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ESSAY #10: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DOCUMENTARY FILM ESSAY OBJECTIVE: Examine the history and makeup of the documentary I. The Nature and Biases of the Documentary Film One of the things about the motion picture that initially fascinated inventors and observers alike was the unique manner that film could capture recognizable images of the subject that it was recording. This ability prompted many early observers to believe incorrectly - that this medium was more “truthful ” in its interpretations than other media. Painting and sculpture depend upon an artist’s impressions and skills at interpretation when recording a subject’s likeness. Because photography used a mechanical process to reproduce what was in front of the camera, it was believed that the filmmaking process was more “objective” than other interpretive procedures. Today’s critic is less likely to share this assumption. While documentary footage from W.W.I, for example, has a great deal of credibility as a record of that conflict it is limited in the information that it provides. This material contains images of the participants in the actual environment at the specific time of this event. For many later viewers this is what World War I looked like. How truthful are these films? For one thing this footage gives the impression that everything was black and white, people moved in a jerky fashion, and they were unable to hear anything since this world was silent. Despite the benefit of the camera being there, and the resemblance the cinematic document has to aspects of what it recorded, no film could exactly duplicate what was happening at this time. There is always a bias in the way a cinematic record documents an event. While the mechanical process of filming can record aspects of reality with some objectivity, there is still a built in bias in how and what the motion picture can document. Rather than accept what is before us as the “truth”, every viewer needs to consider how the motion picture medium, and the filmmaker, can misread or falsely interpret a given subject. Our World War I example is a silent, two-dimensional, black and white account of what might have been a staged event. The subject recorded was actually three- dimensional, in color, and contained sounds, smells, changes of temperature, and other sensations that people were experiencing at the time of the filming. Every time the camera was pointed at something that was happening it was excluding other activities occurring at the same time. Even if the technology that documented this event could have been as advanced as today’s camcorders the resulting record still would not have duplicated everything that “actually” existed at the scene. The limitations and format of motion picture technology, and the choice of what a filmmaker decides to shoot or not to shoot, create biases that influence the trustworthiness of the chronicle. The responsible film consumer must always question the reliability of any record, and be sensitive to its
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