Documentary Film Theory and John Grierson

“You photograph the natural life, but you also, by your juxtaposition of detail, create an interpretation of it” –  John Grierson, the father of documentary.

The term nonfiction film is most commonly applied to documentary cinema, but it has also been used to describe avant-garde films. In this post, we'll trail documentary film history.

Avant-garde and documentary cinema occupy opposite poles on the classification chart of styles and types of film, documentary realism and avant-garde formalism both start from a suspicion of the use of spectacle and narrative in fiction films to involve spectators in a world of fantasy and illusion.

The Documentary film

  1. Depends on the basic assumption that film images provide evidence of a state of affairs that exists, or once existed, in the world outside the film.
  2. No documentary is simply an objective representation of facts, and the key question for the great documentary filmmakers has been how to create a convincing interpretation of reality without distorting the evidence.
  3. Documentaries are structured more like essays.
  4. The raw images provide the evidence that it is then organized to develop an argument. This argument is constructed largely through the way in which the images are edited together and through the way in which the images relate to the soundtrack.

Stages which critics classify genre movies:

  1. Primitive or formative
  2. Classical
  3. Revisionist or critical
  4. Parodic or reflexive

John Grierson

Grierson and the Classical Documentary film

  1. The first films made and screened by the Lumiere brothers in 1895 were brief segments of everyday life, often referred to as “actualities”.
  2. Most  historians  agree  that  the  first  true  documentary was  the  work  of  Robert Flaherty, an American explorer who used a camera to record his travels in the Canadian Arctic and eventually released a feature film called Nanook of the North (1921).

The term “documentary" was first applied to film by John Grierson

  1. Argued that film should be used for social purposes.
  2. Felt that Flaherty had shown the way, but had not yet gone far enough because he still organized his films around the exploits of an individual hero and tended to present a romantic view of exotic cultures.
  3. Flaherty deliberately misrepresented a culture!
  4. Grierson thought that Flaherty was too concerned with making his images beautiful and not concerned enough with the social purposes of a film intended to demonstrate the benefits of industrial development.

national film board of canada

How John Grierson conceived the documentary genre

  1. Grierson’s major contribution to  the  future of  the  documentary was made as a producer whose enthusiasm could convince governments and industry of the value of sponsoring films that would make people more aware of social issues.
  2. Established the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada in 1939.
  3. Grierson called the documentary the “creative treatment of actuality.”
  4. Although Grierson often stressed the social objectives of the documentary rather than its aesthetics, Grierson was well aware of the need for creative techniques to develop a convincing interpretation of actuality.
  5. Grierson’s documentaries established the classical style in which the images are subservient to a verbal argument that has been scripted in advance. The commentary unifies the film and is spoken in a voice of authority. It is often referred to as a voice- of-God commentary, since the speaker is apparently omniscient and remains off screen.

housing problems 1935 Grierson’s approach has been criticized for 3 major reasons:

  1. Wanted to bring about social change
  2. Argued that documentary was opposed to the “illusions” of the Hollywood dream factory.
  3. The emphasis on the commentary meant that people were not allowed to speak for themselves.
  4. Grierson later claimed that Housing Problems (1935) was the origin of cinema verite

American Cinéma Vérité Style

  1. Filmmakers insisting that the film should be shaped by what was found in the process of making it and not “scripted” in advance.
  2. Expectation of reality to be explored by the spectator who no longer needed the guidance of an authoritative commentary.
  3. Technological innovation of television paved the road for authenticity production.
  4. The  flexibility  of  this  equipment  permitted  documentaries  to  redefine  the  concept  of authenticity.
  5. The concept of minimal interference with reality became the dominant preoccupation of the American school of Cinéma Vérité. The filmmaker must not control events in any way. Re- creations—even with the people and places actually involved—were unacceptable. Editing was kept to a minimum, for otherwise it could lead to a false impression of the sequence of events. Actual time and space were preserved whenever possible by using lengthy takes.
  6. Cinéma Vérité also uses sound minimally.

Canadian Direct Cinema

  1. Documentaries, according to Brault, are distinguished by their use of telephoto lens and wide- angle lens.
  2. Documentaries were the national cinema, and it was the development of direct cinema that would eventually lead to a distinctive Canadian approach to fiction films in the 1960s.
  3. The issue of objectivity is one of the most vital in contemporary documentary practice.
  4. Feminist critics and filmmakers have also challenged the standard of objectivity, arguing that it promotes an attitude to reality that excludes or devalues women’s concerns.
  5. These controversies make us aware that documentaries cannot be objective and those that claim to be objective are more likely to manipulate audiences than those that acknowledge the viewpoints of their makers.
  6. Meanwhile, documentaries have tended to incorporate elements of fiction or performance, as in the hybrid category of the docudrama, which is notoriously difficult to define.

Kevin McMahon The Falls

Avant-Garde Cinema

  1. Avant-garde films either do not tell stories at all or tell stories that are highly personal and stimulate the fragmentated patters of inner thought. The objective is not to make statements about the world outside the film, but to explore the formal properties of film as a medium and the ways in which these properties can be used to evoke the inner experience of artists and spectators.
  2. Are not written out in advance.
  3. As with recent developments in documentary, the effect is to break down distinctions that had previously  been  taken  for  granted:  Thus,  Kevin  McMahon’s  The  Falls  (1991)  can  be described as an avant-garde documentary whose mixture of philosophy and humour makes it accessible to mainstream film and television audiences.
  4. Documentary and avant-garde practices are both undergoing major changes as a result of the development of video and digital technology.

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