Documentary Filmmaking History Pt.1

shooting documentary

Documentary filmmaking history is not what I thought I’ll talk about When I started this documentary filmmaking course. I wanted to write articles without going through all the theoretical stuff. But I feel that to teach documentary filmmaking, I have to begin developing the documentary filmmaker’s mindset, and learning about documentary filmmaking history is an excellent way to start.

So here we go: 

I am going to go through all the critical stages of the documentary filmmaking history very fast. I recommend watching them and reading more about them. 

The first documentations

Talking about documentary filmmaking history, you have to start at the beginning. It can be said that the first films created were a documentary kind of films. They weren’t fiction, anyway. The first films were a baby’s meal, and a train arrives, workers at the plant, etc. They documented specific segments of life. During World War 1 in 1914 until 1918, the cameras kept filming the war area. The film has become an essential tool for the transfer of information and propaganda. These videos were delivered as “Newsreels,” and they were broadcast in theaters. Since they are only segments of scenes rather than one long film with a basic idea, it isn’t easy to treat them as classic documentaries.

The first Documentary film

Talking about documentary filmmaking history, we have to start at the beginning. There is a debate between the Russians and Americans about what the first documentary film ever made:

Man With a Movie Camera 

for the Russians) begins with Dziga Vertov, a poet and a video editor in Russia. He started his way from producing educational News reels for raising people to the revolution in 1917. He is best known because of this film, taken much later in 1929.

A film that is kind of an experimental documentary. In some ways, it is considered advanced even for today’s films. The average shot length in the film was 11.2 seconds. You can imagine what the viewers felt when they saw such rapid editing for the first time. Dziga Vertov made the film after he felt that cinema was stuck and took advantage of his abilities. The film depicts 24 hours in the life of the city of Odesa and other Soviet cities throughout the day. The film is most famous for a variety of cinematic techniques: he uses double exposure (what is now called super impose), fast motion, slow motion, freeze frame, Jump cuts, split-screen and more. Because the editing and the effects are affecting the message of the film, there are those who refuse to accept it as the first documentary film.

Nanook of the North (1922 )

Officially (at least for the Americans) This film is considered to be the first documentary. The film was directed by Robert J. Flaherty  And is a silent film that considers being an important milestone early film industry. It chronicles the struggle of Nanook and his family in the wild Eskimos. Beyond being an important film, the film is a historical document about a life form that disappeared already. As mentioned, the film is considered to be the first documentary Although Flaherty was accused of directing a lot of the scenes in the movie and even wanted the characters to recover customs they left a long time ago. You could say that this film is not only officially opens the documentary genre, but also the discussion about the genre. Is the documentary represents reality or shapes it?

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If you really want to learn Documentary filmmaking, I recommend watching these films. Here are some more interesting documentaries from that period that I think every filmmaker that wants to get into the documentary filmmaking field, should know:

strike – 1924

Sergei Eisenstein, a director in Soviet Russia has never qualified as a documentary director, but his movies like this one certainly embody the characteristics of documentary films today. Strike describes the iron factory workers strike in Russia, where the workers were subjected to humiliation. Definitely one of the film’s most amazing period.

Battleship Potemkin  1925

The film contains the famous scene of “steps Odyssey” that won many gestures in films. To date, the film is considered one of the most influential films in the cinema. Here, too, his definition of documentary is a bit problematic, but it is highly recommended for viewing for anyone interested in the documentary genre.

Night Mail – 1936 

Basil Wright and Harry Watt. A classic British film which follows the mail train moving at night from London to Scotland. Using this simple situation, the film certainly manages to capture the British life spirit of the time. The movie talk about the post office but ut also talk about the importance of working in harmony. Here also rise a debate about directing a documentary. In this case, the claims are that certain parts of the movie were filmed in the studio. Also in 1936 the political and economical situation wasn’t at it best in the British Empire, so the movie does not show the true feelings of the postal workers, but what the postal office vision was about that.

Olympia – 1938

At the Nazi regime there was no shortage of films in the genre. Leni Riefenstahl directed in 1938 a movie that presented the Olympics in Germany. The aim of the film was to glorify the Olympic games in Germany and the German athletes. The movie is considered to have much innovation in the composition style, camera angles, editing and more. Using 50 camera operators Riefenstai created great slow motion shots. THere is no The best thing about this movie is that if you take the context out of it, you will never guess it was propaganda.
Listen to Britain  of Humphrey Jennings. The film came out in 1942 and it was a propaganda film designed to encourage support for the war. The film is considered to be a historical archive. There are criticizes about this movie being so strict and classic art style that it reminds fascist regimes movies, but one can not ignore the effectiveness it had during the war.

Fires Were Started  1943  

Humphrey Jennings documented a night in London’s Fire Brigade unit.

Night & Fog directed by Alain Resnais. One of the more influential film documentary field if not the most influential. French film from 1955. The film depicts the life of prisoners in the camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek. It was the first film that dared to face the terror of the Jewish Holocaust. Alan visiting several concentration camps in Poland and Europe.

This is a very quick list of important films during the beginning of the documentary filmmaking history. In the next article, I will review in more detail the two genres that took a very significant part in the development of documentary film: the direct cinema and the cinema verite


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