Direct Cinema visionary Albert Maysles said it best when he advised young filmmakers to “get close to what’s going on.” Subject, access and presentation are what good documentaries are all about, and the ones that change the course of the form are the films that find an important subject, get close to that subject, capture that reality on film and effect positive change. What follows are ten films that do just that, movies made over the last 117 years and presented chronologically by necessity that have observed what’s happening around them, influenced audiences and filmmakers alike, and changed the game forever.
10. Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat/Baby’s Breakfast (France, 1895)
in 1895, French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière hosted the first public screening of their moving pictures, a process they’d tinkered with in the photography lab they inherited upon their father’s retirement a few years earlier (their patented inventions include the dry plate process and the perforations in film through which it was drawn through the camera). Nothing more or less than brief single, static shots of various mundane events, these charming actuarials have such basic titles as “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory” and “Bathing in the Sea.” Perhaps the two most memorable are these: the first for its then-unheard-of image of a train rushing towards the audience, and the second for the antics of little Andrée Lumière, who subsequently succumbed to the 1918 flu pandemic at the age of 24 (his parents, seen in the film, are Auguste and Marguerite Lumière).
See also: many of the Lumière films survive and may be found online, and make for fascinating viewing.
9. Man with a Movie Camera (Russia, 1929)
A prominent member of the Russian kinoks, or “kino-eye” movement, Dziga Vertov (born David Abelevich Kaufman) began editing newsreels after the Russian revolution and came to see film as a way to agitate, inspire and influence the masses. He had a fascination with the early, primitive machinery of the cinema, which is why Man with a Movie Camera is chock full of quick cuts and visual trickery. In pursuit of his stated goal of “a decisive cleaning up of film language” and a “complete separation from the language of theatre and literature,” the film shows average Russians in various cities at work and play. Its rejection of story, plot and character is seen today as a visionary precursor of the Cinéma Vérité, or “truthful cinema” movement, later refined by such influential filmmakers as D.A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock, Allan King and Frederick Wiseman.
See also: Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (1927), Pare Lorentz’ The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and anything by Wiseman (whose most recent film, Crazy Horse, played the 2012 Sydney Film Festival).
8. Kokoda Front Line! (Australia, 1942)
The very first Australian film to win an Academy Award in Hollywood, Ken G. Hall’s Kokoda Front Line! features cameraman Damien Parer introducing footage he had just taken of Australian troops in New Guinea. Though a decidedly non-PC practice today, it was quite common in wartime newsreels and documentaries to refer to the Axis powers in derogatory terms (see the banned 1943 Warner Bros. cartoon “Tokio Jokio”—itself a newsreel spoof—for a prime example of this). In recognition of the influence and importance of newsreels to the Allied wartime effort, Kokoda Front Line! shared the Oscar with John Ford’s The Battle of Midway, the Russian documentary Moscow Strikes Back by Leonid Varlamov and Ilya Kopalin, and Frank Capra’s Prelude to War.
See also: the varieties of war-time propaganda films from different countries, including Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), the Why We Fight series overseen by Capra (Prelude to War was the first) and Humphrey Jennings’ Fires Were Started (1943)
7. Anticipation of the Night (USA, 1958)
The documentary got personal when experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage made Anticipation of the Night, an avant-garde meditation on life and death that sees the filmmaker isolated from the world around him and the innocence of children at play. Brakhage liked to create mood through rhythm, so his camera is a busy one, and the jarring cuts punctuate scenes of lyrical beauty. Avant-garde filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky writes eloquently of the film: “Brakhage has produced a body of silent work of fragile beauty that directly addresses our need for intense, tender and prayerful cinema, a poetic exploration near the pinpoint of mind where light, spirit and body come upon one another.”
See also: Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (1955), Peter Watkin’s The War Game (1965), Brakhage’s subsequent autopsy documentary The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971).
6. Seven Up! (United Kingdom, 1964)
The Jesuits say “give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” and it is this thought that begins Seven Up! And has served as its guiding principal for nearly four decades. The film that started a series of like-minded explorations of time and social position the world over, Seven Up! began as an experiment but has become an institution. Michael Apted took it over after the first edition, and has revisited a dwindling selection of the profiled children every seven years throughout their entire lives. The eighth edition, 56 Up is due this year.
See also: Richard Leacock’s Primary (1960), Emile De Antonio’s Point of Order (1964) Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (1967), Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967), Salesman, the 1969 film by Albert and David Maysles with Charlotte Zwerin, anything by the talented Czech documentarian Helena Třeštíková and Gillian Armstrong’s series of like-themed films that began with Smokes and Lollies in 1975.
5) Gimme Shelter (USA, 1970)
There were rock'n'roll documentaries before Gimme Shelter, and certainly a multitude that have followed with no signs of abatement. Yet few non-fiction films captured the volatile essence of a point in time the way Albert and David Maysles fly-on-the-wall look at The Rolling Stones and the catastrophic Altamont concert that concluded their 1969 American tour preserves those tumultuous times. In fact, “fly-on-the-wall” is the phrase most often used to summarise the brothers’ reactive manner of filmmaking that eschews formal interview and reconstructions and such in favour of, as mentioned above, getting close to what’s going on. Of course, nobody knew the Altamont concert would erupt in violence and that the death of a man knifed by the Hells Angels would be caught on film. But the Maysles’ style fits the events, rendering it an incalculably influential rock’n’roll document.
See also: D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1967), Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970), Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds (1974), Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (1978), Joe Berlinger’s Brothers’ Keeper (1992), End of the Century: The Story of The Ramones (2003) by Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia.
4. Harlan County USA (USA, 1976)
The documentary as agent of social change began long before Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning Harlan County USA, and there are more balanced looks at labour strikes than the unabashedly pro-union director’s film. Yet this powerful and harrowing look at a year-long, increasingly violent miners’ strike in rural Kentucky benefits enormously from what might be called the “right place, right time” syndrome: Kopple and her crew had originally sought to make a film about a local political battle, but arrived just prior to the strike breaking out. The intimacy and power of the subsequent film sparked a number of labor-themed non-fiction works in the late 1970s (see below), and Kopple herself returned to the subject of labour strife in 1990 with American Dream (in many ways a better film than this) and, 16 years after that, the Dixie Chicks documentary Shut Up & Sing. Interviewed years later, one of the striking miners said “the cameras probably saved a lot of shooting,” a sentiment and fact for which any filmmaker can be proud.
See also: Harold Mayer’s The Inheritance (1964), Jim Klein and Miles Mogulescu’s Union Maids (1976), Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer’s The Wobblies (1979), Lorraine Gray’s With Babies and Banners (1979), Connie Fields’ The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1980), Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, Sasha Reuther’s Brothers on the Line (2012).
3. Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (USA, 1982)
The documentary as art film, Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance was inspired by the Hopi Indian word for “unbalanced life.” It is most often described as a tone poem, and features then-novel slow motion and time lapse footage of urban and rural environments. It set the tone for subsequent meditative documentaries on social and environmental issues, and was so popular it spawned a pair of sequels, Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002). The Philip Glass score is considered amongst the composer’s most resonant pieces of work. Out of home video circulation for most of the 1990s due to copyright issues, Koyaanisqatsi has subsequently appeared on DVD. For inscrutable reasons, the newly-issued Blu-ray is apparently only available in Germany and Australia.
See also: Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983), Mark Lewis’ Cane Toads: An Unnatural History (1988), Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006).
2. The Thin Blue Line (USA, 1988)
“My films never end up where they’re supposed to end up,” director Errol Morris tells the interviewer in the making-of clip below, and that’s as good an explanation of his success as any. Marshalling a life-long preoccupation with the smart and eccentric, Morris’ films—of which this was the third, following the critically praised but commercially disastrous Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida—mix a thorough investigative approach to their subjects with imaginative forms of critical thinking to create flights of intellectual fancy grounded in historical reality. His enquiry into the 1976 murder of a Dallas police officer—scored, once again, by Philip Glass—resulted in the eventual release of the man wrongly convicted of the crime, proving once again that non-fiction film has the power to bring about change.
See also: Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989) by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Ken Burns’ The Civil War (1990), Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove (2009) and Scenes of a Crime (2011), by Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh.
1. Side by Side (USA, 2012)
Though it is obviously too early to call Chris Kenneally’s Side by Side a game changer, its subject is perhaps the greatest game changer in the history of cinema. With Keanu Reeves as earnest interlocutor, the film charts the recent history of the art form’s changeover from chemical to electronic processes in production and exhibition. Christopher Nolan and his cinematographer Wally Pfister speak eloquently and passionately on the need to preserve 35mm film, whilst such digital pioneers as George Lucas, James Cameron and David Fincher make persuasive economical and artistic arguments for digital cinema. Is there a right answer? Not just yet, but Side by Side does a thorough job of lining up the many questions.
See also: Visions of Light (1992), by Arnold Glassman, Todd McCarthy and Stuart Samuels, Lumière and Company (1995) by too many filmmakers to mention, Sarah Kelly’s Full Tilt Boogie (1997) and Wendy Apple’s The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing (2004)
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