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A Real Read: Books on Documentaries

By Ray Zone

Editor's Note: Ray Zone has reviewed books for International Documentary on and off for about two years. He also writes reviews for American Cinematographer, among other publications. As literature on documentary has proliferated at a more rapid rate, we want to give this field a more consistent profile in these pages. We are pleased to have Ray Zone on board as our regular book reviewer. He can be reached at

In recent years, the number of books published about documentary films and filmmakers has greatly increased. The proliferation of books about documentaries bodes well for the art, craft and business of making them. An intangible but primary benefit of books on documentary is that it gives documentarians the sense of an intellectual foundation and an historical tradition that has approached, and sometimes achieved, greatness.

Generally speaking, books on documentary break down into three broad categories: historical, pragmatic and theoretical. The historical book relates the history of the documentary form and its leading practitioners. Pragmatic or "how-to" books on documentary acquaint the film- or videomaker with the fundamental tools for making documentaries. The theoretical book is largely found in academia and is usually published by university presses. Many books combine historical and theoretical approaches. How-to books on documentary mostly stand alone as a book form and increasingly are addressing the digital video platform as an accessible medium for the documentarian.

Shortly after coining the term "documentary" in a 1926 review of Robert Flaherty's Moana, John Grierson was enlisted into Great Britain's Empire Marketing Board (EMB) to make documentaries. He was subsequently joined by Paul Rotha at the EMB who wrote, in collaboration with Sinclair Road and Richard Griffith, a history entitled Documentary Film, published by Faber and Faber in 1936. Rotha's history was subtitled "the use of the film medium to interpret creatively and in social terms the life of the people as it exists in reality" and, by 1951, the book had been revised and enlarged into three separate editions.

The standard work in the field, however, is Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film by Erik Barnouw, first published by Oxford University Press in 1974.  Burgeoning new technologies led Barnouw to write an expanded, revised edition that was published in 1983. The second revised edition is now used as a textbook in many college courses on documentary film.

Another standard text used at many universities is the 1971 anthology The Documentary Tradition, From Nanook to Woodstock, selected, arranged and introduced by film historian Lewis Jacobs. In assembling this massive collection, Jacobs drew almost entirely on material from newspapers and magazines. He gathered a stellar line-up of contributors, from Flaherty and Grierson to Iris Barry, Pare Lorentz, Parker Tyler and many others, to create a collection that still stands as essential reading for anyone interested in documentary history and theory.

The most definitive biography of Grierson to date is by Jack C. Ellis, entitled John Grierson: Life, Contributions, Influence . Ellis was inspired to write his biography of Grierson after reading Grierson on Documentary, a wide-ranging 1947 collection edited and compiled by Forsyth Hardy. Hardy himself wrote a 1979 biography titled John Grierson: A Documentary.

Dai Vaughan has edited documentary films for more than 35 years.  His collection of 12 essays, For Documentary (University of California Press; 1999), is particularly interesting for film theorists.

The University of Minnesota Press has been publishing an ambitious series of books under the generic title of Visible Evidence that addresses cultural, historical and theoretical issues of the documentary (see ID September and October 2000). The Visible Evidence series so far includes 11 different volumes that address gay and lesbian issues, memory and photography, war, feminism and Native American film and video. The most recent book in the series, An American Family, A Televised Life, by Jeffrey Ruoff is an in-depth examination of the 1973 TV documentary on the Loud family that aired on PBS.

Other highly theoretical books on documentary that have recently been published include The Autobiographical Documentary in America by Jim Lane (University of Wisconson; 2002), in which the author attempts to "demonstrate a critical/theoretical endeavor that will bring to light the ways in which documentaries make their meaning, as well as what they may mean." 

The book Real Emotional Logic: Film and Television Docudrama as Persuasive Practice by Steven N. Lipkin (Southern Illinois University Press; 2002) takes "a moral view of reality-based subject matter" in examining docudrama as a "mode of argument."

Recent pragmatic books on making documentaries include Writing, Directing, and Producing Documentary Films and Videos (Third Edition) by Alan Rosenthal (Southern Illinois University Press; 2002) and Introduction to Documentary Production: A Guide For Media Students (Columbia University Press; 2002), edited by Searle Kochberg. Kochberg's book also includes some highly theoretical discussion of the ethics and aesthetics of documentary production.

All of the books cited here are either in print or easily located with a search on the Internet at or