Documentary began when the first films were invented by the Lumiere brothers in 1895. The Lumieres created a camera that could only hold 50 feet of film stock and their films were short unedited clips capturing the life around them. These were called
Their most famous film simply shows a train pulling into a station, however audiences were fascinated by these first moving photographs as they were able to see the detail of movement captured by a film camera for the first time.
Documentary, as we know it today, began with Nanook of The North , made by Robert Flaherty in 1922. In fact the word ‘documentary’ was invented by John Grierson to describe this film. Nanook was the first feature length factual film and the first to use what Grierson described as ‘the creative interpretation of reality’ . This meant that Flaherty had staged most of the scenes for the camera in order to make the film more dramatic and exciting for the audience.
Grierson went on to head the GPO film unit in England in the 1930s and he became a major exponent of this poetic-realist approach to documentary. Nightmail (1936) began as an informational film about the mail train from London to Edinburgh but the filming and editing emphasised the poetic elements of film form: movement, rhythm, light and sound. Critics of Grierson accused him of neglecting the social and political issues in his films in favour of a modernist approach that celebrated machinery more than human beings.
It was this backlash that led to the next major development of documentaries in the 1950s and 1960s. Direct Cinema, a movement that began in the United States, aimed to present social and political issues in a direct, unmediated way giving the impression that events are recorded exactly as they happened without the involvement of the film-maker. The development of smaller lighter film cameras using smaller film stock (16mm as opposed to 35mm film which is used in feature films and in documentaries up to that time) pioneered by news camera men allowed the camera to be held on the shoulder (hand-held) and to film in a more spontaneous manner.
Key names in this movement are D.A. Pennebaker, The Mayles Brothers and Fred Wiseman . The modern social issue documentary such as Supersize Me has its origins in Direct Cinema. The filmmaker usually has a political and/or social agenda and seeks to present the events as ‘real’ even though they are in full control of the editing process.
At the same time as Direct Cinema was being developed in America, a similar movement was happening in France called Cinema Verite (‘cinema truth’). Cinema Verite is a minimalist style of film making that conveys the sense that the viewer is given a direct view of what was actually happening in front of the camera without the artifice usually incorporated in the film-making process. Cinema Verite favours hand-held camera, natural lighting, location filming, and direct sound.
Jean Rouch was an important documentarian working in this style in the 1960s. However Cinema Verite techniques have also been used by drama film-makers such as Ken Loach leading to the term ‘drama-documentary’ being used to describe films like Cathy Come Home
The use of cinema verite techniques can make a film seems more ‘real’ and truthful to an audience and in recent time film-makers have used the codes and conventions of the documentary to fool audiences into thinking a programme or film is factual when it isn’t. This form of film-making is called mockumentary