Task 1: Development of Documentary

Task 1: Development of Documentary


As part of my documentary unit I will look at the history and development of documentary as a genre.


1877: Eadweard Muybridge develops horses in motion‘, which was a series of consecutive photos. Muybridge then invents the zoöpraxiscope in 1879, a contraption for projecting and “animating” photographic images.

1883: Etienne Jules Marey experiments with chronophotography, the photography of people in movement.

1895: Auguste and Louis Lumière stage the world’s first public film screening on December 28, 1895 in the basement lounge of the Grand Cafe on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris.

1895: A Senegalese woman is filmed by Felix-Louis Regnault during Paris Exposition Ethnographique de l’Afrique Occidentale. This is the beginning of the use of the camera to document ethnographic research.

1919: A manifesto (Kinoks-Revolution Manifesto) is issued by Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov. He calls for a new style of cinematic reportage that documents real life. He criticized the Soviet film industry for relying on the same fictional techniques employed by literature and theatre. Vertov insisted that the future of cinéma depends on reporting the truth. In 1922, he started to produce Kino Pravda (“Film Truth”). This was a sequence of news reportage films that influences both later newsreels and later documentary styles, including cinéma vérité.

1920’s:Several European experimental filmmakers begin to work with styles that use avant-garde cinématic filming and editing techniques, for example fluid camera work and montage. As well as abstract narratives to create impressionistic, highly poetic quasi-documentary works (or “visual poems”). These works include various “city films,” such as Walther Ruttmann’s Berlin: A Symphony of a Great City (Berlin, die Symphonie der Grosstadt) (1927)and Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (1926).

1922: Robert Flaherty films Nanook Of The North. This isgenerallyconsidered as the first feature-length documentary. The film usesa lot of the conventions of later documentary and ethnographic filmmaking, along withthe use of third-person narration and subjective tone.

1925: Sergei Eisenstein films Battleship Potemkin. This is a fictional recounting of an uprising again the Czar. It combines documentary elements with experimental editing and narrative techniques. An influence to the modern day reconstruction videos.

1926: Young Scottish academic John Grierson (1898-1972), writes a review of Robert Flaherty’s ethnographic film Moana for the New York Sun (February 8, 1926). This stemmed from his interest in mass communications in the US. During the review he mentions the term “documentary.”

1928: Dziga Vertov films The Man With The Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom). The film portrays a typical day in Moscow from dawn to dusk. Vertov’s aim was to capture “life caught unawares.” During which he uses experimental editing techniques and cinématic innovations to transform and enlighten the content.

1928: John Grierson joins the British Empire Marketing Board (EMB), a governmental agency. He then organizes the E.M.B. Film Unit. In the EMB and later on, Grierson collected a group of talented and energetic filmmakers, including, Sir Arthur Elton, Stuart Legg, Basil Wright, Edgar Anstey,Alberto Cavalcanti, Harry Watt, and Humphrey Jennings.

1930-37: The Worker’s Film and Photo League is formed in the US. It then transformed into Nykino in 1934, and finally into Frontier Films in 1937. The league had the aim of making independent documentaries with a politically and socially drivenagenda. Members include Paul Strand, Ralph Steiner, Leo Hurwitz, Willard Van Dyke, and Joris Ivens.

1935: In 1935, the Resettlement Administration, an agency established to provide aid to farmers and other rural populations, decided to produce films as a method of broadcasting its message to the wider public. The films produced under the Resettlement Administration represent the only production during peacetime by the United States Government of films. Intended for commercial release and public viewing. They started a new direction for American documentary filmmaking in terms of cinématic style and technical sophistication.

1935: German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl is commissioned by Adolph Hitler to film the annual Nazi Party rally of 1934. Triumph of the Will was the end product, a milestonefor both documentary technique and in the use of film as a powerful propaganda medium.

1935: March Of Time newsreel series is introduced.Started up by Roy Edward Larsen, a senior executive of Time-Life-Fortune, Inc. Larsen and his co-workers wanted to draw the attention of the public, andMarch of Time accomplished this by mixing dramatic reenactments, high-quality location footage, and forceful narrationprovided by Westbrook Van Voorhis. The point was to inform and dazzle audiences with “pictorial journalism” These were shown 15-20 minute segments shown between feature films in theatres.

1938: John Grierson visits Canada to consult on the possibilities of a national Canadian film organization. He was appointed Government Film Commissioner in October 1939.During the six years after accepting to lead National Film Board, Grierson gathers a team of more than 800 filmmakers.

1942-1945: Frank Capra enlists as a major in the US Army Signal Corps. During this time, he oversees the production of the documentary/propaganda series Why We Fight.

1950-60’s:With newly developed, hand-held cameras with synchronized sound, a new generation of young filmmakers in the US and Europe attempts to redefine the nature of the documentary film. Termed variously Direct Cinema (US), Cinéma Vérité (France), and Free Cinema (Canada and England), the films created by these filmmakers strive for immediacy, spontaneity, and authenticity—an attempt to bring the filmmaker and the audience closer to the subject. These films are often characterized by the use of real people in unrehearsed situations, as opposed to actors with scripts. Voice-over narration is avoided, and directorial intervention is kept to a minimum. Sets and props are never used and most films are shot on location.

1951: CBS Television introduces the first regular news magazine series, See It Now, hosted by Edward R. Murrow. The program establishes a standard for investigative reporting by tackling large issues at that time, including McCarthyism to racial integration.

1953: National Educational Television (later the Public Broadcasting Service [PBS]) is founded.

1955: Armstrong Circle Theatre is first broadcast on American television. The program is a continuing sixty-minute series. This utilized the form that would be known as “docudrama”—dramatic recreations of real events.

1960: Jean Rouch, a veteran of ethnographic filmmaking in Africa, shoots the pioneering work Chronique d’Un Eté (Chronicle of a Summer) (released 1962) with sociologist Edgar Morin. The film deals with Parisians’ thoughts and feelings at the end of the Algerian war. His approach to documentary is to place his characters in a situation with dramatic possibilities, let them improvise, and then film them. Rouch states that Chronique is an attempt to combine Vertov’s theory and Flaherty’s method. He describes this film as “cinéma vérité” in tribute to Vertov—a direct translation of Vertov’s term “Kino Pravda.”


1962: Canadian filmmaker Wolf Koenig produces Lonely Boy, a profile of pop singer Paul Anka, and one of the earliest pop concert films. Unlike Drew, Pennebaker, the Maysles, and other Direct Cinéma advocates, Koenig integrates the filmmakers into the work “in the theory that the process itself was part of the reality of the work.”

1963: On November 22, 1963, Abraham Zapruder uses an 8mm Bell & Howell home movie camera to film the employees of his clothing company while they waited to see President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas, Texas. Zapruder films the Kennedy limousine and inadvertently captures the assassination of the president on film.

1965: Sony introduces the first consumer 1/2-inch video tape recorder. Philips introduces the compact cassette for consumer audio recording and playback on small portable machines.

1967: D.A. Pennebaker filmsDon’t Look Back. This was an early portrait of Bob Dylan. This film, together with Pennebaker’s concert film Monterey Pop (1967), were two of the earliest films using real life drama to have a successful theatrical distribution.

1968: Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) established

1960’s and 1970’s: In the late 1960’s, many filmmakers stray away from the approach of earlier cinéma vérité and embrace a more political and cultural approach to filmmaking. Civil rights, anti-war movements, and the women’s movement contributed to the rise of this technique. Political, social and sexual activism gives people from unspoken communities for example women, gays and lesbians an opportunitity to present their views and ideologies to a wider audience.

1970s– The late 60’s and 70’s and later decades see shifts in the narrative approach of many documentaries. Although cinéma vérité, third-person narrative and other earlier documentary forms continue, first person video storytelling begins and is considered something of a unique genre. The genre lies “somewhere in between the essay, general reportage and the well-told tale. It is marked not only by the first person voice in testimonial, but also by the bringing of the viewer into the world of the storyteller’s experience. Often socially engaged, it is rarely polemical. Indeed, it typically does not make a direct argument, but an implicit request for the viewer to recognize the reality of the speaker, and to incorporate that reality into his or her view of the world.” (Aufderheide, Patricia. “Public Intimacy: The Development of First-person Documentary.” Afterimage, July-August 1997 v25 n1)

1971: New Day Films cooperative is formed by feminist filmmakers Liane Brandon and Amalie Rothschild. It was made to distribute social issue films by independent filmmakers–the first distributor to be run entirely by and for filmmakers.

1973: PBS series, An American Family, the forerunner of what would later be called “reality TV” shows, provides a close-up view of Loud family from a real and natural perspective. Directed by Alan and Susan Raymond. The series shocks American audiences familiar with “Leave it to Beaver” television families.

1975: Sony introduces the Betamax consumer videocassette recorder (VCR) (cost: $2295)

1976: JVC introduces the VHS format VCR (cost: $885)

1980: Sony introduces the first consumer video camcorder.

1982: Sony’s Betacam, a single-unit broadcast-use camera hits the market.

1987: PBS series P.O.V.(Point of View) premieres. The program is a showcase for independent documentary filmmakers with strong political or social opinions, as well as giving an opportunity for viewers to respond to the issues presented.

1988-1991: Congress passes legislation mandating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to negotiate with a national coalition of independent film producer groups to establish the Independent Television Service (ITVS) to ensure that diverse voices be championed on public television. In the next decade, hundreds of notable documentary works air on PBS and elsewhere.

1999: The Blair Witch Project, a fake vérité documentary, grosses over $100 million in the US alone

2001– An enormous number of television programs utilizing some of the techniques of cinema vérité are programmed—so called “reality TV.” These include MTV’s Real World and The Osbournes, Survivor, Big Brother, Amazing Race, The Fear Factor, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, Joe Millionaire, The Mole, and Chains of Love.



UC Berkeley. (unknown). CHRONOLOGY OF DOCUMENTARY HISTORY. Available: http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/docexhibit/docuchron.htm. Last accessed 19/06/14.

Documentary Styles/Techniques

Direct cinema (people filmed in uncontrolled situations; usually no added music; usually no use of narration; lengthy scenes to reveal glimpses of character; suggests an objective observing of reality by audience; requires active participation on the part of the audience)


This technique used as part of documentaries is made-up of staged reenactments of past events, to create the look and feel of real life events. The location and settings are staged, and the people involved are actors. A good example of the use of reconstructive footage would be an English TV programme like crime watch.

Archival footage

This technique involves the use of direct cinema or previous documentary footage, or photographs from the past. It is collated and shown with the objection to review events that took place in the past to create perspective on chosen events. A good example of the use of archive footage was in ‘First Contact’ made by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson, a documentation recounting the finding of a native population in New Guinea who were situated in the highlands, a place that was otherwise known to be uninhabited. It combines the use of footage from 1930 when the Leahy brothers ventured into the unknown area, still photographs from the original expedition along with interviews from the remaining inhabitants and the surviving members of the Leahy brother’ gold prospecting party. They tell their experience of the unforeseen meeting. The documentary was nominated for Best Documentary Feature and for an Academy Award.


Interviews are widely used in documentaries to get the opinion and views of the subject to the viewer through asking questions. This could either be through a direct interview, where the subject is seen and heard answering the questions of the interviewer who can also be heard and maybe even seen asking the questions. The more common use is the indirect interview, where you only hear and see the subject talking and not the interviewer, this is usually to make an impression that the subject is talking directly to the viewer. A good example of this is by one of the leading British practitioners Nick Bloomfield and his creation of ‘Aileen The Life and Death of a Serial Killer’. He uses several techniques to create this thought provoking documentary, one of the most compelling being the verbal accounts from the serial killer herself and her family and associates.




Robert Yayhke. (unknown). A PRIMER OF DOCUMENTARY FILM TECHNIQUES. Available: http://www.tc.umn.edu/~ryahnke/filmteach/My-Archive-of-Film-Notes/x-documentary-techniques.htm. Last accessed 19th June 2014.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s