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Characteristics of Documentary Films

Discuss About The Grierson And Documentary Film Movement.

The word documentary has its roots in the word document which meant “a lesson; an admonition; a warning”. There are three basic creative modes of films which are narrative fiction, experimental or avant-garde and finally documentary. Narrative fiction is known to be a feature-length entertainment that we generally watch in theatres or on our television screens. The nontheatrical films societies work towards making films of individual filmmakers which are invested in visual arts. Such films come under the category of experimental or avant-garde films. This paper discussion how the documentary filmmakers have defined the word documentary according to their perspectives and viewpoints. It further discusses about the strengths and imitations of this definitions respect to some of the documentary films made by them.


The characteristics of a documentary are somewhat similar to that of the films, especially the fiction films. The characteristics are subjects, forms, purpose or point of view, production methods and techniques and the impact it has on the audiences. The journey of the English-language documentary started off with Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, which was shot in Canada and the film was released in the United States in the year of 1922 (Mackay  2017). This movie showed the Eskimos which he had gotten to know personally on his journey back home.  For this he is often called the father of documentary. The film won hearts of millions of film lovers who appreciated it because of the freshness and simplicity it had brought into this new genre of films. Flaherty’s definition of film making was more concentrated on the camera rather than on the editing bench. He believed that editing was not a creative act in filmmaking. When he made silent films, Flaherty took long running takes and put them together to present a continuous view of the important actions in the movie. However he lacked the concept of sound editing hence had to depend on others to help him edit sound films (Quick,  Gadzekpo and Goodwin 2017).


For Flaherty documentary was more of a “film of discovery and revelation”, like the way his wife, Frances Flaherty had chosen to define it while she was helping her husband to create a new genre of films. His belief in discovery and revelation being the basics of documentary film making was portrayed in his films. In Nanook of the North, the film solely was focussed on the lives of the Eskimos (Mackay 2017). Same treatment was seen in his other films like Moana and Man of Aran. He tried to capture the lifestyles of the people who were influenced by the western industrialized civilization. These were the strengths of Robert Flaherty’s definition of documentary. However there were certain weakness since he failed in creative treatment of his films. Like in Nanook of the North, there was no sophistication, only one camera, no lights and freezing climate. However there was an authenticity to it has none of the scenes were staged.  

Robert Flaherty's Definition of Documentary

Robert Flaherty’s second film Moana which released in 1926, intrigued John Grierson who at that time was visiting United States to devise a use for the word documentary. The term “documentary” was first coined by John Grierson (Stollery 2017. For him documentary meant an evolving concept, which can be related which the actions of people like what they are doing and what are they going to do in the future. Grierson believed that documentary what kind of art which gave a natural material to the film sequence.  The word was carried all the way to Great Britain by Grierson along with his newly developed aesthetic theory and sense of social purpose in the context of documentary films. His first film was Drifters in the year 1929 which succeeded in advancing to full status (Aitken 2013).

Critics of Grierson claimed that he deserted the aesthetes of pure form of documentary and his writings which were prolific had deep commitment to the creative representation of the cinema. Inspite of this Grierson managed to propel documentary into the international arena. Grierson in his film Drifters told the story of Britain’s North Sea herring fishery (Smith and Rock 2014). The film was described to be in context with modern films like a response to avant-garde films. The film also highlighted the fact that Grierson was not afraid to voice his visions through the films he made. Similar treatment was seen in the film Granton Trawler which was the only film that was directed by John Grierson himself. The film was about the fishing trawler the "Isabella Grieg" that travelled from Granton Harbour to through the east coast of Edinburgh, then to the fishing grounds between Shetland and Norway (Stollery 2017).

John Grierson chose to define documentary as "the creative treatment of actuality unlike Flaherty who although accepted the implication of creativity and actuality, but their methods of treatment of the ideas differed (Chapman 2015). Grierson was mostly invested on editing and giving the film an analytical treatment. Robert Flaherty on the other hand did not believed in editing and focussed mostly on shooting of the film. Therefore the documentary genre always had differences between the ideas of shooters and cutters, the Flahertyites and the Griersonites.


From the definition of these famous documentary filmmakers, it is understood that both define the concept in two different ways. Although that agreed on the fact that actuality was the basic fundamental of the subject of documentary, however there were vast differences I the techniques both used for recording and the presenting the film in front of the audiences. Grierson way of film shooting allowed others to shoot small footages which all were put together to be made into a Grierson documentary, while on the other hand Flaherty shot the film completely controlled the shooting of his own film. Not only was it based on the filmmaking methods but also it had its epicentre around the purposes, the effects and the functions of the documentary (Cowie 2018).

John Grierson's Definition of Documentary

Apart from Flaherty and Grierson there were other contemporary documentary filmmakers like Paul Rotha who was also a historian of the British movement. In the films made by Rotha, there was again a creative treatment of actuality although it did not seem to be quite catchy at its first appearance. He used his films as a medium to analyse creatively the social lives of the common people as is present in the reality but provided no space to actuality (Boon 2016). This was the drawback in Rotha’s films. In fact, Rotha focused more in satisfying the visual desire of the audiences hence did not exclude the use of studios and actors for making the film since it helped to make the film more desirable for the audiences.  

The strongest definition of documentary can be given by the phrase ‘the creative treatment of actuality’. The filmmakers must invest in current researches to understand the creativity to produce contexts (Forceville 2017). According to Grierson, we have seen creativity as systemic, collaborative and a staged process.  This processes should be based on evidence-based research on the topic. If there is a continuation in following the concepts of romanticism and mythical treatments then there will be a loss in the rich possibilities that could have been incorporated by the filmmakers in their presentation of the film. However creative treatment can be incorporated in film making if it is legitimately used. Therefore documentary should be a form of art which acts as a link between creativity and documentary practise. This projects the definition provided by John Grierson regarding documentary films as one of the best definitions possible.


In order to frame a definition according to my perception of the genre of documentary, more weightage was given to the concept of actuality of materials in comparison to the impact it has on the audience. The idea that is common with all of the documentary filmmakers that they want to record actuality. Similarly, from my viewpoint this should be of prime focus. The ideals of Flaherty and Grierson differed on the arena that Flaherty wanted to make the world a better place to live in using his works and Grierson aimed at making individuals into better citizens for the betterment of the society. In my opinion both the objectives should be pondered upon while making a documentary as the ideas are interrelated and documentaries act as great platforms for spreading the word of humanity and social motives.

In conclusion it can be stated that different filmmakers have different perceptions regarding the film they are making. Each have their unique styles and treatment methods of the subjects of the movie. However all consider the baseline of documentary as to be the narration of actuality. Care should also be given to the impact which these films have on the audience and on the society as most of the documentary films makers thrive to make films which will make the world a better place to live in. The paper showed differences between the film making pattern of Flaherty and Grierson. While one focussed on shooting the other was more invested in editing although for both the filmmakers the fundamentals remains same, the portrayal of actual facts through their movies.

References

Aitken, I., 2013. Film and reform: John Grierson and the documentary film movement. Routledge.

Mackay, R., 2017. Nanook of the North: All the World’sa Stage. Queen's Quarterly, 124(2), p.248.

Stollery, M., 2017. John Grierson’s ‘First principles’ as origin and beginning: the emergence of the documentary tradition in the field of nonfiction film. Screen, 58(3), pp.309-331.

Davison, A., 2017. Listening to Prestige British Industrial Films. The Routledge Companion to Screen Music and Sound, p.213.

Cowie, E., 2018. Working Images: the representations of documentary film. In Work and the Image: v. 2: Work in Modern Times-Visual Mediations and Social Processes (pp. 185-204). Routledge.

Nichols, B., 2017. Introduction to documentary. Indiana University Press.

Quick, R., Gadzekpo, E. and Goodwin, M., 2017. Through the Lens of Realism: The Documentary Genre.

Smith, N. and Rock, J., 2014. Documentary as a statement: defining old genre in a new age. Journal of Media Practice, 15(1), pp.58-62.

Boon, T., 2016. ‘To formulate a plan for better living’: Visual communication and scientific planning in Paul Rotha’s documentary films, 1935–45. In Pursuing the Unity of Science(pp. 156-181). Routledge.

Forceville, C., 2017. Interactive documentary and its limited opportunities to persuade. Discourse, Context & Media, 20, pp.218-226.

Chapman, J., 2015. Documentary Before Grierson. In A New History of British Documentary (pp. 18-40). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Hainstock, C., Forman, D., Broomfield, N., Bruzzi, S., Reynard, M., Henley, P. and Stoney, G., 2014. On Robert Flaherty and the documentary form.

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