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Continuing the Documentary Idea: From Flaherty to 'Fahrenheit 9/11,' Vertov to Verite

By Dana Benelli

A New History of Documentary Film
By Jack C. Ellis and Betsy A. McLane
Continuum Publishing
384 pps. (paperbound) $24.95
ISBN: 0826417515


Jack C. Ellis and Betsy A. McLane have co-authored A New History of Documentary Film. Heaven knows, a new history is overdue. The currently available histories of documentary filmmaking are Richard Meran Barsam's Nonfiction Film: A Critical History and Erik Barnouw's Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, both of which were originally written in the early1970s and supplemented with short updating chapters in the early 1990s. But much has happened since then: the explosion of digital technology; increasing annual production of documentaries; greater public notice of documentaries due to reality television programming; commercial successes such as Fahrenheit 9/11; the attention of high-profile festivals such as Sundance; and, finally, significant scholarship on the part of film academics. The time is right not just for once again updating existing histories, but also for drawing upon this rich, recent period to possibly re-think the history of documentary filmmaking as a whole.

Ellis and McLane cover documentaries ranging from the first actualities of the Lumière Brothers to current IMAX productions and reality programming. The authors' writing is conversational and anecdotal, making the text accessible and engaging, especially for readers new to the topic of documentary. For example, Frank Capra's wartime Divide and Conquer (1943) is compared to Hamlet, and John Grierson's "secret delight" at being called "the Goebbels of Canada" is noted. Speculations that would be difficult to prove but provoke thoughtfulness about documentary dot the text, one example being the authors' suggestions that Pare Lorentz's The River (1937) is the finest documentary, and the most viewed motion picture, ever made. To facilitate further viewing and study, each chapter of the book is accompanied by lists of selected "Films of the Period" and "Books on the Period."

One clear strength of the volume is that Ellis and McLane are knowledgeable about matters of technology, film aesthetics, the collaborative process of filmmaking, the industrial contexts within which films are produced and the social conditions that frequently impact film activity. More importantly, the authors appreciate the interconnectedness and draw upon this understanding when describing specific films.

It is obvious that Ellis and McLane appreciate the documentary as an especially important form of filmmaking. This attitude derives primarily from the overall conceptual perspective of the book, which is openly Griersonian. The book takes its definition of documentary from John Grierson's late 1920s championing of social documentary--that is, films that are didactic and partisan in their treatment of contemporary social realities.  From this perspective Chapters 2, 3 and 4 of A New History of Documentary Film, which deal with pre-Griersonian filmmaking (Robert Flaherty, Dziga Vertov, city symphonies, etc.), become descriptions of "sources for the documentary as it would develop in Great Britain..." The rest of the book emphasizes, and promotes, filmmaking in the Grierson tradition, although it also acknowledges an ongoing alternative approach--that of "discovery and revelation," derived from an appreciation of reality "as it is." The authors identify this style with Flaherty, the friendly adversary to Grierson in early debates about the nature of documentary filmmaking. The introduction to Chapter 14, on direct cinema and cinema vérité, provides a particularly interesting use of these "two poles of the documentary tradition" to clarify the difference between the two.

Paralleling the emphasis on social documentary is an almost equal interest on the part of Ellis and McLane in calling attention to the "creative" dimension of these films. For them the uniqueness of the documentary resides in its "fusion of social purpose with artistic form." Although Grierson expressed some reservations about excessive artfulness in documentaries (and apparently tried to prevent Canadian documentarians from viewing the British World War II documentaries that he considered too "aestheticky"), Ellis and McLane connect the documentary with experimental filmmaking in its ability to "explore more fully the capacities of film as a medium." This appreciation motivates them to pay careful attention to the aesthetic qualities and innovations present in the films they highlight in the text.

The challenge of describing over a hundred years of films, filmmakers and film movements--not to mention offering some way of making conceptual sense of all this activity, and simultaneously staying within the limits of a single volume--make books like A New History of Documentary Film daunting, and perhaps impossible, undertakings. Every reader is likely to experience moments of frustration. Events are sometimes mentioned without being explained--for example, the banning of Lorentz's The Fight for Life in Chicago or the controversy that greeted the televising of Marlon Riggs' Tongues Untied (although, ideally, the supplemental readings will provide answers for motivated readers). The downside of the conversational prose of the text is moments of ambiguity about the status of the claim that the authors are actually making, especially in connection with the difficult topic of one film's or filmmaker's influence on later films. Does "imitation" mean that King Vidor had seen and literally copied the irrigation sequence of Victor Turin's Turksib for Our Daily Bread? More knowledgeable readers are likely to puzzle over some of the choices made regarding specific films and documentarians. Are there specific reasons why Godfrey Reggio and Spike Lee are not mentioned? Despite such flaws, much can be learned from Ellis' and McLane's work. 

Ultimately, though, what is more disappointing is the fact that the book does not deliver on its title's promise. The perspective of A New History of Documentary Film remains traditional, for example, in its antipathy to Hollywood and in its emphasis on English-language social documentaries. In fact, A New History of Documentary Film is a revision and updating of Ellis' earlier The Documentary Idea, published in 1989, and for this new volume the chapter dealing with American studio-produced semi-documentaries in the post-war period has been dropped, along with the earlier text's attention to international documentary activity (primarily in France). 

And it is not really about "documentary film." In both versions the emphasis on social documentaries is openly acknowledged to be at the expense of other kinds of documentary such as newsreels, ethnographic filmmaking, travelogues, nature films, biographies and autobiographies, etc. The primary justification for this emphasis is the claim that the social documentaries are more socially significant. But on several occasions, Ellis and McLane note that the effectiveness of documentaries in shaping public opinion is uncertain. Meanwhile, a great deal of academic attention has been devoted to the way in which social attitudes are challenged or reaffirmed by informational film formats (for example, the representation of animals in nuclear families in nature films). 

If we are going to talk about the social significance of "the documentary," then a wider spectrum of documentary types need to be acknowledged. And if we are going to understand the potential of a particular type of documentary then, ultimately, we need to be aware of how that kind of film has been made in other nations. Admittedly, these kinds of studies may require greater space. But perhaps the time has come for a two-volume history of the documentary film.


Dana Benelli teaches in the Cinema Studies Program of the School of Theatre at Illinois State University.