Documentary Films, strictly speaking, are non-fictional, “slice of life” factual works of art – and sometimes known as cinema verite. For many years, as films became more narrative-based, documentaries branched out and took many forms since their early beginnings – some of which have been termed propagandistic or non-objective.
Documentary films have comprised a very broad and diverse category of films. Examples of documentary forms include the following:
- ‘biographical’ films about a living or dead person (Madonna, John Lennon, Muhammad Ali – When We Were Kings (1996), Robert Crumb, Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time (1992), or Glenn Gould)
- a well-known event (Waco, Texas incident, the Holocaust, the Shackleton expedition to the Antarctic)
- a concert or rock festival (Woodstock or Altamont rock concerts (Woodstock (1970) and Gimme Shelter (1970)), The Song Remains the Same (1976), Stop Making Sense (1984), Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991))
- a comedy show (Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy shows)
- a live performance (Cuban musicians as in Buena Vista Social Club (1998), or the stage show Cirque du Soleil-Journey of Man (2000))
- a sociological or ethnographic examination following the lives of individuals over a period of time (e.g., Michael Apted’s series of films: 28 Up (1984), 35 Up (1992) and 42 Up (1999), or Steve James’ Hoop Dreams (1994))
- an expose including interviews (e.g., Michael Moore’s social concerns films)
- a sports documentary (extreme sports, such as Extreme (1999) or To the Limit (1989), or surfing, such as in The Endless Summer (1966))
- a compilation film of collected footage from government sources
- a ‘making of’ film (such as the one regarding the filming of Apocalypse Now (1979), or Fitzcarraldo (1982))
- an examination of a specific subject area (e.g., nature- or science-related themes, or historical surveys, such as The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, or World War II, etc.)
- spoof documentaries, termed ‘mockumentaries’ (such as This is Spinal Tap (1984), Zelig (1983), and Best in Show (2000))
The Earliest Documentaries:
Originally, the earliest documentaries in the US and France were either short newsreels, instructional pictures, records of current events, or travelogues (termed actualities) without any creative story-telling, narrative, or staging. The first attempts at film-making, by the Lumiere Brothers and others, were literal documentaries, e.g., a train entering a station, factory workers leaving a plant, etc.
The first documentary re-creation, Sigmund Lubin’s one-reel The Unwritten Law (1907) (subtitled “A Thrilling Drama Based on the Thaw-White Tragedy”) dramatized the true-life murder — on June 25, 1906 — of prominent architect Stanford White by mentally unstable and jealous millionaire husband Harry Kendall Thaw over the affections of showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (who appeared as herself). [Alluring chorine Nesbit would become a brief sensation, and the basis for Richard Fleischer’s biopic film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955), portrayed by Joan Collins, and E.L. Doctorow’s musical and film Ragtime (1981), portrayed by an Oscar-nominated Elizabeth McGovern.]
The first official documentary or non-fiction narrative film was Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), an ethnographic look at the harsh life of Canadian Inuit Eskimos living in the Arctic, although some of the film’s scenes of obsolete customs were staged. Flaherty, often regarded as the “Father of the Documentary Film,” also made the landmark film Moana (1926) about Samoan Pacific islanders, although it was less successful. [The term ‘documentary’ was first used in a review of Flaherty’s 1926 film.] His first sound documentary feature film was Man of Aran (1934), regarding the rugged Aran islanders/fishermen located west of Ireland’s Galway Bay. Flaherty’s fourth (and last) major feature documentary was his most controversial, Louisiana Story (1948), filmed on location in Louisiana’s wild bayou country.
Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, better known for King Kong (1933), directed the landmark documentary Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925), the first documentary epic, which traced the travels of the Bakhtyari tribe in Persia during their migrational wanderings to find fresh grazing lands. The filmmakers’ next film was the part-adventure, travel documentary filmed on location in the Siamese (Thailand) jungle, Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927), about a native tribal family.
Other European documentary film-makers made a series of so-called non-fictional city symphonies. Alberto Cavalcanti and Walter Ruttman directed Berlin – Symphony of a Big City (1927, Ger.) about the German city in the late 1920s. Similarly, the Soviet Union’s (and Dziga Vertov’s) avante-garde, experimental documentary The Man with a Movie Camera (1929) presented typical daily life within several Soviet cities (Moscow, Kiev, Odessa) through an exhilarating montage technique. And French director Jean Vigo made On the Subject of Nice (1930). Sergei Eisenstein’s October (Oktyabr)/10 Days That Shook the World (1928, USSR) re-enacted in documentary-style, the days surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution, to commemorate the event’s 10th anniversary.
Pare Lorentz’ The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) documented the deprivations and suffering of the Depression-Era Dust Bowl farmers. The film was subsidized by one of President Roosevelt’s New Deal organizations. Lorentz’ follow-up film was The River (1937), arguing that the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) aided ecological efforts in the area. Years later, Philippe Mora’s Brother Can You Spare a Dime? (1975) compiled newsreel footage, film clips and music from the 1930s to capture the cultural and historical forces that existed during the decade. Michael Uys’ and Lexy Lovell’s Riding the Rails (1997) presented stories of train-hopping by Depression-era hobos, accompanied by Woody Guthrie’s folk songs.
Documentaries of The War Years:
Documentaries during the Great War and during WWII were often propagandistic. Innovative German film-maker Leni Riefenstahl’s pioneering masterwork epic Triumph of the Will (1934) was explicitly propagandistic yet historical in its spectacular yet horrifying documentation of the Nazi Party Congress rally in Nuremberg in 1934. It was a revolutionary film combining superb cinematography and editing of Third Reich propaganda. She also documented the 1936 Berlin Olympics in the stunning film Olympia (1938) – with graceful and beautiful images of ‘Aryan’ athletes in competition. To respond to the Nazi propaganda, Frank Capra was commissioned by the US War Department to direct seven films in a Why We Fight (1943) series of narrated WWII newsreel-style films. The first in the series, “Prelude to War,” a look at the events from 1931-1939, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1942. David Lean’s and Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve (1942, UK) was not a pure documentary film, although it boosted the wartime morale of the beleaguered Britishers.
The Oscar-winning wartime documentary The Memphis Belle (1944), directed by famed William Wyler (then a Lieutenant Colonel) and released by the War Department, presented real-life footage of dozens of Allied bombing missions by the Flying Fortress’ B-17 bomber during the war. A Hollywood-style, sentimental version of this documentary, Memphis Belle (1990), starred Matthew Modine and Eric Stoltz.
Director Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (aka Nuit et Brouillard) (1955, Fr.) harshly judged the Nazis for inflicting the horrors of the Holocaust on the world. Marcel Ophuls’ four-hour epic The Sorrow and the Pity (1971) (aka Le Chagrin et La Pitie), mentioned in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), used an interview technique and archival footage to tell the story of the Nazi occupation of France and subsequent French collaboration. Claude Lanzmann’s unforgettable, eloquent 570-minute epic Shoah (1985) (Hebrew for ‘annihilation’) documented the personal experiences of several death-camp survivors of the Holocaust through interviews.
Rock Concert/Music-Related Documentaries:
Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock – 3 Days of Peace & Music (1970) provided a definitive look at the three-day counter-cultural rock concert held in upper-state NY in 1969 – it was the Academy Award winning documentary film of its year. Other lesser known rock-and-roll and other music-related documentaries included:
- D. A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1967) – a behind-the-scenes, riveting look at Bob Dylan’s British concert tour in the mid-1960s, and Monterey Pop (1968) – a record of the international pop festival held in June 1967
- the disillusioning, nightmarish and fateful Gimme Shelter (1970) – filmed by Albert Maysles and David Maysles in 1969 during the Rolling Stones’ US tour at San Francisco’s Altamont Speedway, most notorious for having the Hell’s Angels as security and crowd controllers – and concluding with the stabbing death of black concertgoer Meredith Hunter caught on film as the Stones played Under My Thumb
- Let It Be (1970), the last film starring the Fab Four; this effort chronicled the Beatles recording their last-produced Apple studios album – a comeback attempt that actually led to their breakup
- The Song Remains the Same (1976) regarding Led Zeppelin’s Madison Square Garden concert stand in 1973
- Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (1978), an historical documentary about The Band led by lead singer and songwriter Robbie Robertson
- Say Amen, Somebody (1980), about gospel music in a black church and the life of gospel great Thomas A. Dorsey
- Murray Lerner’s 1980 Oscar-winning From Mao to Mozart – Isaac Stern in China (1979) and Message to Love – The Isle of Wight Festival (1997)
- Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) documented the nihilistic, late 70s punk-rock scene of Los Angeles with black humor
- Stop Making Sense (1984), director Jonathan Demme’s first feature-length film, a concert film featuring The Talking Heads and their frontman David Byrne
- Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991)
- Canadian director Ron Mann’s Twist (1993) – about the dance craze known as ‘the twist’ in the mid-60s, popularized by stars Chubby Checker and Joey Dee
- Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club (1998) followed guitarist Ry Cooder to Cuba to present the music of various legendary, long-forgotten soneros musicians