Film History part III
written by J.A.Bohr
The Random House Unabridged Dictionary (second edition) states that the meaning of "Documentary" is a work "based on or re-recreating an actual event, era, life story, etc., that purports to be factually accurate and contains no fictional elements".1 The same dictionary describes the meaning of the word "purport" as "to present, esp. deliberately, the appearance of being; profess or claim, often falsely".2 This could lead a reader into believing that Documentaries are "propaganda" in nature, and not entirely true. In viewing and researching early documentaries, it is easy to see moments which do not seem to be fully justified. But it is the "falsities" we do not catch which advances the question of whether these types of work can really state as much about the film's subject as they tell us about the people responsible for shooting and/or editing the film.
In 1894, Louis Jean Lumiere redesigned a Kinetoscope and Kinetograph (originally designed by Thomas Edison). Within one year the Lumiere Brothers had a working camera able to shoot, develop and project their films. They called their camera the Cinematographe. Their films consisted of single shots taken outdoors. "The first films had been non-fiction: records of actual human activity, snapshots in which things moved. There were actualities of trains rushing by, of life in foreign lands, and of newsworthy events".3 The Lumiere Brothers' Actualities, as their film scenes were called, were one-scene in one-shot without the use of editing. This may possible convince many to believe that all original "one-scene in one-shot" films are truth and factual, but that is not the case. "There were also faked reconstruction of events from Tearing Down the Spanish Flag (1898) to the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius (1905)."4 Is it possible for a "reconstruction" to contain no fictional elements?
Multi-shot non-fiction came out of the actualities. Non-fiction can have a storyline (with an introduction, a body, and a conclusion) but can also be presented in a non-narrative format. Bordwell and Thompson, in Film Art, seem to place all nonfictional work into the non-narrative format. In their view, non-narrative films fall into one of four categories (or a blend of the four). These formal styles are; Categorical (a subject divided into categories), Rhetorical (a subject presented with an argument and evidence to support the view), Abstract (a subject shown through abstract visuals and sonic qualities), and Associational (where a subject is portrayed through the juxtaposition of loosely connected images). It becomes difficult to grasp how an Abstract film can carry the name documentary. And the Associational format seems to stray from the concept of "contain(ing) no fictional elements" altogether.
"One of the early 'industrial' films, A Visit to Peek Frean & Co.'s Biscuit Works, made in England in 1906..., showed the entire process of making biscuits in a factory".5 This film is considered a superior example of indoor photography and is constructed categorically, following the process from start to finish. This form seems true to the definition, but is not considered the first "documentary". The first film to be called a documentary is the first feature-length film to become a commercial success, Nanook of the North.
Nanook of the North (1922)
The man most credited as the father of documentary films is Robert Flaherty. Flaherty studied the Hudson Bay region of Canada for nearly a decade of his life. He filmed scenes involving the life of Eskimos in the Ungava territory. His first produced film was destroyed accidentally, but inspired him to return and spend 1920 - 1922 filming the scenes which make up Nanook of the North. Flaherty was not a filmmaker, but an explorer who learned how to shoot, direct, and produce a film as he went along. "When Flaherty took the completed Nanook around to film distributors in New York City, one by one they turned him down. ...It was Pathe Exchange...which eventually undertook distribution. ..., this new kind of film received an enthusiastic reception by the critics and became a substantial box office success."6
In Flaherty's words, "I think it is essential to work with familiar material among peoples whose way of life is completely different from ours. If the theme is a new one the camera can be used to record the most simple effects - these are often the best..."7 In 1926, John Grierson uses the term "Documentary" to describe this type of nonfictional work, which is why Nanook is considered the first. As the opening intertitle states, "This picture concerns the life of one Nanook (the Bear), his family and little band of followers, "Itivimuits" of Hopewell Sound, Northern Ungava, through whose kindness, faithfulness and patience this film was made."8
The main characters, as the film goes, are Nanook (the father figure), Nyla (the mother figure), and their children; Cunayou, Allee, Allegoo, and a four-month old (unnamed) child. This film follows a loose narrative ordered within natural chronology, portraying late spring through deep winter. "We see Nanook spearing fish, catching and rendering walrus, hunting seals, and building an igloo."9 But the change of seasons is not shown understandably (it is difficult to "see" the difference between the Spring and deep Winter, leading the audience to assume that the snows never melt. If this is fact, it should be addressed with at least an intertitle.). At times there is only Nanook and his family, yet throughout the film appear various others who help him. They are explained only as "little band of followers" in the opening, and never referred to again. We never see how many they are nor how many families they represent. When Nanook is alone with his family, we never find out where the others have gone. "He pays no attention to how his societies govern themselves. Nor is there anything in his films about the spiritual life of the people he is depicting. Religious beliefs and practices are absent."10 Although Flaherty states that he didn't want to impose a story upon his subjects, he did inevitably.
Nanook, The Bear, was not father to the "family" he is seen with. The family was cast from the natives to look authentic and notable. The scenes of inside the igloo were created by building a second igloo without a roof, so overhead sunlight would help expose the shot. We are introduced to a puppy, Comock, in the beginning scenes which could not be the same puppy seen in the end (which seems smaller than Comock), yet we are given nothing else to follow or go by. The struggle that Nanook performs trying to pull a seal out of the water seems immense and difficult, yet "that scene was faked. They made two holes and had several men pulling a rope to make it look like he was having a fight with the seal."11 We are left not with footage of reality, but footage that "showed" the reality Flaherty believed in. It becomes extremely hard to see this as truth and not fiction, yet the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute calls this film "an invaluable study of a near-extinct race's ongoing battle for survival against the elements."12
continued on Page Two