered a narrative of a sea journey. Drifters, a 50-minute silent film, followed a group of herring fisherman on the North Sea as they caught a load of fish through a ferocious storm and then raced back to quayside to auction it. There were no lead roles such as appeared in Nanook, nor did it glamorize the industry. Initially, the producers requested certain scenes be removed because they created tension. Grierson obliged but secretly added the scenes back before it was released to the theaters. The film was well received, but rather than following up his success with more of his own productions Grierson became an organizer for the EMB. By 1939, Grierson and his British team produced over three hundred documentaries. He introduced the use of institutional sponsorship, whether public or private, as an alternative to depending on ticket sales. He also moved distribution and exhibition from theaters to schools, factories, union halls, church basements, and elsewhere, shaping the documentary movement and creating a system of filmmaking that became a model for other English-speaking countries.

The documentary was profoundly shaped in the 1930s not only by Grierson but also by government funding, which in some hands turned such films into a major medium of propaganda. Hitler used documentary to bolster support for his new government and to inspire a strong sense of nationalism in the German people. Most German propaganda films were made by Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003), one of the first major female film directors. Her film Triumph of the Will (1935) is perhaps her best known; it presents a Nazi rally in Nuremburg and features no commentary except for the speeches of Hitler and other party leaders. Amid cheering crowds, a marching parade, and Hitler’s passionate speeches, the film rallied many to Hitler’s cause and gave him almost deity status. Many critics felt that Riefenstahl’s production of this and other films was unforgivable and she found herself shunned by studios after the war.

In the United States, documentaries were also used to address social problems, particularly during President Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s. One of the more influential was The River (1937) directed by Pare Lorentz (1905-92). Funded by the Farm Security Administration, The River portrayed the soil erosion problem arising from drought and the need for government control over electric production along the ravaged Mississippi river. The film advocated keeping people on their land and treating the Tennessee Valley Authority as a way to make economically depressed communities viable. As filming finished, it became clear that the river was about to flood. Lorentz quickly reassembled his team to film the one-thousand mile catastrophe on the river. Picked up by Paramount Studios and released to wide success, The River is often credited for providing increased support for federal policies. Lorentz was able to persuade the Roosevelt administration (1933-45) to form the United States Film Service in 1938.

Wartime Documentary (1939-1945)

During World War II, hundreds of documentaries were made in the United States, Great Britain, and Germany to serve propagandistic purposes, designed to train soldiers and civilians, inspire national pride, and bolster support for the war. In the United States, documentary films were used to motivate draftees and overcome antiwar sentiments. Successful film director Frank Capra (1897-1991) was asked by the Pentagon to make films to inspire draftees and explain why they were fighting. Seven Why We Fight films were produced, including The Nazi Strike (1943) and Your Job in Germany (1945). They were required viewing for new recruits, and some were released to civilian and overseas audiences. The series was a compilation of emotional history lessons, with a few staged sequences, animated maps, and the robust narration of the kind then popular in movie previews. The Battle of Britain (1943) was widely shown in Britain, and The Battle of Russia (1943) became required viewing in Russia. Studies of these films suggested they had a positive effect on public opinion, helping to end the isolationist mentality common among Americans before the war.

Failures and Triumphs (1945-1960)

The years following the war saw a sharp decline in documentary films. Documentary filmmakers found government contracts drying up and there was little interest among the major studios for nonfiction films. The introduction of television significantly revitalized the documentary tradition. Federal law mandated that “broadcasting serve “the public interest, convenience or necessity.” Many of the documentaries produced during the war years were among early programs on television. See It Now was among the earliest regularly scheduled documentary series made for television. Produced for CBS by Fred Friendly (1915-98) and Edward R. Murrow (1908-65), See It Now offered a weekly 30-minute program combining the formal construction of a documentary with the news magazine. Covering everything from McCarthyism to segregation in schools, See It Now lasted until it was replaced in 1959 by the longer but irregularly scheduled CBS Reports. Also starring Murrow, one of its most influential pieces was Harvest of Shame, released around Thanksgiving in 1960. The film followed the plight of migrant farm workers in a small Florida city showing the poverty and detestable treatment of these mainly African American workers by white farmers. A plea to reduce poverty, Harvest of Shame created a furor of protests from the agricultural industry and was Murrow’s last program in the series before he joined the Kennedy administration. Florida politicians pressured Murrow and the network to withhold global distribution of the program, arguing that it gave a negative view of America which could be used by the Soviet propaganda machine. Thirty years after the program originally aired, the television series Frontline featured a follow-up show that went back to the original Florida town featured in Harvest of Shame. They found that very little had changed except that the African American migrant workers had gradually been replaced by Haitians.

Documentary film also claimed an important position among art films. An acclaimed example is Night and Fog (1955) by Alain Resnais (1922-). The film contrasts old black-and-white footage and photos of Nazi concentration camps with color pictures of the sites ten years after they had been liberated. A first-person narrator provides a poetic reflection of the thoughts and horrors of the war to evoke powerful emotions. The film was designed to be socially stirring, aesthetically powerful, and intellectually reflective. In essence, it foreshadowed a new movement of documentary that would appear in France.

Cinema Verité and Direct Cinema (1961-1979)

Documentary filmmakers began using smaller, less expensive, and more portable 16mm cameras in the 1950s, displacing the heavier and bulkier 35mm cameras used in dramatic films. The ability to easily record synchronous sound in documentary production, however, remained elusive because the camera had to be connected to the sound recorder to maintain synchronous sound. As a consequence, filming situations that required mobility and unobtrusiveness continued to be made as silent films, with sound added in final editing. The breakthrough came in the 1960s, much of it thanks to the efforts of Robert Drew and Richard Leacock in New York City. They helped develop wireless microphones with miniature transmitters and worked with crystal-controlled camera motors that enabled synchronous sound recording without the unwieldy equipment that had impeded earlier sound documentary filming.

The streamlined technology made possible filming of real people and events in locations and situations that had earlier been difficult or impossible for low-budget documentary films. The new cameras and sound recorders required fewer people, and enabled filming to be done without studio lighting and sound recording. Drew and Leacock used the new technology to make Primary (1960), a film that followed then Senators John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey as they campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination. They had promised not to interfere with the action, but rather to observe it. The film was released without narrative titles and with minimal voiceover narration, and set in motion the observational, direct cinema movement to follow.

Filmmakers such as D. A. Pennebaker (1965-), Albert Maysles (1926-) and David Maysles (1931-), and Fred Wiseman (1930-) became synonymous with this observational, “fly-on-the-wall” documentary style. Pennebaker made the profile of Bob Dylan in 1966 (Don’t Look Back). The Maysles brothers produced Salesman (1968), a searing and intimate portrait of a house-to-house Bible salesman in decline, and later films such as Gimme Shelter (1970), on tour with the Rolling Stones and the ill-fated concert at Altamont in which a con-certgoer was killed.

Public television enabled Fred Wiseman to produce some of the most intensely involving of the direct cinema productions of this period. His choice of subjects reflected his interest in institutional power reflected in the lives of people at the community level. His first film Titicut Follies was made in 1967 (though banned until 1991 from distribution in Massachusetts where it had been filmed). It depicted an asylum for the criminally insane, following the patients and doctors and staff in their daily routines, and culminating in the Follies, an entertainment produced for the staff using patients and staff as actors. Wiseman’s style was to shoot very long takes, often one shot over an entire 400-foot roll of 16mm film (about 11 minutes), and to use no narrative commentary. The subjects told their own story. Other films followed in the same style, including High School (1968), Law and Order (1969), Basic Training (1971), and Welfare (1975). His documentary style puts the viewer in the middle of the action and, in doing so, subverts the easy attribution of stereotypes and of glibly assigned blame to one “side” or another. At the same time, Wiseman expressed ambivalence about the effect of his shooting style, calling documentaries “reality fictions” in recognition of the influence of the camera on filmed subjects, no matter how invisible the camera and filmmaker may seem to be.

Filmmakers in France also began to diverge from the Griersonian, expository mode of documentary filmmaking, but in contrast to the direct cinema practitioners whose goal was to render the filmmaker invisible, the French filmmakers wanted a more participatory role. A key film that marked this movement was Chronique dun Eté (Chronicle of a Summer, 1961) by Jean Rouche (1917-2004) and Edgar Morin (1921-). The filmmakers began by asking people on the streets of Paris whether they were happy. The goal of this experiment was to invite participation and encourage reactions from the audience. The filmmakers denied the objectivity of the camera in favor of a subjective involvement by the filmmakers, a mode of filmmaking more in line with the interactive mode named by film scholar Nichols. In homage to Vertov, Rouche called his new film style cinema verité, or cinema truth. The goal of the experiments was to evoke emotions and involvement of viewers and those involved in the filmmaking process.

The Vietnam War was an important subject for many 1970s documentary filmmakers, especially within the U.S. antiwar movement. Peter Davis’s The Selling of the Pentagon (1971) investigated the Department of Defense’s role in promoting the war, while the Academy Award-winning Hearts and Minds (1974), used news footage of military operations, Pentagon spokespeople, and White House administrators, and contrasted their words about the war’s goals and progress with stark footage of infantry and Vietnamese citizens suffering from the war’s ravages. Both documentaries were part of the effort to provide images and awareness to the American public beyond what broadcast television channels were providing. Scores of other films were produced about the Vietnam War, most protesting its continuation.

Battle of Algiers (1966) was released during this time and is regarded widely as one of the great documentary films, though it is a scripted re-creation of real world events. Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo (1919-2006), the film portrays the struggle of the Algerian people for independence from France, a multiyear uprising that succeeded in ousting the French in 1962. The film adopts the neorealistic style of post-World War II Italian filmmakers by casting nonactors in almost all the roles. The people who had lived through the ordeal of colonial occupation and risked their lives for independence from 1954 to 1962 played parts, including Yacef Saadi, a former leader of the revolutionary FLN, who played himself in the film. Pontecorvo shot it documentary-style, using a handheld camera that entered powerfully into the cause of the revolutionaries. Battle of Algiers continues to be cited among generations of filmmakers as a source of inspiration for both its technique and its commitment to the liberation of oppressed peoples.

Documentary Today (from the 1980s)

Deregulation of television ownership and content in the 1980s, as well as growing cable competition, led commercial networks to diminish and then drop their use of documentaries. Funding for in-depth news documentaries declined as even public broadcasting became subject to more political and ideological scrutiny and grew more cautious in its funding and programming as a result.

At the same time, technological advancements enabled greater independence in documentary filmmaking. Videotape, first introduced in the late 1950s, was evolving, and in-camera microphones for camcorders known as “portapaks” shooting half-inch videotape were invented in the 1980s. The costs of shooting and producing a video dropped significantly, as did the entry-level training required of film or videomakers. Groups such as Jon Alpert and Keiko Tsuno’s Downtown Community Television Center (DCTV), originated in 1972, trained thousands of individuals and sent them out into the streets and neighborhoods as “guerrilla” filmmakers, seeking out social injustices and bringing them to public attention. The potential of video camcorders for alternative broadcasting and grassroots channels of mediated communication pointed toward greatly increasing the number and diversity of voices. As an example, Latin American videos appeared in schools, community centers, and churches, alerting developed countries to the poverty and other human and environmental miseries in developing countries that were rarely depicted on commercial networks.

One of the filmmakers who came to represent “guerrilla” filmmaking for a wide audience is Michael Moore (1954-). Moore released his first major film, Roger & Me, in theaters in 1989. A compilation of 16mm film, video, and archival footage, Roger & Me exemplifies the mode of documentary known as interactive, much like the French cinema verité of the 1960s. The film features Moore on-camera, doggedly pursuing Roger Smith, the CEO of General Motors, in order to ask him about the harm done by relocating automobile plants to foreign countries for cheaper labor. Moore interviews the people of his hometown of Flint, Michigan, tracing the gradual decay of the town after GM closed down their plant, thus taking away a major source of income for the town.

Other films by Moore include Bowling for Columbine (2002) that looks at America’s gun problems and the Academy Award-winning Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), which questions the Bush administration’s reactions to the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. Fahrenheit 9/11 broke all previous box office returns for the theatrical release of a documentary.

Although in-depth documentaries have lost much of their commercial television network support since the deregulation of the 1980s, the years since have witnessed a resurgence of interest in the form outside of commercial television. Public television garnered huge audiences in the 1990s for The Civil War a series directed by Ken Burns (1953-). Who Killed the Electric Car? (Chris Paine, 2006) on the suppression of an alternative fuel-driven automobile, and An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006) featuring former Vice President Al Gore’s global campaign to awaken the public to the dangers of climate change, are twenty-first-century examples of the expository documentary mode and its contribution to investigative journalism. March of the Penguins (2005) by Luc Jacquet (1967-) about the emperor penguins of Antarctica, and their arduous efforts to reproduce and survive, is second only to Fahrenheit 9/11 for box office returns and has spawned several feature-length animations.

Ross McElwee’s films fall into the reflective mode of documentary that simultaneously comments on the filmmaking itself. His ironically autobiographical Sherman’s March (1986) begins with his plan to follow General Sherman’s Civil War route, but gets diverted along the way by his own past and current love interests. Subsequent films, Time Indefinite (1993) through Bright Leaves (2003), continue to intermix his deeply personal story with external encounters. In a more political vein, Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) and Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied (1990) use the reflective documentary mode to reveal the subjectivity of the point of view of the filmmaker and the need to question whose reality is being portrayed.

Another genre that offers documentary reflexivity is that of animation based on real world people and events. The filmmaker Chris Landreth, whose Ryan (2004) won an Academy Award, filmed in video extended interviews with Ryan Larkin, an early and highly acclaimed animator. Larkin had stopped making art as a result of his alcoholism and drug use and was living on the streets in Canada. The documentary footage is taken by Landreth and animated using Maya animation software to portray what Landreth calls the “psycho-realism” of the subjects, a departure from the attempt of many animators to achieve photorealism. Animation of this kind explores another avenue of documentary filmmaking, seeking to express what is often inexpressible (A Is for Autism, 1992) or taboo (Daddy’s Little Bit of Dresden China, 1988, by Karen Watson on child abuse).

The Documentary Future

Digital cameras continue to improve, getting closer to the quality of film cameras and with a dramatic decrease in cost. Many cell phones come equipped with a small digital camera, and webcams allow quick recording directly into a computer. While digital cameras are only beginning to be used by major film studios, the fact that most video editing is done through computers as well as the cheap costs of digital cameras makes digital production appealing to many amateur and professional documentary filmmakers. Such devices allow for inexpensive and easily accessible filming and editing of documentary films, and the Internet offers a cheap means of distribution. YouTube and social networking spaces have become immensely popular venues for filmmakers, and may play a significant role in challenging the control media institutions have asserted over production in the past.

Documentary film has proven to be an enduring and dynamic form, one that continues to occupy an important position in media communications. The form itself has multiple modes, with a flexibility that encourages ongoing adaptation and reshaping to fit the particular objectives of the filmmaker. As a journalistic medium, documentaries blend passion, commitment, and a striving to capture reality.