Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video
New and Expanded Edition
Edited by Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski, with a Foreword by Bill Nichols
Published by Wayne State University Press 2014
If I was suddenly asked to teach a History of the Documentary class and told that my budget would allow for the use of just one textbook, Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video is the one I would select. The first edition was released in 1998, still a time when documentary was elbowing its way into film-school curricula. This new anthology includes all the previous, exemplary essays as well as five new entries covering more recent films, bringing the discussion and analysis of the most influential examples of the genre up to date. Each essay is followed by notes and works cited, making for a very handy, useful way of organizing the material. Brief bios of all the contributors—some of with whom I was familiar, while others were welcome discoveries—are listed in the endnotes.
In the Foreword, Bill Nichols, the highly regarded documentary scholar and theoretician, tells us, "The complex, fuzzy boundary to the enterprise of documentary filmmaking is well registered in the striking absence from the first quarter-century of cinema (roughly 1895-1922) of any single word for what we now call documentary." This reinforces the knowledge that the genre is still a youthful enterprise, growing and evolving towards a more mature state, but a maturity whose form is not written in stone. A bit later he adds, "It remains to this day, a practice without clear boundaries." Perhaps it is this idea that continues to make documentary so exciting to makers as well as students of the form—the lure that if we engage, we can push the envelope and explore the landscape, and in the act of doing so, new realities will be revealed.
The book weighs in at a hefty 570 pages and is roughly chronological, beginning with "The Filmmaker as Hunter," William Rothman's familiar analysis of Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922). While a statement on the video release prefaces the film by saying, "This is generally regarded as the work from which all subsequent efforts to bring real life to the screen have stemmed," Rothman points out that while Nanook of the North "accurately illustrates aspects of its protagonist's way of life, its primary goal is not to contribute to a body of scientific knowledge of human cultures; it is far from an ethnographic film in the current sense." So already we can see, right from the start, that this thing we have designated as "documentary" will be a contested arena.
We are reminded in the introduction that in 1998, when the first edition of Documenting the Documentary was published, Michael Moore's Roger and Me (1989) had been "the most commercially successful documentary of all time." Since then, many documentaries have surpassed that benchmark, including four from Moore: Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), Sicko (2007), Bowling for Columbine (2002) and Capitalism: A Love Story (2009). Interest in the documentary form had been rising in 1998, and the trajectory of this interest has only changed in that it is more ubiquitous than ever. We have become a world of documentary makers; we are openly and furtively capturing our own lives as we live them, one cell phone and YouTube upload at a time.
There is a broad misconception that documentaries are inherently more truthful than other films. They are not. We are assisted in unraveling this conundrum—what is real and what is true—when we examine a film like Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929). In this chapter by Seth Feldman, "Peace Between Man and Machine," I found some of the most potent revelations regarding documentary film's power to both embody and predict the future. In the film's famous logo, a human eye superimposed on the camera lens, we see the perfect melding of human and machine-a forerunner of an increasingly blurred line between living flesh and inert material, as we absorb more machine parts into our bionic bodies, helping us to survive catastrophes in ways that Vertov had only begun to imagine in 1929.
Although his hoped-for "peace between man and machine" seems further away than ever, other ideas, then visionary, have become our new reality. Fed by the atmosphere of a rare period in Soviet history of social and economic pragmatism and artistic tolerance, Vertov proposed that Soviet films be "shot by large numbers of ordinary citizens acting as film scouts, edited collectively and exchanged in a vast nationwide network." It's as though he predicted our Googlized, Wikipedia'd and YouTubed culture 35 years before Marshall McLuhan declared that media is the "extension of man." There was a revival of interest in Vertov's work in the 1960s, and his work has even greater ramifications today.
We move from Vertov to another Soviet filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein. Joanne Hershfield brings her in-depth knowledge and focus on Mexican cinema to an analysis as ethnography of Eisentein's Que Viva Mexico! (1932). Ethnographic filmmaking is an interesting and influential sub-genre of the documentary form that reached its zenith in the 1960s and '70s but had not yet been recognized as a scientific form in the 1930s when Eisenstein first came to Mexico. Hershfield's investigation of the filmmaker's encounter with the anthropological "Other" in Que Viva Mexico! makes for a richer understanding of the meaning of ethnographic film.
There are 31 essays in the book. The last two—"You Must Never Listen to This: Lessons on Sound, Cinema and Mortalityfrom Werner Herzog'sGrizzly Man" by David T. Johnson and "Cultural Learnings of Boratfor Make Benefit Glorious Study of Documentary" by Leshu Torchin, bring us into developments in documentary of the last decade. Herzog, perhaps more than any other documentary filmmaker, makes good use of that fuzzy boundary between truth and fiction to achieve what he refers to as "ecstatic truth." He is notoriously ambivalent about subscribing to the terms "documentary" and "narrative" in defining his own work, and he relies on a "poetics of truth" to reach what is perhaps a more intense experience of reality. Sound—its presence and absence—is key in dissecting the aesthetics of Grizzly Man. For Johnson, this is apropos, as the theory and history of film sound has been central to his academic interests.
In the Boratessay, the term mockumentary surfaces for the first time in these discussions and, as Torchin points out, "begins to help us understand the work of the film, but it fails to account for the elements of cinema vérité, the reportorial truth-claims, the clear documentary potential of Borat's interviews." It is as though we are on a teeter-totter, slipping and sliding, up and down, between documentary and fictional elements, as allusive to the characters in the film as they are to the audience. As Borat traipses across the country, we are left to ponder who we are as Americans and what we really know about ourselves.
As we become ever more besotted by filmed "reality" delivered to us on our handheld devices wherever we are, whenever we want it, we need to be reminded, through a thorough review of the history of the genre, how all this happened so we can bring a critical awareness to what we view as a consumer and what we set out to create as artists and craftspeople. With this book as our guide, we will come out at the end of this exploration with "a profound appreciation of the aesthetic complexity of the documentary form."
Cynthia Close is the former president of Documentary Educational Resources and currently resides in Burlington, Vermont, where she consults on the business of film and serves on the advisory board of the Vermont International Film Festival.
Nanook Of The North - Film (Movie) Plot and Review
Director: Robert Flaherty
Production: Révillon Frères; black and white, 35mm, silent; running time: 75 minutes; length: 1525 meters. Released 11 June 1922, New York. Re-released July 1947 with narration and music. Re-released 1976 with music track only. Filmed August 1920-August 1921 in the area around the Hudson Strait, Canada; and along the shores of the Hopewell Sound, Quebec, Canada. Cost: $55,000.
Producer: Robert Flaherty; screenplay and photography: Robert Flaherty; titles: Robert Flaherty and Carl Stearns Clancy; editors: Robert and Frances Flaherty.
Talbot, Frederick A., Moving Pictures , Philadelphia, 1923.
Flaherty, Robert, My Eskimo Friends , New York, 1924.
O'Dell, Scott, Representative Photoplays Analyzed , Los Angeles, 1924.
Canudo, Ricciotto, L'Usine aux images , Paris, 1927.
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, The Standardization of Error , London, 1928.
Weinberg, Herman, Two Pioneers: Robert Flaherty, Hans Richter , London, 1946.
Grierson, John, Grierson on Documentary , edited by Forsyth Hardy, New York, 1947.
Gromo, Mario, Robert Flaherty , Parma, 1952.
Rotha, Paul, Documentary Film , London, 1952.
Griffith, Richard, The World of Robert Flaherty , New York, 1953.
Flaherty, Frances, The Odyssey of a Film-Maker: Robert Flaherty's Story , Urbana, Illinois, 1960.
Gobetti, Paolo, Robert Flaherty , Turin, 1960.
Quintar, Fuad, Robert Flaherty et le documentaire poétique , Paris, 1960.
De Heusch, Luc, The Cinema and Social Science: A Survey of Ethnographic and Sociological Films , Paris, 1962.
Clemente, Jose L., Robert Flaherty , Madrid, 1963.
Cuenca, Carlos Fernandez, Robert Flaherty , Madrid, 1963.
Calder-Marshall, Arthur, The Innocent Eye: The Life of Robert J. Flaherty , London, 1963; New York, 1966.
Klaue, Wolfgang, editor, Robert Flaherty , East Berlin, 1964.
Agel, Henri, Robert J. Flaherty , Paris, 1965.
Pratt, George C., Spellbound in Darkness: A History of the Silent Film , New York, 1966.
Barsam, Richard, Nonfiction Film: A Critical History , New York, 1973.
Barnouw, Erik, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film , New York, 1974.
Napolitano, Antonio, Robert J. Flaherty , Florence, 1975.
Nanook of the North
Murphy, William T., Robert Flaherty: A Guide to References and Resources , Boston, 1979.
Williams, Christopher, Realism and Cinema: A Reader , London, 1980.
Rotha, Paul, Robert J. Flaherty: A Biography , Philadelphia, 1983.
Barsam, Richard, The Vision of Robert Flaherty: The Artist as Myth and Filmmaker , Bloomington, 1988.
Variety (New York), 16 June 1922.
Tidden, Fritz, in Moving Picture World (New York), 24 June 1922.
Patterson, Frances Taylor, in New Republic (New York), 9 August 1922.
Ramsaye, Terry, "Flaherty, Great Adventurer," in Photoplay (New York), May 1928.
Needham, Wilbur, "The Future of American Cinema," in Close Up (London), June 1928.
Interview with Flaherty in Sight and Sound (London), no. 71, 1949.
Taylor, Robert Lewis, "Profile of Flaherty," in New Yorker , 11, 18, and 25 June 1949.
Campassi, Osvaldo, in Cinema (Rome), 15 July 1949.
Taylor, Robert Lewis, "Flaherty—Education for Wanderlust," in The Running Pianist , New York, 1950.
Knight, Arthur, and Cecile Starr, in Saturday Review (New York), 6 January 1951.
Scherer, Maurice (i.e., Eric Rohmer), in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), June 1951.
Flaherty, Frances, "The Flaherty Way," in Saturday Review (New York), 13 September 1951.
Sadoul, Georges, "Hommage à Robert Flaherty," in Lettres Françaises (Paris), 13 September 1951.
"Flaherty in Review," in Sight and Sound (London), November-December 1951.
Manvell, Roger, "Robert Flaherty, Geographer," in Geographical Magazine (New York), February 1957.
Flaherty, Frances, "Explorations," and "Robert Flaherty—The Man and the Film-Maker" by Charles Siepmann, in Film Book No. 1: The Audience and the Filmmaker , edited by Robert Hughes, New York, 1959.
Flaherty, Frances, "Flaherty's Quest for Life," in Films and Filming (London), January 1959.
Flaherty, Robert, "How I Filmed Nanook of the North ," in Filmmakers on Filmmaking , New York, 1967.
Flaherty, Robert, in The Emergence of Film Art , edited by Lewis Jacobs, New York, 1969.
Barnouw, Erik, "Robert Flaherty," in Film Culture (New York), Spring 1972.
Helman, A., in Kino (Warsaw), March 1973.
Corliss, Richard, "Robert Flaherty: The Man in the Iron Myth," in Film Comment (New York), November-December 1973.
Ruby, J., "A Re-examination of the Early Career of Robert J. Flaherty," in Quarterly Review of Film Studies (Pleasantville, New York), Fall 1980.
Godard, Jean-Luc, "Introduction à une véritable histoire du cinéma," in Camera Obscura (Los Angeles), Fall 1982.
Arnold, Gordon B., "From Big Screen to Small Screen: Nanook of the North Directed by Robert Flaherty," in Library Journal (New York), vol. 114, no. 9, 15 May 1989.
Carpenter, E., "Assassins and Cannibals: Or I Got Me a Small Mind and I Means to Use It," in SVA Newsletter , vol. 5, no. 1, 1989.
Everson, William K., "Collectibles: Nanook of the North Directed by Robert Flaherty/ Man of Aran Directed by Robert Flaherty/ Louisiana Story Directed by Robert Flaherty," in Video Review (New York), vol. 12, no. 7, October 1991.
Dick, Jeff, "North to Alaska: Nanook of the North Directed by Robert Flaherty," in Library Journal (New York), vol. 119, no. 9, 15 May 1994.
Wall, J.M., "Mesmerized," in Christian Century , vol. 111, 21/28 September 1994.
Berger, Sally, "Move Over Nanook," in Wide Angle (Baltimore), vol. 17, no. 1–4, 1995.
Shepard, David H., "The Nanook Crisis (1960–75)," in Wide Angle (Baltimore), vol. 17, no. 1–4, 1995.
Russell, Catherine, "Jouer aux Indiens: In the Land of the Headhunters on War Canoes," in Cinémas (Montreal), vol. 6, no. 1, Fall 1995.
Grace, Sherrill, "Exploration as Construction: Robert Flaherty and Nanook of the North ," in Essays on Canadian Writing (Toronto), no. 59, Fall 1996.
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Umland, Rebecca, and Sam Umland, " Nanook of the North ," in Video Watchdog (Cincinnati), no. 48, 1998.
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Through the everyday life of one family, Nanook of the North typifies Eskimo life in the Arctic; it uses a number of sequences that demonstrate Inuit ingenuity and adaptability in one of the world's harshest climates. Flaherty filmed his documentary during the years 1920–1921 on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay's Ungava Peninsula. He brought with him a Carl Akeley gyroscope camera which required minimum lubrication in cold climates to facilitate pans and tilts; Flaherty was something of a pioneer in the camera's use. He also brought along printing equipment to process and develop the film on location and a portable theater to involve the Eskimos more intimately in the film's production, to enable them to understand its purpose.
Despite the license that Flaherty took in portraying some events and conditions, the film's most important feature was its very basis in reality. Nanook and his family were real persons who reenacted their lives before Flaherty's camera. Not to be confused with cinema verité, Flaherty carefully selected his "cast" and directed them to "play" their own roles and to carry out tasks that would demonstrate to the outside world how they conducted their lives. Through a careful selection of details, Flaherty succeeded in conveying the drama, the struggle, underlying their daily existence.
Nanook was a significant departure both from the fiction and nonfiction films that preceded it. It departs from fiction because it lacks a plot or story. The background comes to the fore. Man's struggle to survive in this bleak environment becomes an inseparable part of the film's dramatic development. Its photographic detail was also far superior to other films of actuality. The film departs from nonfiction, newsreels and other actualities, in its narrative editing (for 1922), its ability to tell a story through images, and its use of the shot as the basis of a sequence. The film provides detailed pictorial information of the environment, narrative structure, and the filmmaker's art with its implicit emotive statement.
Nanook is a reflection of Flaherty's life-long interest in the interaction of diverse cultures. To be sure, Flaherty wanted to give the outside world a glimpse of Eskimo life as he had experienced it during his years as an explorer, surveyor, and prospector in the lower Arctic region. However, he also wanted to capture on film a way of life threatened by encroaching civilization. Nanook , like other Flaherty films, is not depicted in a particular historical setting or context; the timeless appearance was deliberate. He also wanted to capture the Eskimos' essential nobility, to portray them as they saw themselves.
The building of the igloo sequences serves to illustrate Flaherty's technique. Detail upon detail demonstrates Nanook's amazing ingenuity. He builds a shelter out of ice and snow. The sequence is not overexplained. The audience is left to discover each new step and its significance—such as the way in which the translucent block of ice is used as a window. What perhaps has sparked the most discussion is Flaherty's shooting of the interior shots inside the igloo. Restricted to camera negative stock with relatively slow speed or slow sensitivity to light, he had an igloo constructed to twice the average size with half of it cut away to permit sunlight to brighten the scene. The Nanook family goes to sleep during the day for the benefit of Flaherty's camera. This sequence illustrates Flaherty's dictum that sometimes it is necessary to exaggerate reality in order to capture its real essence.
Professor Frances Taylor Patterson of Columbia University was one of the first to recognize the documentary value of Nanook . It differed from travel exotica, she wrote, because it did not wander but used one location and one hunter to present an entire culture. Later in the decade some writers criticized Nanook for lack of authenticity. However, most modern writers have been delighted with the film's emotive powers which have made audiences identify with the fundamental struggle to survive with all its sociological and philosophical implications.
Nanook , opening to rave reviews, almost immediately was considered one of the greatest films of all times; it quickly received worldwide distribution. Robert Sherwood, for example, called it "literally in a class by itself." No one called it a documentary, though, until as a result of the release of Moana (1926) and the writings of John Grierson, parallels could be seen in Flaherty's work. They became the foundation for the development of documentary film as an art form and as a new filmic sensibility. It is perhaps Edmund Carpenter, the cultural anthropologist, who best elucidated Nanook of the North and Flaherty's work in general by noting a relationship between this film and Eskimo art. To the Eskimo, he wrote, the creation of art is "an act of seeing and expressing life's values; it's a ritual of discovery by which patterns of nature and of human nature are revealed by man." The drama of daily existence in the North is not imposed from the outside but discovered by exploration, a process that takes into account the natural environment and a philosophy of life.
Nanook remains the most enduring of all Flaherty's films for its simplicity of purpose, structure, and design. It ennobles its subjects rather than exploits them. It relies on a few well-developed sequences. The images, sharp and uncluttered, are still memorable.
Also read article about Nanook of the North from Wikipedia
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