Online Response 1 – Early Documentary Filmmakers: Their Truth Perceived

The early years of cinema proved to be full of incredible potential for films across all genres, one of which included documentary. At this beginning stage, trailblazers like the Lumiere Brothers led the way for aspiring filmmakers to follow suit. Two films, both of which rightfully earned the spotlight of being among the first documentaries ever created, were Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. However, many filmmakers, critics, and students today look at both films with an eye of skepticism and disappointment, claiming instead that these early documentaries shouldn’t be considered documentaries at all due to the fact that they were manipulated, adjusted, and edited to show something other than the explicit truth that unfolded. I personally believe, however, that we can’t make such harsh claims against these early films that were created before any standards had been quite cemented. Every filmmaker is allowed to have a framework to work within.

It is easy to look to the past and say they didn’t do things right – especially when looking at early documentaries like Nanook of the North and Man with a Movie Camera.  But adopting a mentality of presentism, the action of judging the past through the eyes of today, is unfair. There is often a misconception that documentaries are always about something that actually happened, real people, or stories about what happens in the real world. Bill Nichols, the author of Introduction to Documentary, stated instead however, “Documentary film speaks about situations and events involving real people (social actors) who present themselves within a framework. This frame conveys a plausible perspective on the lives, situations, and events portrayed. The distinct point of view of the filmmaker shapes the film…” (Nichols 10). In reality, we can see that there are many approaches to documentary, often times depending on the perspective and framework the filmmaker chooses to present the work within. Because filmmaking is a creative medium, perhaps we should give filmmakers a little leeway to express their ideas in the way they choose.

Flaherty’s Nanook of the North is often reprimanded for his attempt at being observational and instead making adjustments to the set and processes portrayed. As an example, at one point in the film the inside of an igloo is seen as the family is rising for the new day. As it turns out, this remarkable shot was a devised set created by Flaherty cutting half of the igloo open so that he could access better lighting (See picture below). Such a manipulation, in my mind, shouldn’t degrade this film. Although the story is filled with actors and the portrayals were outdated, we can’t jump to the conclusion that Flaherty was trying to betray audiences. In our class discussion the subject of salvage ethnography came up. Salvage ethnography is a tradition where attempts are made to preserve a part of one’s culture and history. Perhaps this was Flaherty’s purpose, to highlight these once-authentic characteristics of this people’s culture, adjusting a few things here and there to show the world what their lives had once been like. Like Nichols stated, the filmmaker’s point of view and chosen framework is allowed to shape the film, even in documentary. That doesn’t seem like a dire sin to me.

Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera provides a similar approach to documentary. Nichols stated in Introduction to Documentary, that there are four different key elements that form a documentary film: indexical documentation, poetic experimentation, narrative storytelling, and rhetorical address (Nichols 94). Vertov strongly implements a poetic tactic to his film allowing himself to experiment with ways of expressing his artistic thoughts. On the surface, his interesting use of juxtaposition and extreme editing could seem artificial and unrealistic. Yet Vertov uses the power of editing, repetition, crosscutting, and superimposition to portray the reality and perspective that he sees. The audience becomes fully aware that they are watching a constructed film, and this was quite obviously Vertov’s intention. His film, both incredibly self-reflexive and thought-provoking for audiences, brought light to the reality of a filmmaker’s power and the influence of cinema. Filmmakers are real people, and so are the audience members. It was through this poetic experimentation of extreme editing that Vertov hoped to convey this real message of the relationship between the man and the camera.

Documentary film has evolved over many, many years. As we look to the past, we find noteworthy films like Nanook of the North and The Man with a Movie Camera. Although these early films appear inauthentic and deceitful at the surface, both Flaherty and Vertov chose to present their films as the truth that they perceived, a fact that we should all be able to respect and appreciate.

Works Cited

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary, Third Edition, Indiana University Press, 2017.

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