Teaching Documentary Film History - National Film and Sound Archive

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it is not surprising that film and media students often think of documentary film ... where to begin? this overview of documentary film history provides a list of the ...

teaching media

with Boris Trbic

In the Archive of Cinematic Memories: Teaching Documentary Film History


t is not surprising that film and media students often think of documentary film as a platform for expressing political opinions, dissent or frustrations with important, contemporary social issues. In recent years our media and English curricula have been inundated with American documentaries focusing on the political profiles and governing strategies of neo-conservatives, the Western geopolitical mores in the Middle East, the emergence of political and extremist Islam, corporate crimes and media misdemeanours in an era of unprecedented economic progress. In the last eighteen months, however, there appears to have been a marked decline in the amount of feature documentaries in cinemas. It seems that those suffocated by the steady diet of political documentaries include filmmakers, audiences and distributors. English, media and film educators who regularly used documentary films in their classes may find this situation challenging. However, students can be given relevant insights into the history of the documentary form – an aspect of curriculum that was marginalized in previous years, giving way to the coverage of current political issues.

Where to begin? Teachers who were bombarded by articles, study guides, conference papers and other support material regarding gun control, the war in Iraq or corporate kleptocracy may be willing to change the texts and the format of their classes, but they could also be unsure about the relevance of old documentary texts or their capacity to engage present-day students. So, where to begin? This overview of documentary film history provides a list of the essential films and filmmakers and notes that might help educators in choosing the most relevant and appropriate film texts for their classroom practice. There was a lot of interest in film factuality at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century that coincided with the establishment of film as a medium. Auguste and Louis Lumière’s shorts produced in 1895/1896 may assist students in understanding how the early films engaged the first

The term ‘documentaire’ was used by the French to describe travel films, also popular in the early decades of the twentieth century. However, the term was first used to convey its present meaning by John Grierson in February 1926, in his review of Robert J. Flaherty’s film Moana (1926) in the New York Sun. Grierson defined documentary film as ‘the creative treatment of actuality’.1 Flaherty’s remarkable film about Inuit life Nanook of the North (1922) is often described as the birth of creative, engaging documentary film. It is a fascinating account of exotic lands, people living in a harsh, unforgiving climate and a dramatic evocation of the reality of life under those conditions. Poetic and inspiring, Nanook of the North still carries the aura of a pioneering attempt at the documentary form. Short excerpts from this film and Flaherty’s Moana could help initiate class discussion and reveal a lot about our perceptions of ‘reality’ in a documentary film. As Bill Nichols tells us, Flaherty’s great story about the struggle for survival in the Arctic represents Inuit culture in the way that the Inuit were not yet prepared to do for themselves. In addition to that, Nichols suggests that Flaherty’s sponsor, Revillon Frères, had a commercial interest

This overview of documentary film history provides a list of the essential films and filmmakers and notes that might help educators in choosing the most relevant and appropriate film texts for their classroom practice.




audiences, and inspire them to look at the events, settings, social actors and circumstances of interest to early filmmakers. Films about amputations and various medical conditions were at first very descriptive, primitively structured and lacking a point of view, but were very popular among early cinemagoers.

Left: the fog of war right: grizzly man


teaching media

with Boris Trbic Though documentaries had been used in communist Russia from the early 1920s to promote the rule of the working class, it was the work of Leni Riefenstahl in Germany that most memorably and effectively used documentary filming as a form of propaganda.

Left: night and fog right: march of the penguins

in representing fur hunting as an activity that benefits the Inuit as well as consumers. Flaherty’s stress on the traditional skills of a hunter, no longer relied on by most Eskimos in the 1920s, and on the nuclear family created for the sake of the film also suggest that the filmmaker wished to portray a particular lifestyle and characters in his film.2 In the Soviet Union, experimental filmmaker Dziga Vertov’s Kino-Eye (1924) and Man With a Movie Camera (1929) introduced avant-garde formalism that saw film as an education tool. Preoccupied by the aesthetic of visual image, Vertov used montage to convey the idea of Soviet progress. Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (1926) was an original study of Paris and its people and was followed by a series of city symphonies documentary films. Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Big City (1927) used rhythmic montage to examine life in the urban, industrial metropolis. Ruttmann’s film is widely available and provides a very good link with Impressionist documentary style and, when screened with or without musical accompaniment, the aesthetics of silent film and the importance of sound. Jean Vigo’s personal style in A propos de Nice (1930) and Joris Ivens’ The Bridge (1928) and Rain (1929), exercising rhythmical patterns in movement, opened new avenues for creative expression in the documentary realm.

Screening social consciousness

Hitler’s coming to power signified the birth of documentary as a propaganda tool. Though documentaries had been used in communist Russia from the early 1920s to promote the rule of the working class, it was the work of Leni Riefenstahl in Germany (Triumph of the Will [1935], about the Nuremberg Rally, and Olympia [1938], about the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin) that most memorably and effectively used documentary filming as a form of propaganda. Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels first used propaganda in radio news and commentary, but filmmaking emerged as a revolutionary tool for conveying political ideas to the masses. Riefenstahl’s biography and films are highly controversial. Her documentaries are often used to illustrate Hitler’s popularity in 1930s Germany and are frequently accompanied by films commemorating the victims of the Holocaust. The problem with screening Riefenstahl’s documentary masterpieces on their own is that some students may not be aware of the wider historical context and the implications of the rise of Nazism in the 1930s.3 Nevertheless, screening them as a ‘double bill’ with Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog (1956) as English teachers often do, focusing on the literature of the Holocaust, may lead to confusion as students may mix up the periods of films’ production and the political, cultural and historical contexts. At the same time, filmmakers on the Left, like Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel, tried to show their opposition to social inequality and their support for the poor and the marginalized. Buñuel made Land Without Bread (1932), a socially conscious documentary about the appalling conditions of endemic poverty in the Spanish countryside. The 1930s saw many other filmmakers supporting social equality, like Joris Ivens (The 400 Million, 1939) or Jean Renoir (La Vie est à nous, 1936), but also some non-political documentaries, like Jan Kucera’s Construction (1933) or John Ferno’s Easter Island (1934).

‘Winning’ the war: Second World War documentaries During the war, the British and American governments and creative sources joined hands to create a strong propaganda

Jennings’ short documentaries with poetic, multi-layered voiceover narration could be used to convey the importance of the well-structured script, the relationship between visual material and spoken word and the attention to detail in camera work and editing. More than six decades after they were produced, these documentaries have not lost their appeal.

Post war: Looking back, looking forward Following the war, the memories of atrocities echoed in European documentary films. Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog is an homage to those that perished in concentration camps. Some teachers may decide to accompany the screening of Resnais’ film, only thirty-two minutes long, with excerpts from Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity (1971), a longer and more elaborate study of the French collaboration with the Nazis. Ophuls’ film is rarely used in senior secondary curriculum, but students might find it an open, uncompromising critique of collaboration and cowardice during the occupation. While cuts in government funding prevented the British documentary film from continuing along the path threaded before the war, individual filmmakers like Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson still made some interesting films during the 1950s. In the United States, popular presenter Edward R. Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly confronted Senator Joseph McCarthy using the CBS network’s See It Now program. Excerpts from George Clooney’s feature film Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) about the external pressures applied to Murrow’s editorial team might assist students in understanding the significance of balanced reporting in resisting repression and defending freedom of speech.4

James Monaco points out, ‘[T]his new style of documentary eschewed narration, ostensibly allowing its subjects to speak for themselves.’6 D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1967) and Monterey Pop (1968) do not merely look at the rise of pop culture, but also chronicle the rebellion of the 1960s generation against war, totalitarianism and sexism. Renowned observational documentary film High School (Frederick Wiseman, 1968) makes for compelling viewing as it allows teachers and students to speak for themselves and allows the viewer/audience into their personal narratives. Although it is rarely used in secondary schools, this film could provide students with a strong sense of identification with an observational documentary mode. It provides a lot of excellent ideas on how to use the camera as a storytelling and not merely a recording tool. It also broadly and un-schematically deals with high school students and their problems, making it extremely engaging viewing for their peers.

One should also remember that the darling of conservative film critics in America, March of the Penguins (Luc Jacquet, 2005), could also be discussed as a political film, marked by a conspicuous absence of political themes and issues.

New forms New lightweight equipment assisted the advent of television and the new generation of documentary filmmakers. The mobile unobtrusive camera became the new recording and storytelling tool of the cinema vérité5 style in France and direct cinema in the United States, with the television picture having the appearance of live images. As




In 1930s England, documentary film began its long journey as a socially conscious form. John Grierson believed that a documentary must respond to social needs and must have social purpose. Grierson’s Drifters (1929), Flaherty’s Industrial Britain (1932), Basil Wright and Harry Watt’s Night Mail (1936), and other films made in this period focus on the representation of social and working conditions in England. Screening excerpts from these documentaries in senior secondary classrooms can be a very good introduction to conversations about the socially and politically engaged documentary filmmakers. In 1939, Grierson became the film commissioner and chief executive of the National Film Board of Canada, the most important documentary institution in the world.

Propaganda machinations

machine against the Nazis. Films by Pat Jackson and Humphrey Jennings (London Can Take It! [1940], Words for Battle [1941], Listen to Britain [1942]) in Britain, and those made by the Hollywood filmmaking stars John Huston, John Ford and Frank Capra, emerged as the crown of Allied documentary production. John Ford’s The Battle of Midway (1942) and William Wyler’s The Memphis Belle (1944) are the most important American documentary films from this period. The Soviets also used their leading filmmakers, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Aleksandr Dovzhenko, to produce war documentaries.


teaching media

with Boris Trbic

Focusing on the life of two former socialites – relatives of Jackie Kennedy – living in their ruined mansion, Grey Gardens (Elen Hovde and Albert Maysles, 1975) is an intimate observational portrait of a world in decline, and simultaneously a post scriptum legacy of the American Camelot. Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA (1976), on the other hand, is a moving portrait of the people of Harlan County, Kentucky, the epicentre of the coal miners’ union movement in the United States. Thirty years later, this film remains one of the rare attempts to map out the industrial relations conflicts in the English-speaking world; looking at the endemic poverty, health hazards, unresolved disputes as well as corporate strategies to eliminate organized workers’ protest. Kopple’s use of live folk and rhythm and blues music performed as part of the protest still reverberates among contemporary audiences. More than a storytelling device or a stylistic exercise, her courage to confront the armed thugs and strike breakers with a rolling camera is first and foremost a lesson in a filmmaker’s integrity. Kopple’s film is strongly recommended to secondary teachers looking at the issues of social equality and freedom of speech. It is also mandatory viewing for tertiary lecturers of film and media still perplexed by the fact that following a decade of conservative government and radical reforms of industrial relations laws (a hundred years after they were introduced), Australian filmmakers are not looking at workers’ rights as an area of interest for their cinematic narratives.

Recent tendencies The advent of television brought a tidal wave of news and current affairs programs that were ostensibly competitive with the documentary ‘actuality’. However, this did not prevent nonconformist filmmakers from offering the increasingly globalized film market a plethora of engaging documentary stories.

Werner Herzog’s documentary films emerge as an impressive yet uneven body of work. Lessons of Darkness (1992), the film that uses the narrative framework of science fiction to convey the outcome of the Gulf War, is interesting for discussing the stylistic features of documentary narration. According to Adam Bingham, Herzog makes an attempt to begin in abstraction and proceed to try to discover the deeper layer of truth.7 Herzog’s career spans five decades and he continues to make striking and provocative documentaries such as Grizzly Man (2005), which chronicles the life and death of wildlife enthusiast Timothy Treadwell who lived among grizzly bears for thirteen summers. Errol Morris’ films Gates of Heaven (1978), The Thin Blue Line (1988), Mr Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999) and The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003), and his extraordinary television program First Person, are characteristic of the director’s unwavering and ostensibly detached filmmaking style. They could be screened to exemplify different interviewing techniques as well as the use of re-enactments in the broader context of the documentary narrative. British filmmaker Nick Broomfield developed his unique interviewing style with his trademark sound boom and his onscreen appearances. Broomfield’s influence is evident in the later works of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock. Soldier Girls (1981), The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife (1991) and Kurt & Courtney (1998) are some of his films that may engage senior secondary and tertiary audiences. Teachers should check for ratings and content.

Senior secondary and tertiary students frequently leave their research aside or incomplete to focus on exhaustively filming their subjects, hoping to discover what the film is about in the process. They are often unaware of the crucial role of studying their documentary subjects before the start of filming, let alone the cost effectiveness of well-conducted research. The engaging self-reflexivity of the veteran filmmaker Agnès Varda in The Gleaners and I (2000), Melvin Van Peebles’ exploration of the marginalization of African-Americans in Hollywood (1998’s Classified X, directed by Mark Daniels) or home-movie aesthetics used for dramatising the predicament of a pariah family in Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003) may assist such students in understanding different stylistic approaches to documentary material. Music documentaries, from Pennebaker’s 1960s films to contemporary tales of success, failure and decline (Ondi Timoner’s hilarious, Faustian DiG! [2004] – only for tertiary audiences) remain highly valued material for aspiring filmmakers. Film and media students often find that the strategies employed in narratives about contemporary pop stars remain relevant almost half a century later in a variety of transformations of the medium, including the increasingly prevalent web content. Yet this is by no means the only theme of interest for contemporary student audiences. The ostensibly light-hearted Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz, 2002) deals with an array of complexities from responsible parenting to cultural integration and provides a very good starting point for discussing the home and school pressures on students in present-day society. Ballets Russes (Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, 2005) presents a neatly packaged narrative using rare archival material, masterfully conducted interviews and dancing sequences. For a film that ought to please a relatively narrow target audience, it surprisingly also appeals to young viewers immersed in contemporary pop culture.

Abbott, 2003) both entertaining and instructive. Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006), featuring Al Gore, has found its place in the curriculum of many Australian secondary teachers. However, the environmental politics of Darwin’s Nightmare (Hubert Sauper, 2004), the closeted gay representation in Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (Mark Rappaport, 1992) or the legacy of cross-cultural programming in Z Channel (Xan Cassavettes, 2005) may emerge as more refreshing class material. One should also remember that the darling of conservative film critics in America, March of the Penguins (Luc Jacquet, 2005), could also be discussed as a political film, marked by a conspicuous absence of political themes and issues.

Film and media students often find that the strategies employed in narratives about contemporary pop stars remain relevant almost half a century later in a variety of transformations of the medium, including the increasingly prevalent web content. Left: capturing the friedmans right: the fog of war

Waco: The Rules of Engagement (William Gazecki, 1997) is an excellent example of the filmmaker’s total control over documentary material. Waco was also one of the films that heralded the tide of politically minded American documentaries. It looks at one of the most traumatic events in America during the 1990s and is the forerunner to a series of films that will explore America’s obsession with security, gun culture and religious freedoms. An expert in post-production, Gazecki took on a number of other roles in order to maintain consistency in stylistic approach and presentation of material. The work of documentary makers who focus on problems of the underdeveloped world in The Good Woman of Bangkok (Dennis O’Rourke, 1991) or Born Into Brothels (Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski, 2004) may appeal to tertiary students who might see regional narratives or exploration of social, economic and political developments in Asia as local issues. Teachers who seek to maintain a political focus in their curriculum may find Control Room (Jehane Noujaim, 2004), Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Alex Gibney, 2005) or The Corporation (Mark Achbar and Jennifer




Chris Marker’s documentary career spans more than five decades; he assisted Resnais on Night and Fog. His own films La Jetée (1962) and Sans Soleil (1983), characteristic for their essayistic, literary style, are often screened to tertiary students. Marker places the works of renowned filmmakers in the broader ideological and sociopolitical contexts in The Last Bolshevik (1993) and Une Journée d’Andrei Arsenevitch (2000). These films may be even more appropriate for encouraging students to take a bold and vigorous, yet contemplative and poetic approach to cinematic material.

The mobile unobtrusive camera became the new recording and storytelling tool of the cinema vérité style in France and direct cinema in the United States


teaching media

with Boris Trbic

While the documentary films in the Australian secondary media and English curriculum often reveal the current tides in film repertoire, one should also recognize that teachers’ insistence on screening documentaries over the last decade has brought upon a new quality in the development of media literacy in classrooms. Discussing screen ‘realism’, bias and representation, composition of cinematic narratives and stylistic and technical devices used in the production of ‘film actualities’ would have been hard to imagine without work on popular documentaries. It has increased student awareness of the language of film and documentary in particular, improved their analytical tools for text analysis and perhaps inspired them to work in this challenging field. At a time when feature documentary has lost some of its steam, educators might find it useful to look for more inspiration in the archive of cinematic memories. •

Endnotes 1 Ephraim Katz, The International Film Encyclopedia, Macmillan, London, 1980, p.345. 2 Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2001, p.7–8. 3 See Susan Sontag, ‘Fascinating Fascism’ in Bill Nichols (ed.), Movies and Methods, University of California Press, Los Angeles, 1976, p.31–43. 4 See Boris Trbic, ‘Dark is the Night: A Television Hero in a Quest for Justice in George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck’, Screen Education 41, pp.34–42. 5 For a comprehensive list of directors and cinematographers and very interesting interviews with filmmakers see the film Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment (Peter Wintonick, 1999). 6 James Monaco, American Film Now: The People, The Power, The Money, The Movies, Oxford University Press, New York, 1979, p.254. 7 Adam Bingham, ‘Apocalypse Then: Lessons of Darkness Re-visited’, CineAction, 62, Summer 2006.

below: the fog of war