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Chapter 7Representing the Real: Documentary FilmsChapter SummaryA documentary film is a visual and auditory representation of presumed facts, real experiences, and actual events in the world. Documentary films usually employ and emphasize strategies and organizations that differ from those that define narrative cinema. Documentaries are about insight and learning – expanding what we can know, feel, and see. While narrative films are at the heart of commercial entertainment, documentary movies operate according to an economics of information.A Short History of Documentary CinemaThe documentary film was anticipated by various oral, visual, and written practices such as sermons, political speeches, lectures, maps, photographs, folk songs, letters, diaries, essays, and journalism that began in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.The very first movies were nonfiction films, frequently called actualities—that is, moving presentations of real people and events. Also popular during this period were other nonfiction film types including scenics, which depicted exotic and foreign locations, and topicals, which presented current events.Robert Flaherty’s romanticized anthropological documentaries about other cultures, such as Nanook of the North(1922), proved the commercial possibilities of the documentary format. A number of Soviet filmmakers, such as Dziga Vertov, used the documentary form for more political purposes. Films such as Man with a Movie Camera(1929) conveyed their ideological messages in part through the formal technique of montage.The introduction of optical sound recordingin 1927 greatly affected documentary films by allowing the addition of educational or social commentary to accompany images.Various public and government organizations, such as the National Film Board of Canada, enthusiastically supported documentary films in the 1930s and 1940s. Today, public and nonprofit institutions such as the American Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)continue to be a major source of financial support for documentary filmmaking.The development of lightweight 16mm cameras and portable magnetic sound-recording equipment allowed filmmakers a new kind of spontaneity and unobtrusiveness when capturing reality, as exemplified by the cinéma vérité movement in France. Beginning in the 1950s, television became an important outlet for socially committed documentaries and news reportage.