The following films are not necessarily the best documentary films every made, and by no means the only films that have changed the course of events in the real world. But they have been either innovative in some aspect of film technique or led to changes in the way filmmakers represented the “creative treatment of reality” (John Grierson). All of the films have been highly influential.
Nanook of the North (1922) combined the editing techniques and dramatic structure of fiction film with real life characters, Inuit Eskimos, to try and represent and establish a common humanity across cultural differences. These fiction techniques allowed the filmmaker Robert Flaherty to create tension and expectation in any given scene amidst the overall narrative question of whether the Inuit would survive. This was an original way of making documentary films.
Walter Ruttman’s Symphony of a City (1927) began a trend of films about cities around the world — poetic “City Symphonies”. German-born Ruttman had been highly influenced by Viking Eggeling — a Dadaist. Ruttman combined Eggeling’s techniques with those of Dziga Vertov to create a rhythmic plot-less representation of dawn to dusk in Weimar Berlin.
Film critic Siegrfried Kracauer and film maker Vsevolod Pudovkin criticised Symphony of a City for not capturing the mood of growing crises in Weimar Germany. However the film was revolutionary in its form.
The Russian film maker Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera has the revelatory capacity of unscripted documentary footage at its heart, but combined these with montage and film technique. Vertov’s goal was the classical Marxist one of unity of form and content. Centrally his was to be a cinema about facts — footage of real people in real life situations preferably filmed without their knowledge using film technology that was superior to the human eye — its ability to see long distances, slow down or speed up motion. Editing provided further liberation from the confines of time and space.
In the pursuit of a deeper level of truth Vertov and his “Kinoks” [a 1920s collective of Russian film makers, kinoks means “cinema-eyes”] experimented with everything — freeze frames, multiple frames, animation, telescopic and microscopic lenses, multiple exposures, sublimal cuts of one or two frames, slow motion, fast motion, cameras in plains, hand held and in cars. Vertov also theorised about the use of contrapunctal sound long before it became technically feasible.
On seeing Vertov’s first sound film Enthusiaism, Charlie Chaplin described him as a “master” who should be “learned from instead of criticised”.
Esther Shub was the most brilliant woman filmmaker of her times. Alone Shub brought to the world an awareness of how important archive footage could be in its cultural and material value- an awareness that led in time to the establishment of the first film archives. She edited home movie footage to create compilations of films that told the story of Russia from 1900 to 1928 and combined Vertov’s and Eisenstein’s montage techniques with a firm narrative sense to create radical, sympathetic and humanistic films. Her film Spain (1939) is a very powerful film about the Spanish Civil War.
Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard) directed by Alan Resnais in 1955 is still regarded by many as the most powerful documentary about the Holocaust. In 1990 when Le Pen achieved 12% in French opinion polls, all five French TV channels cancelled their evening’s schedules and showed the Night and Fog repeatedly.
The narration is by Auschwitz survivor Jean Cayroll and the music is by Hans Eisler, Bertold Brecht’s old collaborator. Serene landscape, sealed boxcars, and barbed wire are juxtaposed, a deep distant monotonous voice narration contrasts with images of newsreel footage, documentary still images and movement between black and white and colour. The camera glides along as the full horrors of Auschwitz are exposed both visibly and audibly but without the narration ever trying to explain the images. Violent images contrast with gentle music. The narrator asks “Who is responsible ?” going on to say that the executioners are still in our midst.
Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity was banned in France until 1981. It didn’t fit into the Gaullist image of nation united in resistance against the Nazis in World War Two France.
There are Resistance heroes in the film but as one of them says “People thought we were fools” — most French people tried to stay out of trouble. This did not suit De Gaul’s goals in the post-war period as he sought to unify France on the basis of a mythologised version of heroic resistance.
Ophuls undermines the myth stylistically by contrasting a number of different interviewees contradicting each other when trying to recall events. The film is about memory, as words are illustrated with film clips and music and the latter is used ironically — Maurice Chevalier ending the film playing a rationalisation ditty on piano. He himself had opportunistically kept out the way during the war.
Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line represented an American miscarriage of justice and helped to promote legal reform. A cop is killed in Dallas and a man (Randall Adams) gets framed for the murder (with the actual killer as the prosecution’s main witness). The style of the film complements a world of duplicity, false perception and endless ambiguous meanings — it is circular and obsessive, employing the repetition of motifs and a haunting score.
There are close ups of key words and a variety of photographic and text-based materials coupled with several witness re-enactments. This creates a compulsive Kennedy Conspiracy trance like representation of the nature of deception and self-deception. Authority figures — cops, the judge, the District Attorney and press are all implicated in a subtle exposure of a corrupt system.
Randall Adams was eventually released in 1989 party as a result of the film and the direct testimony of Errol Morris.
Shoah was made in 1985 by Claude Lanzmann. 350 hours of footage was cut to nine and a half hours. It is one of cinema’s greatest achievements. In form it can seem repetitive moving back and forth between generalities and specifics, bombarding the viewer with details. It is non-linear and archive footage and narration are absent. Instead the film is constructed through contemporary testimony of survivors juxtaposed by shots of European landscapes bound together by the death trains — there are recurring images of a train going through countryside pulling into Treblinka station, a gaunt driver looking back to nothing.
Lanzmann interviews the railroad executive who planned the routes and scheduled the death trains to Poland. Elsewhere, he interviews the drivers who drove the trains and knew what they carried, the men who packed the victims into freight cars like cattle before slamming the doors, station masters who waved the death trains away, en route observers, camp guards who classified and processed the new arrivals, even the barbers who cut the hair before the gassing. Lanzmann coaxes them on as they falter saying they owe it to history and their own peace. Shoah is another must see.
Monsoons, sets destroyed, massive over-expenditure, logistical nightmares, Martin Sheen being given first aid following a heart attack and a $1 million dollar a week Marlon Brando wandering off scene while the cameras are still running, mumbling “and that’s all the dialogue I can think of today”. Just a few of the not so favourite things of Francis Ford Coppola as caught on film by his wife in the making of Apocalypse Now. (Hearts of Darkness — A Film-makers’ Apocalypse, 1991)
Eleanor Coppola catches her husband’s outbursts of despair unknown to him, alongside endless arguments with Brando about his lines and how much of him should be shot physically in darkness. Coppola struggles to keep Brando and Denis Hopper apart as he knows that if they ever actually meet the film is over.
The covert filming makes us feel we are, for once, truly witnessing how really difficult it is to create a great epic film.
Roger and Me (1989) launched Michael Moore’s career. It is documentary as tragic-comic revenge for American corporate greed. General Motors has closed eleven plants and laid off 33,000 workers in Moore’s hometown of Flint. Moore engages in a futile ongoing narrative quest to interview the Chairman Roger Smith with a view to asking him to tour Flint with him to see the consequences of the closures and layoffs.
The revenge of the little guy takes the form of using the manipulative slick GM PR manoeuvres against them and going beyond it. Moore juxtaposes a “Flint Pride” parade that marches past boarded up store windows. We hear an enthusiastic PR man promote Auto World — an amusement park where Flint people can go and see Flint as it used to be before the closures. In a key scene Flints’ Chairman addresses a Christmas TV hook-up, reading selections from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol while Moore shows us deputies evicting an unemployed GM worker and throwing his Xmas tree into the gutter.
Unemployed GM workers hire themselves out as living statues standing around in costumes at a Great Gatsby charity benefit. Moore gets ejected from a Country Club, a yacht club and skyscraper offices by secretaries and bouncers who are well schooled in guarding the elite. The gloom and despair of Reagan’s 80s America is here represented with great anger and humour.
Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA (1976) and American Dreams (1990) deal more directly with American worker resistance in the face of increasing bosses’ attacks — it is resistance as Greek tragedy.
Some other must sees would include: Luis Bunuel’s Les Hurdes, The Spanish Earth by Joris Evans, Humphrey Jennings’ Fires were Started, and the Cinema Vérité films of the Maysles brothers and Frederick Wiseman.
Pilgers Death of a Nation deftly exposed the corruption and ruthlessness of the Thatcher years as it sold arms to Indonesia knowing in advance the slaughter they would be used for in East Timor.
Imagining Reality: The Faber book of Documentary by Kevin Macdonald and Mark Cousins
Documentary – A history of the non-fiction film by Erik Barnouw