Documentaries: Activity 2

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Making a Documentary

Documentaries tell stories about real events and real people using, for the most part, actual images and objects. They record what is currently happening in the world or explore what has already taken place. They introduce viewers to ideas, people and experiences they otherwise might not have encountered or challenge them to question what they already know. Like fiction films, documentaries can be funny, moving, disturbing, thought-provoking or entertaining.

Some of the first films ever made were documentaries. In 1895, French inventor Louis Lumière developed the cinématographe, a small, lightweight, hand-cranked camera that allowed him to film spontaneously any interesting event he encountered. He called films such as Feeding the Baby, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, and Arrival of a Train at the Station “actualities.”

The cinématographe could also be used to print exposed film and then to project it. Lumière employees traveled around the world, recording familiar and exotic scenes. One-minute films such as A Gondola Scene in Venice; Fifty-ninth Street, Opposite Central Park; A Scene near South Kensington, London, and A Snow Battle at Lyon, France, were shown at venues in Europe, Asia and the Americas. The popularity of Lumière’s short films inspired Thomas A. Edison and other film enterprises around the world to acquire portable film equipment like the cinématographe and make their own actualities.


Nanook of the North (1922)

For audiences in the 1890s, seeing real life on film was brand new and thrilling. Watching Arrival of a Train at the Station, spectators screamed and dodged as the filmed train moved from long shot to close-up, looking as if it could burst through the screen. Sometimes, however, real life alone was not dramatic enough to meet audiences’ new expectations, prompting non-fiction filmmakers to fake scenes when real footage was not compelling or did not exist.

In 1898, J. Stuart Blackton used cardboard ships, cigarette smoke and an inch of water to create his film The Battle of Manila Bay. The faked footage was presented as actual newsreel film of a Spanish-American War sea battle and was accepted as such by audiences.

Nanook of the North, considered to be the first full-length documentary, has several staged scenes. Robert Flaherty’s 1922 silent film involved a group of Inuit living on the coast of Hudson Bay, just below the Arctic Circle. Much of what Flaherty captured on film entailed restaged traditional activities, such as a walrus hunt. If a sequence did not meet Flaherty’s expectations, he did not hesitate to ask his subjects to repeat it.

Because the re-created activities were based on the memories of his subjects, Flaherty felt the resulting film was truthful in spirit. Re-enactments have also been used to make a point. Filmmaker Errol Morris used re-enactments of eyewitness testimony for his 1988 film The Thin Blue Line to demonstrate the unreliability of memory.

Re-enactments are a controversial technique, however. Digital technology can make it difficult for the audience to distinguish visual effects and re-enactments from the real thing; some documentarians feel that clearly identifying such sequences is crucial to maintaining a documentary's integrity.

Unlike newsreels and news broadcasts, which present superficial coverage of current events, documentaries examine a subject in depth and over time. For this reason, the footage of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, shot by Abraham Zapruder, is not considered a documentary, although it does document a tragic moment in history.

Documentaries can be made on any topic, no matter how large or how small. Many of the documentaries discussed below fit into several categories. War documentaries are often both political and historical. Documentaries about personal experience can also make a political point. Films documenting scientific discoveries may have a historical component.

Discuss with your students what they think makes a film a documentary. Ask them if they have ever seen any documentaries, and if so, have them describe the films and share their thoughts and feelings. Have your students list some topics that could be the subject of a documentary and ask them what about that topic makes it appropriate for documentary treatment.

Supplemental Activity

Have your students make a one-minute “actuality” on film or video about some aspect of their lives.

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