The history of making documentaries. Everything from the Lumier Brothers in the late 1800s, to the birth of “Reality TV”.
The documentary has a long-storied history and is the only genre that has been in existence since the birth of the film camera in the late 1800s. The earliest moving pictures were actually single shot moments captured on film, recorded by the Lumier brothers in the 1890s. These were shots of a train entering a station, factory workers leaving the workplace, or simple shots that examine the novelty of an actual real-life event. These were, by definition, documentaries.
In what is generally considered the first attempt to dramatize reality, photographer Edward Curtis filmed In the Land of the War Canoes in 1914 using actors to portray Native Americans. These scenes were staged but the story was presented as a truthful reenactment. Laying the groundwork for things to come, Robert Flaherty's film, Nanook of the North, released in 1922, is generally cited as the first feature-length documentary. The film employs many of the conventions of later documentary and ethnographic filmmaking, including narration, a subjective tone, staged shots and a focus on a character and his development as the film's centerpiece.
The term documentary wasn't actually associated with this genre until 1926, when filmmaker John Garrison coined the term in his review of the film Milana. Although Great Britain and Russia were the first to create what became known as propaganda films as early as 1920, it was the German backed 1935 film, Triumph of the Will, that is generally considered a landmark film both in terms of documentary filmmaking and social implication. The film was released around the world in multiple languages. German director Lenny Riefenstahl's look at the annual Nazi party rally in 1934 showed the astonishingly powerful movements in society reflected and represented through media. She pioneered the tradition of films made with the explicit purpose of persuading an audience of a point.
1935 also saw the creation of the March of Times Newsreel Series, a new concept at the time, which centered on informing the audience with picture journalism, using dramatic reenactments, forceful narration and footage shot on location. Developed by Roy Edward Larson, a senior executive of Time Life Fortune Incorporated, the 15 to 20 minute long newsreels would be shown at theaters between feature films.
It wasn't until the 1950s that newly developed 16 millimeter lightweight cameras ushered in the era of the cinema verite style of documentary film creation. A French term meaning real film, it was an attempt by a young generation of filmmakers to create authentic, uninterrupted and unrehearsed documentaries in order to bring the creators and the audience closer to the subject. Voiceovers and direct intervention was pushed aside and scenes were generally shot on location to present a more realistic environment and strive for reality rather than a film based in reality with staged shots.
Stylistically, cinema verite centered around following a subject during a crisis using newer handheld cameras to capture close-ups and more personal reaction shots. There were no sit-down interviews, and the amount of shooting time was longer than in other documentary formats. The finished product is generally the result of the editors finding and sculpting the shots into a story. The 1960 film Primary, Drew Associates' documentary on the Wisconsin Democratic Presidential Primary, is generally regarded as the first American attempt at cinema verite.
One of the first documentaries to see success at the box office and have a wide range of theatrical distribution was D. A. Pennebaker's account of a young Bob Dillon in the 1967 film Don't Look Back. The '60s and '70s politically charged notions brought forth a new movement of narrative and first-person accounts of documentary storytelling. Moving away from the cinema verite format and more into the realm of social commentaries. This laid the groundwork for many modern films, as well as developed the blueprints for what commonly became known as the participatory documentary.
The development of lighter, more sophisticated video cameras throughout the 1980s led to the first groundbreaking reality television series in 1989, as John Langley and Malcolm Barbour's Cops mixed elements of cinema verite and commentary from on-duty police officers to carry its episodes. Falling on the heels of Cops, MTV's Real World was the first hugely successful reality television series. The show was the precursor to what we now know as the reality TV documentary genre, which combines elements of cinema verite, scripts and staged shots. To capture real on film is an elusive goal, and the popular genre of today's reality shows brought that experimental discovery to the mainstream.
From the Lumier brothers' curiosity to Michael Moore's in-your-face exploration, documentaries are consistently evolving different strategies to try and capture reality for their audience.
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