Can you define documentary?

When I think of documentaries, I recall warm, fuzzy memories of watching Mutual of Ohuma’s Wild Kingdom every week with my family. Each episode invited us into the world of lions and cheetahs and gorillas. We all enjoyed them, but my father especially. He had studied biology in college, but never used it in life. While the rest of us were watching lions tear into zebras, Dad also had an eye on the scientists. I loved watching not only the films, but also my dad and his enjoyment.

So now, here I am studying social documentaries. And while my memories of documentaries are simple, defining documentary is anything but!

The difficulty comes from trying to represent reality. Docs are supposed to show us real life, but ultimately the product is the filmmaker’s version of reality. Edits, music, narration…all of the techniques of filmmaking affect the version of truth that is told. Do you emphasize the story? Is it all about the images? Should you recreate scenes that weren’t caught on film? Should you be a fly on the wall, and let real life play out? If so, where do you cut?

I have to confess, at the moment I’m a cinema verite fan. But that could change. I’m willing to be open.

And so, on my netflix list:

Nanook of the North – Robert Flaherty – one of, if not the first documentary. Flaherty was all about the story, and showing the pristine culture of the Inuits. He had to fudge some things to get the story right (like have people perform for the cameras a custom that they had not done in years), but that was his version of the truth. (He argued that he was showing their culutre before it had become “tainted” by the outside world).

Man with a Movie Camera– Dziga Vertov – he believed the camera could see truth better than our eyes, so he sought out to show us all the beautiful truth out there. I haven’t seen it yet, but I hear its like MTV editing, but with purpose.

John Grierson- Netflix doesn’t have any of his films -probably because they were something of an educational chore, rather than an entertaining experience. Grierson believed deeply in the power of film to create a better society. Sounds good, but theres a fine line (that he seemed to cross) between that and propaganda. Perhaps the library….

Oh, also on my list…

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One response to “Can you define documentary?

  1. “fine line (that he seemed to cross) between that and propaganda”

    Is there really a fine line? To me, it’s all propaganda. Is there *really* a “pure” documentary that is devoid of any intention of influencing how people think?

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