Documentary Filmmaking History

In the first part of this Documentary filmmaking history article, I have reviewed a series of films that were a lot of inspiration to the documentary filmmaking industry that we know today. Now I want to address two equally important documentary styles in the documentary filmmaking history that came later on:

The – Direct cinema and  Cinema verity

After the second world war, the artist started to think what they did that contribute to it. One of their realization was that the obsession for esthetics had something to do with the rise of the Nazism regime. Many arts form at the after WW2 period started to focus more on the realism in their arts and the film industry was not different.  The fiction films brought us the Italian neo-realism that used real location and real people instead of actors and the documentary brought us two main sub-genres opposed the propaganda style of the older documentaries.

Direct cinema

The Direct cinema documentary filmmakers were a group of revolutionaries, who tried to interfere as little as possible in the shootings. These films were not mass production films. They were shot under the location’s natural lights and with no preparations. Their unique was in the presentations of life experiences in the most direct way possible. Sound like a documentary at it’s best, right? Well… Not so much – The thing is that when someone knows he is being watched, he will act differently, so are we really documenting the reality without any intervention? People do not behave naturally when they know they are being filmed. It is difficult to say that these films really have documented the reality as it is like they claimed they did.

A director that is very influential in the genre is Albert Maysles,  An American director. He shot with his brother, David, films with the camera on their shoulder and Interviews with a very little intervention on their part. They did wildly successful films like What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA, which documents the band’s visit in the USA, Another movie was Salesman– about a Bibles sales agent, and Gimme Shelter about the Rolling Stones and the show that ended in the death of one of their fans.

Cinema verity

Cinema verity’s (‘cinema truth’) approach claimed that since we can’t really document reality as it is, we can encourage participants to interact with the film director. The genre was provocative and not ashamed that the camera had the power to design the reality it documents. If members of the Direct cinema took the camera to location, hoping that something will happen, at the Cinema Verity they really tried to create situations.

An important film that can be a good example is The Titicut Follies from 1967 of Fred Wiseman. The film follows the life of the mentally ill and criminals institution. 

The movie Chronicle of a Summer from 1961 of Jean Rouch is a good example as well. The film begins with a discussion of two directors on whether it is possible to behave naturally in front of a camera. The Film’s creators take the question to the streets and ask people if they are happy. The goal is to see how people react when they are near the camera.

The greatest contribution of these two genres was, that they freed the documentary films from the need to write a script. Both of them didn’t know what will happen and the video editors had to deal with the mass of raw material.

It was a very, very abbreviated record of the beginning of the documentary film genre. The main idea I was trying to pass you on these two articles is that right  from the first film, arguments about whether documentary films should reflect the reality as it is, have been asked all the time. I would recommend anyone who wants to direct documentaries to watch as many movies of the genres that are mentioned here to develop your documentary tools.

Here are some more recommended films:
Land of Silence and Darkness of Werner Herzog 1971- The film follows the lives of deaf-blind people and gives us an idea of the true meaning of loneliness.

Best Boy of Ira Wohl from 1979 tells the story of a family crisis. Aging parents wonder what to do about their son, a disabled 50 years old man. This is a very moving film with long moments of so-called direct cinema.

28 Up in 1986 by Michael Apted. A TV series that lasted 21 years. The series follows the number of children at the age of 6 and then coming back to them when they are mature. A Series that is sensitive and interesting.

That’s it. If you have any other good examples or other sub-genre in the documentary field that you want me to talk about, please let me know.

Documentary filmmaking history – Part 2

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