As defined by the Oxford Dictionary, a documentary is a film “that provides a factual record or report.” What the dictionary does not say is that an effective documentarian takes those raw facts and arranges them in such a way as to clarify a point or to provide additional weight and understanding to the topic at hand. This makes the documentary nearly as subjective as a fictional work – it’s a visual essay intended to take a political stance (Triumph of the Will, anyone), a judicial or social exposé (Michael Moore is a master), or a quest for education on a topic of interest or importance (The Inconvenient Truth films).
In 1877, to settle an argument regarding whether or not all of a horse’s feet leave the ground at the same time when it is in full gallop, E. Muybridge invented a gismo for projecting a series of still photographic images taken individually, animating the sequence and solving the dispute. The short presentation (not yet an actual film as we know it) illustrated the point objectively. It wasn’t until 1922 – when Robert Flaherty filmed Nanook of the North – that the documentary feature was born, complete with a third person narrative and a uniquely personal tone.
Simply put, the purest documentary provides a visual sequence of actions that illustrate an activity or event and an aural commentary or soundtrack to underline particular aspects that promote the subjective point of view of the filmmaker. The dictionary definition covers everything from “nanny-cam” footage to Shoah. What we’re going for here is far beyond that in both scope and artistry.
Here are five giants of the genre:
Man with a Movie Camera – Dziga Vertov (1929)
Vertov claimed to be a purist who purported that a documentary should be nothing but the unvarnished truth…and then he learned to tinker with camera tricks such as double exposures, reflections and very clever editing. This is not only a documentary about a day in Soviet life, it’s about the man filming it with his camera and about the audience watching the film. It’s an ambitious venture, especially since Vertov wanted nothing to do with narrative dialog cards – he wanted his viewers to arrive at their own conclusions about what they were seeing. When it was initially screened, the film was almost universally derided as camera trickery and hooliganism, yet, by 2012, his film ranked eighth on Sight & Sound’s list of the greatest films ever made, lodged right behind 2001:A Space Odyssey and The Searchers and ahead of The Passion of Joan of Arc and 8 ½ – the only documentary feature to crack the top ten.
The Thin Blue Line – Errol Morris (1988)
The title term is actually a symbol that represents the position of law enforcement in the community and its purpose of maintaining order and safety, and Morris uses this as his starting point to re-examine a murder conviction (complete with a death sentence). His efforts uncovered five counts of perjury in the case, and initiated the overturning of the sentence and the release of the wrongfully convicted man. Morris turns a potentially dry procedural essay into a riveting film by adding reenactments, stunning cinematography and a luminous Phillip Glass score. The film reaped critical praise, as well, and was named Best Documentary by numerous circles, only to be disqualified for the Oscar by the nominating committee, who claimed it was marketed as a non-fiction feature, not as a documentary. Go figure….
Resan (The Journey) – Peter Watkins (1987)
Watkins won the Oscar in 1965 for his 47 minute feature about the probable effects of a nuclear attack on Britain called The War Game, but he obviously had a lot more to say about military spending, nuclear weapons and social responsibility – this baby runs a cool 14 ½ hours, the longest cinematic film ever made. The 19 chapters were filmed in 14 countries over the span of three years and, having seen it at a festival about a decade ago, it’s a heavy but fascinating (and convincing) slog. If you are like me and like your facts thorough and irreversibly convincing, search it out. One can only wonder if Watkins has had a night’s sleep lately given our current dilemma of fools having their fingers once again on the button.
Harlan County USA – Barbara Kopple (1976)
Kopple originally set out to document some infighting within a coal miners’ union and stumbled upon a strike by the union against the Duke Power Company of Kentucky. As a result she uncovered the living conditions of the workers and their families and the thuggery and manipulation perpetrated by the company. At times, the presence of her camera actually prevents some of the intended violence, and this is where her film takes flight and positions the documentary medium on an entirely new level – the role of “witness.” The film is both enlightening and incredibly suspenseful as it immerses us in the action on and behind the picket lines.
Histoire(s) du cinema (The Story of Cinema) – Jean-Luc Godard (1998)
This eight episode visual essay is as much a trip into the mind of a great thinker and filmmaker as it is a critique of cinema as art and industry. Intensely ambitious and visually meticulous, it washes over you unlike anything you have ever seen – a great quilt of a film patched together using film clips and soundtrack dialog samples interspersed with the odd bon mot from Godard, himself. The effect is more ethereal than academic, and represents just how malleable cinema can be. Godard doesn’t present cinematic history in the restrictive terms and mechanisms we are used to, but wallops us with montages and sounds that subliminally direct our minds and attention where he wants us to go. It took him 10 years to complete and, clocking in at 266 minutes, is his longest film when the parts are viewed in one sitting. Godard approaches his task not only as a filmmaker, but also as a poet, artist, historian and critic as he ties the impact of cinema to society and history as the medium evolves. I used to recommend this for cinephiles only, but, just between us – seeing the world through Godard’s eyes once in awhile is damn good for anybody’s soul.
So the next time someone says to you that documentaries are boring, give them a hit off this pipe.